Reviewer: Holly Spanner
At just 19 years old, Rachmaninoff gained instant fame with his Prelude in C-Sharp Major. Five years later in 1897, after devoting two years to his first symphony, Symphony No 1 in D Minor, was appallingly received. Partly due to the conductor at the premiere, Alexander Glazunov, being so drunk he conducted like a zombie and partly due to the work itself, the symphony was described as a musical shipwreck. This unfortunate event sent the composer spiralling into a depression lasting three years.
Nowstruggling with writer’s block, Rachmaninoff, or Rach as he is known here, is being treated by psychiatrist Nikolai Dahl, in an effort to overcome depression and return to composing after his very public humiliation. Opening with Your Day, he reveals agonising details of how he passes his days; unproductive and empty.
Preludes is executed as a series of flashbacks, prompted by Dahl as she delves into Rach’s psyche. Writer Dave Malloy uses the composers work as an underscore for new lyrics, cleverly blending the old and new throughout. Malloy’s arrangements of the originals are, for lack of a better word, hypnotic. There are also three pieces of original writing, for which Malloy wrote both the music and lyrics; Ho-Ho, Subway and Tchaikovsky’s Child Song.
The piano is, quite rightly, at the centre of the music, the subject matter justifying the minimal orchestra. To have morewould feel almost, disrespectful. Described as a ‘musical fantasia’, this is exactly what this recording is, the piano and twin synthesisers reflecting the tense and nervous heartbeat of Dahl’s patient.
An intelligent production, it explores creativity, the essence and convolutions of a highly artistic mind. It is sad, and his agony palpable, but all the better for the listener. But what the production doesn’t do, thankfully, is over romanticise the burden of being a troubled genius, and when Piano Concerto No. 2 comes, it comes as a relief. There is light, and hurdles can be overcome.
Tony Award Winner Gabriel Ebert is the suffering artist, taking the listener on a roller coaster of anguish, sometimes uncomfortable in its truth. Natalya, sung by Nikki M James as fiancée and cousin Natalya, is heart-breaking and fierce in her loyalty towards the man she loves, frustration and guilt at the forefront of her feelings. The sobriety of Vespers, a sad and humbling chorus, is achieved through a deep bass infusion by Joseph Keckler as Russian Opera singer Chaliapin. In contrast, Loop is trippy and mesmerising, evocative of colours and perceptions swirling and running out of control. Likewise, it is almost impossible not to conjure up the images suggested in Hypnosis. Suggested by Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, it builds to an intense, hopeful and determined climax before ending on a poignant high with Piano Concerto No. 2.
Preludes is expressive, unique and very personal. The recording encompasses both the early 20th Century and present day, with obviously transcendent music, seeping with metaphor. With influences from classical, rock, opera and trance music, it is no doubt a unique recording.
Preludes is available from Ghostlight Records