Musicologist Henry Finck once remarked, "if all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin's Preludes."
Chopin’s Twenty-Four Preludes have inspired a number of similar votes by composers, who have cast their own sets of Preludes: Dmitri Shostakovich, Alexander Scriabin, and Sergei Rachmaninoff among them.
Rachmaninoff took the inspiration a step further. He took Chopin’s Prelude in C minor and re-wrote it twenty-two different ways.
Piano scholar Bryce Morrison says they “contain a wealth of beauty and, in one inspired instance…pages as haunting and memorable as anything else by Rachmaninoff.”
They also seem to contain a little Bach, a little Brahms; a little light, and a lot of dark.
So, why don’t we ever hear them? After all, Rachmaninoff’s “Corelli” and “Paganini” variations are among the composer’s most beloved works. But those were Rachmaninoff at his peak. THESE variations were his first large-scale piano work…and it shows. Here’s the rest of Morrison’s analysis: “More virtuoso embroidery than true variations.” Another critique: “Even in the most capable hands, it tends to be long-winded and rambling.”
Long-winded may be the key. Chopin’s C minor Prelude is a mere 90 seconds long. Rachmaninoff’s set of variations clocks in at a half-hour…more filibuster than fond tribute to the Polish poet of the piano. - Jennifer Foster