From the collection of twenty-four ‘Preludes’ by Rachmaninov, this wonderful example of his compositional skill is the sixth. There were ten preludes in total included by Rachmaninov in the Op.23 group of compositions with the entire twenty-four presented as a single volume in 1911. These ‘Preludes’ were written by Rachmaninov between 1902-1903 with the later works (Op.32) joining the collection in 1910.
The immense success of his ‘C# Minor Prelude’ composed soon after completing his studies at the Moscow Conservatoire, followed hot on the heels of Rachmaninov’s ever-popular Piano Concerto No.2 (1902), encouraged the composer to write this initial set of preludes.
Rachmaninoff Prelude In G Minor Difficulty
After the ‘C# Minor Prelude’ Rachmaninov’s ‘G Minor Prelude’ comes in a close second as one of the more commonly played of the group. In comparison to some of the Op.32 Preludes or the last two Op. 23 Preludes, this one is not as difficult to play. According to the Henle difficulty level, this prelude is somewhere around 7. This places it above Grade VIII of the ABRSM, closer really to the Diploma level. Its appeal might also lie in the distinctive ‘march’ rhythm that dominates the prelude, the innate sense of drama contrasting with a serene, lyrical central section that gives the pianist opportunity to indulge in the stunning melodic and harmonic writing that Rachmaninov accomplished so well.
The happy news is that the final tempo, unlike some of the ‘Preludes’ is only 108 beats per minute making it reasonable to approach. What does add levels of challenge is the wide jumps that each hand is required to execute during the ‘A Sections’. This internal dialogue across the registers of the piano is a key element of the composition that requires flexibility and precision to avoid the music sounding labored.
I say labored quite deliberately as if you attempt this piece at speed and with what may be heard as an overly projected force, you will tire quickly. Rachmaninov was by all accounts a phenomenal pianist endowed with unusually large hands. He worked tirelessly on his technique and was highly self-critical. Keep this in mind when studying this (or any other of his ‘Preludes’), as it is a tough act to follow.
Another crucial detail of the ‘G Minor Prelude’ is the vast array of articulations that Rachmaninov employs. By this, I mean staccato, tenuto, accent, and a combination of the staccato and tenuto markings. These subtle differences in the articulation of the notes are not easy to perform consistently or effectively without a strong technique as well as a clear perception of the composer’s intentions. The pianist must avoid tension accumulating in arms, wrists, and shoulders or the playing of these passages will become unmanageable. A careful balance is required to produce each of these notated articulations whilst maintaining the harmonic continuity and melodic narrative. I feel that it is the meticulous approach to the articulation that brings the nobility to the prelude.
Having mentioned the size of Rachmaninov’s hands the frequency with which he uses six and eight-note chords across the two hands is considerable. Fluency of movement between these chords, for example at bar 17 onwards is itself a not inconsiderable challenge. Maintaining the balance between the hands, ensuring that each note of the chord sounds cleanly against the next is paramount in the mind of the performer. The passage from bar 72-78 is another area of focus where there needs to be a building of tension through the descending chromatic chordal patterns as the opening ideas begin slowly to lose energy and momentum.
The central section of the Prelude offers a range of interesting challenges too for both the seasoned and less experienced pianist. Not only is there quite a tricky selection of arpeggio accompaniment figures but there are inner voices that Rachmaninov includes in this part of the work that demands attention. If they are lost in the beauty of the texture then that additional melodic material is obscured to great cost. Rachmaninov is rightly associated with having an exceptional gift for melody but he was also a composer of immense subtlety and delicacy. These inner voices are highly important. Take particular note of the passage from bars 41-49 where this inner melody crosses between the hands.
Dynamic control in this section is vital as it is throughout. The range of dynamics requires strength and focus with the colour of the music at the heart of the performance. The music slows marginally at the central section and the dynamics drop to a pianissimo ushering in this new musical landscape. Keeping the rise and fall of the dynamics supports the flow of the music in this section including the ebbing away towards the return of the opening material marked at the triple piano. This is not easy to achieve with the pointed, separated staccato markings Rachmaninov writes.
At the recapitulation of the initial music, (Bar 58) Rachmaninov cleverly composes it in the sub-dominant key of C minor thereby delaying the feeling of a completed return to the home key of G minor. Ensuring that the delivery of this final section is a firm match to the opening I feel is important. You must make sure you have enough stamina to achieve this without the slackening off of rhythmic accuracy or articulation.
The Prelude in G minor is not a composition to be tackled lightly. It is brimming with detail and makes great demands on any pianist. Like so many well-known pieces, it is all too easy to imagine it is a work that can be competently and convincingly performed with little effort or research. It is heard in recitals regularly for good reason. It is an excellent piece of late Romantic music by a master of his art however it is a difficult piece to play well. I recommend before you decide to study this prelude that you devote a good amount of time listening to different performances and gauging how you feel each approach works for you.