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Vardo Rumessen, piano

Double-CD. Release: Dec 2010. “Rachmaninov was made of steel and gold: the hard alloy was in his hands; the precious one, in the heart.” (Józef Hofmann, Los Angeles, 1945)



1–6 6 Études-Tableaux, Op 33 15:05
7–8 2 Études-Tableaux, Op posth 9:33
9–17 9 Études-Tableaux, Op 39 39:39


1 Prelude C sharp minor, Op 3 No 2 4:18
2–3 2 Moments Musicaux, Op 16 10:36
4–7 4 Preludes, Op 23 14:18
8–10 3 Preludes, Op 32 12.28
11–13 Sonata No 2 B flat minor, Op 36 29:28

player Étude-Tableau in A minor, Op 39 No 2, fragm, 2 min 9 sec, mp3
player Étude-Tableau in A minor, Op 39 No 6, fragm, 80 sec, mp3
player Prelude B flat major, Op 23 No 2, fragm, 101 sec, mp3

Instrument: Steinway & Sons D-274
Recorded 1997 – 2003 in Vanemuine and Estonia Concert Hall
Engineered by Vello Meier and Mati Brauer
Mastered by Maido Maadik / Estonian Broadcasting Corporation 2009
Liner notes by Vardo Rumessen
Translations by Kristopher Rikken
Liner notes edited by Virve Normet and Inna Kivi
Front cover: painting by Boris Shaliapin, 1940
Design by Tiina Sildre
Co-produced by Peeter Vähi
Manufactured by Baltic Disc
Printed by Tallinna Raamatutrükikoda
Total time 65:33 + 71:53

Special thanks: Estonian Cultural Endowment, Neeme Järvi
© Estonian Record Productions, Estonian Classics
Stereo, DDD
ERP 4011-1/2
EC 006-1/2
ISBN 978-9949-21-323-8

Sergei Rachmaninov and His Études-Tableaux

ImagetextThe music of Sergei Rachmaninov is often characterized by the picture-like nature of the musical motifs. Many of his compositions were inspired by scenes from nature or the viewing of artworks. The composer himself said: “In the process of creating music, I am greatly aided by the books or poems I have read as well as by superb paintings. I often try to express a definite idea or event in my work without referring to the direct source of the inspiration.” In some cases, though, the sources of his inspiration are known. For instance, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name. Pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch has recalled that one of Rachmaninov finest preludes, the one in B minor Op 32 No 10, was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Return.
Although Rachmaninov does not mention any programmatic associations in the titles of his works, he later made indirect reference to some of them. In many cases, however, Rachmaninov did not wish to disclose these associations. The pictorial nature of Rachmaninov’s music emerges with greatest clarity in his Études-Tableaux.
As we know, virtuoso piano “études” developed above all as a part of concert tradition in performances by the 19th century pianists Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Ignaz Moscheles, Sigismund Thalberg and others. These were meant as show pieces, to demonstrate the performer’s technical prowess. They were quite impressive but in general quite superficial encores. A new page in the history of études was opened by Chopin, whose études aimed to lyricize a specific textural element. Liszt’s études, on the other hand, are notable for the programmatic interpretation of the genre (for instance, Mazeppa, Wild Hunt, Eroica etc).
Rachmaninov’s études are based on both Chopinesque and Lisztian tradition, but he created an entirely new style of piano music and ventured into territory new for him. All of Rachmaninov’s études are based on various symbolic associations, as a result of which he termed them not études but études-tableaux. In composing these pieces, he focused more on the experience that an image conjured for him, not on solving some specific technical problem. Even though his source of inspiration was some artwork, vignette, or motif from a fairy tale, it was generally transmuted through a certain mood state into an independent theme, thus proving much broader and more generalized than the idea on which it was based. This may have been the reason that the composer abandoned his intention to add programmatic titles to his études-tableaux, as they would have been too limiting and would not have been able to encompass the entire spectrum of expression. We know that the basis for nearly all of these works was some definite programme on the part of the composer, but what this programme was he did not wish to reveal. Yet Rachmaninov did mention a few of the programmatic associations in his letter to the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, who in 1930 orchestrated five études-tableaux at the request of Sergei Kussevitzky. On 2nd January 1930 Rachmaninov wrote Respighi: “Allow me to give you a few personal explanations which I think will allow you to best understand their character and to find the necessary orchestral colours.”
Rachmaninov composed two cycles of Études-Tableaux, Op 33 and Op 39, which rank among the finest achievements of world piano literature. The first cycle, Op 33, was written in August 1911; the second, in 1916–1917. Both of the cycles were written at a mature stage when the composer’s individual signature had already developed and most of his best-known works had been written. Having primarily focused primarily on piano works, Rachmaninov now walked his own path in interpreting the étude genre, proceeding above all from poetic imagery and a graphic or pictorial style.
Rachmaninov’s études-tableaux are somewhat similar to his preludes. Many of the études-tableaux might be categorized as preludes and vice versa – even some of the preludes are comparable to études-tableaux in terms of their technical character. However, as the études-tableaux were written later, they emanate the increased drama, tragedy, occasional darkness and often elegiac melancholy undertone typical of Rachmaninov’s later creative period. It is especially characteristic of his second cycle, Op 39, written immediately before he left Russia in 1917. As with many works by Rachmaninov, a Russian quality always emphasized by Rachmaninov comes to the forefront in the etudes. But Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux are not only among the greatest achievements of Russian music; they have a definite claim to being the most demanding and difficult pieces ever written for the piano. They are frequently reminiscent of huge frescoes that mesmerize with their unique melodic line and their musical imagery. The fact that they are exceedingly pianistic works gives them special meaning. As Rachmaninov was a superb pianist and an unexcelled interpreter of his piano works, it must be said that few other pianists succeeded in performing works on an artistic level equal to that of the composer himself. In Rachmaninov’s case, the internal sensibility of the piece would be revealed as compellingly as the technical aspects. In spite of his extraordinary popularity, it is rare for the special character of Rachmaninov’s music to be understood and sensed in a deeper way and often the deeper background of his music is eclipsed by superficial virtuosity. 

The Études-Tableaux Op 33 were composed in summer 1911 at the estate in Ivanovka, which was very dear to him. What is astonishing about this cycle is the speed at which it was composed. The pace of the composing was aided by the natural scenery of Ivanovka and the calm surroundings, where the composer could practice the piano undisturbed and concentrate.
All six études-tableaux on the manuscript are marked with the exact date on which they were composed, which reveals they were mainly composed in just one day. Rachmaninov initially wrote a cycle of eight pieces, of which he omitted three – Nos 3, 4 and 5. Of these, he reworked the last one (the one in A minor) later and added it to the cycle Op 39 No 6 A minor. The manuscript bears the inscription “8 September 1911. Ivanovka. Corrected on 27 September 1916. Moscow”. The other two appeared in print only after Rachmaninov’s death.
Op 33 No 1 in F minor
is the earliest of all of the études-tableaux; its manuscript is dated 11th August 1911. It has a characteristically energetic rhythm, which never turns into a stationary rocking but is rather active and full of motion. On its background a melody does not have an ordinary leading role but rather is dictated by the rhythmic motion. In fact the melody is not the leading element here, but rather the rhythmic accompaniment, which gives the piece its characteristically active character. The ostinato rhythmic motion almost feels like a “fatal inevitability”, it keeps the melodic pattern from taking on a life of its own; rather, it calls it to order. This is the foundation for the dramaturgical conflict in the piece, and when it recedes, just before the end, distant church bells are heard. This is so typical for Rachmaninov: we can hear the bells tolling in many other pieces of his.
Op 33 No 2 in
C major was composed on 16th August. As opposed to the first étude, which is heavy and pessimistic and in which we can barely discern any scenes from nature, this piece was inspired by the Russian outdoors, which was so loved by Rachmaninov. In terms of texture and musical themes, it is close kin to Prelude in G sharp minor Op 32 No 12, which was composed in Ivanovka a year earlier. Both of them have the same shimmering, occasionally inapprehensible aural background on which can be heard a passionate melody. This is a typical Rachmaninovian scene from nature, in which one can sense yearning for something distant and unattainable. In a letter, the composer has called this “misting rain” (моросяк), suggesting that its meaning eluded even Sergei Taneyev. From this we get an idea of how close this tableau was to the author in its almost imperceptible shades of emotion. At the same time, the tableau features a very sustained and nuanced pianistic texture, in which the idea of the piece cum étude comes clearly to the forefront.
Op 33 No 3 in E flat minor
was composed on 23rd August, and is well-known for its subtitle: Drifting Snow (Метель). Although the name was not bestowed on it by the author, it is quite fitting. The piece begins with an introduction with cold descending thirds, which strike a stark contrast with all that is to follow. Passages like gusts of wind follow, almost as if threatening to stormily wipe its path clean. Here, too, we have a scene from nature, which strikes a stark contrast to the previous one, creating a feeling of solitude and abandonment in a breathtakingly cold and icy world. We can also see a generalization, the composer’s view toward the surrounding world where man feels alone and forsaken.
Op 33 No 4 in E flat major
was dated from 17th August. It is a complete contrast to the previous one, one can feel a happy thrill in the air; festive fanfares. As the composer wrote on 2nd January 1930 in a letter to Ottorino Respighi, it is a scene from a marketplace or fair. But nothing commonplace or banal – one can hear real music even amid the din of the marketplace! One must only listen! The composer has expressed a happy and festive ambience – authentically Russian, irresistible and infectious. In this piece we can hear the sounds of bells, especially toward the end of the piece, where they are reminiscent of sleigh bells. Here they sound grandiose and confident, as on a sunny day in spring.
Op 33 No 5 in G minor
was written on 15th August and could very well bear the subtitle Elegy, recalling Elegy Op 3 No 1 in its mood. The melancholy of the piece brings up parallels to the painting Golden Autumn by Isaac Levitanxe “Levitan, Isaak”. Although it is not perhaps the most impressive piece in the cycle, it does merit attention for its sudden dynamic build-up in the middle part. It sounds like a gust of wind that shakes the last autumn leaves from the trees, leaving a solitary sad melody to repeat forlornly.
Op 33 No 6
in C sharp minor was composed on 13th August. One can sense Rachmaninov’s characteristic pathos, which sounds oppressively tragic here. Some kind of inevitability also is suggested here, manifested in the tense contrast between minor and major thirds. This impression is deepened by the motif in thirds that is heard already at the beginning, recalling the fate motif at the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth. The piece’s technically étude-like character is characterized by wide-ranging arpeggios in the left hand, on the background of which a chromatically descending theme is poignantly heard in the closing section. But there is nothing here that would be reminiscent of surrender or giving up. On the contrary it is a compelling, powerful calling-out to Fate.
We should mention two more étude-tableaux, which were initially included in the cycle Op 33, but which were omitted by the author when the collection went to print, feeling them not to have of sufficient merit. They appeared in print for the first time posthumously in 1948, in the Pavel Lamm edition.
The Étude-Tableau in C minor Op posth
was composed on 18th August 1911 in Ivanovka. In fact it lacks a true étude-like aspect. It is more reminiscent of two contrasting and opposing musical themes, of which the first points to an engrossed, introverted state of mind riven by inner doubts and conflicts, while the second rises as if on an updraft to heavenly heights, as if signifying liberation from the dark afflictions that were prevalent in the first part. The work begins tragically with chords while in the second part it shifts to a major key. Here we see Rachmaninov’s superb ability to use the entire piano keyboard’s aural texture, which creates nothing short of a three-dimensional sense of spaciousness. At the end of the piece, a chromatically ascending, expressive melody comes to the forefront; the composer used this later in the second movement of his Piano Concerto No 4.
The Étu
de-Tableau in D minor Op posth was composed on 11th September 1911 in Ivanovka and is the latest of the pieces that were initially included in Op 33. From the first measures, a short motif reminiscent of the opening theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is repeated like a question. As with many of the études-tableaux, this, too, has a complex, multilayered piano texture, in which rhythmic background themes nevertheless remain prevalent. Although the thematic material for the piece is not especially typical compared to the other pieces, and the development does not reveal as much of an organic character as in the composer’s best pieces, the sphere of Russophonic intonations is fairly discernible here: something that is more or less typical of all of Rachmaninov’s works.
The Études-Tableaux Op 39
were composed from September 1916 to February 1917 in Moscow and were performed for the first time as a complete cycle in St Petersburg by the composer on 21st February 1917. Compared to the first cycle, the second cycle is larger and consists of nine études-tableaux. They are characterized by greater development and a poem-like nature and as a result they are more wide-ranging and technically more complicated. The nature imagery that prevailed in the first opus is here relegated to the background; on the other hand, psychological imagery is greater. It is almost as if some sort of fateful dark shadow were hovering above the entire cycle, and dark and dramatic blocks of sound such as in Op 39 No 5 in E flat minor are reminiscent of genuine symphonic poems for piano. Their musical expressiveness is based on extraordinarily tense development. Undoubtedly the composing of the Études-Tableaux Op 39 was impacted by the tragic events that shook all of Russia in those years. Possessed of a sensitive artist nature, Rachmaninov was deeply affected by World War I and the communist terror, which led to the violent coup d’etat in 1917 and forced him into exile. Thus the cycle is more marked by elements of tragedy (only the last piece is in a major key) and its greater expressiveness.
Op 39 No 1 in C minor
was composed on 5th October 1916. This is typified by its extraordinary dynamism with great swells and calm periods. Passages hasten forth, creating the impression of a stormy sea amid which a sunbeam might flit, just for a moment. With its momentum and energy, it is somewhat reminiscent of the first Étude-Tableau in E flat minor from the first album. From the aspect of texture, the technical aim of the piece is fairly clearly discerned, as a result of which the étude-like aspect is less prominent. This is very characteristic of Rachmaninov and is clearly evident in his own interpretation, where technical virtuosity was never a goal unto itself but rather a way to bring out certain musical themes. The end of the piece is especially noteworthy –the culmination is followed by the same successions of chords, requiring desperate exertion, and expressing desperation and a powerful spirit of protest.
It is not known exactly when Op 39 No 2 in A minor was composed. With its calm and regular triads, this piece is a major contrast to the previous one. As with the previous étude-tableau, it, too, is related to maritime themes, but unlike the previous stormy picture, here we hear waves rolling in, one behind the other. The regularly repeated triad figures are reminiscent of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. These repeated triad passages are accompaniment to the expressive melody that hovers like a bird above them. At the same time, the regularly repeated triad figures are reminiscent of Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem Isle of the Dead, all the more that the dies irae (death) theme can be heard in the lower voice as in the abovementioned symphonic poem. In a letter to Respighi, Rachmaninov subtitled the piece Sea and Seagulls (Море и чайки), which quite aptly describes the soundscapes here. As the author did not add this in the work’s manuscript, it is more of an indirect reference to a general mood that gripped the composer at that instant. It appears that the “tableau” reflects the author’s immersion in his inner world, and the emotions that grip people who have been left alone with their thoughts about nature and the sea, people, life and death.
Op 39 No 3 in F sharp minor
was written on 14th October 1916. The composer focused on a specific piano texture technique that he developed on a number of variations. In essence it is an étude for the right hand, which clearly serves a specific technical goal – double notes with a repetition. Yet at the same time, in spite of the minor mode, one can feel some sort of levity and the call of spring. It is manifested in the internal movement of the musical themes, which creates the illusion of a road leading into the distance across a wide steppe, of the kind Rachmaninov loved to drive, to feel intoxicated from the motion and open spaces.
Op 39 No 4 in B minor
was composed on 24th September 1916. It could be termed a scherzo-like intermezzo, as a counterweight to the full-bodied and dramatic nature of the other pieces. This is sustained in even motion, with the rhythmic symbolism and multitextural style typical of Rachmaninov. At the same time, one can find a certain grotesqueness, which, it seems, refers to concealed programmatic nature.
Op 39 No 5 in E flat minor
was composed on 17th February 1917. It is the last of the études-tableaux, the last piece Rachmaninov wrote before leaving his homeland, and the culmination of the entire cycle, expressing the composer’s inner anguish and dark foreshadowing of coming catastrophe. Although the composer did not made any comments indicating the programmatic nature of the piece, the subtitle of this piece might be Desperation. It is based on a long and expressive melody – characteristic of Rachmaninov – which has a very expressive impact with the thick, ponderous texture of the accompaniment. Thanks to its drama and full-bodied sound, this is a soundscape that transfixes the listener with its tense development and pathos. The composer’s melodic resourcefulness and invention also merits attention. As a result of these, the entire piece comes off as if it were declaimed in one lungful of air. Rachmaninov uses variational development, allowing him to create an integral sound poem: we can only wonder with amazement at its sculptural beauty. We may note a certain multi-layered form in the texture, which is expressed in the way melody and full-bodied chords are contrasted as well as in the various sub-voices. This is one of Rachmaninov’s most outstanding and brilliant works for the piano, which due to its power of expression is completely unique in world piano literature.
Op 39 No 6 in A minor
was, as said, composed in its original form on 8th September 1911 in Ivanovka and reworked on 27th September 1916 in Moscow. According to Rachmaninov himself in a letter to Respighi, the piece is based on the fairy tale Little Red Riding-Hood. But one must only listen to those chromatically ascending passages – like predatory threats – to be convinced that this piece’s symbolism is far from that of a simple fairy tale. We can hear some kind of destructive power in it, something that stalks a person who, panicked, tries to flee from fate. In the context of the era, we hear the icy footfall of death here, making the piece a true drama in musical form.
It is not known exactly when Op 39 No 7 in C minor was composed. This is one of the most tragic and yet most broad-ranging tone poems in the entire cycle. In a letter to Respighi, Rachmaninov called it a mourning procession and added a definitive programmatic comment: “The Etude in C minor is a funeral march. […] The second theme depicts a choral song. From the movement of sixteenth notes in C minor and a bit later in E flat minor – this portrays fine misting rain, unceasing and hopeless. The development leads to C minor – these are church bells. And finally the finale – it is the original theme, i.e. the march.”  Themes of death are expressed in many of Rachmaninov’s works. Just recall the symphonic poems Isle of the Dead and The Bells, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, and the Symphonic Dances, in which we often hear the dies irae theme, the symbol of death. In this Étude-Tableau as well, the main image is a funeral march – the piece begins with it and it ends, after a major dynamic upswell, with the deafening ringing of church bells. This étude-tableau is among Rachmaninov’s darkest and most poignant sound poems, and astonishes the listener with its vision of fleeting nature of human life.
It is also not known exactly when Op 39 No 8 in D minorwas composed. The piece begins with an even, regular motion of triads, the technical objective here involving doubled notes in the right hand, which after the middle section become a chordal movement. In spite of this fairly clear technical objective, as a musical theme it is very lyrical. It seems that it is the only work in this cycle where Rachmaninov was inspired by thoughts of his homeland. It refers with a melancholy undertone to Levitan’s autumn landscapes. Of course, it does not perhaps call to mind the landscapes themselves so much as the experiences and emotions prompted by the landscapes. In this piece, too, the psychological aspect comes to the fore, a yearning for something distant and unattainable...
Op 39 No 9 in D major
was composed on 2nd February 1917 in Moscow. According to Rachmaninov himself, this is an “Oriental march”. It is the only piece in the cycle written in a major key and it is characterized by energetic and active motion. Everything here is dictated by the rhythmic momentum that runs through the piece. It is like a toccata in terms of its sustained motion and character. The striking church bells at the beginning of the piece resonate with particular significance. In the middle part, they yield for a moment to a dance-like theme, followed by an aurally interesting passage reminiscent of church bells. At first the sound is heard from a distance, quietly like sleigh bells, then becoming louder and louder. Little by little, it blossoms into a powerful symphony of church bells.

Vardo Rumessen

ImagetextVardo Rumessen (1942) graduated from Prof Bruno Lukk and Eugen Kelder’s piano faculty at Tallinn Conservatory in 1971. Today he is one of the best known performers and promoters of Estonian piano music. Rumessen, who has frequently performed abroad – in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Canada, the USA, Turkey, and Australia.
Rumessen has recorded piano and chamber music by Rudolf Tobias, Mart Saar, Heino Eller, Eduard Oja and Eduard Tubin. Vardo Rumessen is recognized as a master performer of Eduard Tubin’s piano music. He recorded a set of 3 CDs with piano music by Eduard Tubin for the Swedish company BIS in 1988. Rumessen was a personal friend of Tubin and had the opportunity to discuss the composer’s intentions in depth. Eduard Tubin has to a high degree authorized Vardo Rumessen’s interpretations of his music. Rumessen performed the American première of Tubin’s Piano Concertino in 1993 with the Longview Symphony Orchestra. Rumessen has performed works by Beethoven, Franck, Tobias and Tubin for piano and orchestra with the Estonian and Göteborg Symphony Orchestras, conducted by the late Peeter Lilje and Neeme Järvi. He has also performed frequently in ensemble with numerous singers, violinists, cellists, string quartets and other musicians.
Although Rumessen has achieved his success mainly as a performer of Estonian classical music, he has performed a lot of music from other parts of the world. His largest undertakings have been such as the complete Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier I, Scriabin’s 10 sonatas, Chopin’s 27 etudes, Rachmaninov’s 15 études-tableaux, etc.
Rumessen is not only the foremost performer of Estonian piano music but also a musicologist with a vast knowledge of Estonian music. He has published a lot of Estonian music, by R Tobias, M Saar, E Oja and H Eller, which have naturally found a place in Rumessen’s repertoire as both soloist and ensemble player. Among other works he restored and published R Tobias’s oratorio Jonah’s Mission. In addition, Rumessen has written many articles and has served as an editor of several books about R Tobias, M Saar, A Kapp, E Oja, E Tubin and others.

Press resonance:
  • The piano sound is very open and natural... Recommended with enthusiasm. (Fanfare, USA)
  • Vardo Rumessen does not fit under any ordinary pianistic standard. (Sirp ja Vasar, Estonia)
  • Undoubtedly Rumessen is unparalleled as a performer of Tubin... (Aftonbladet, Sweden)
  • Rumessen is a pianist of very considerable stature and Tubin is fortunate in having so commanding and sensitive an advocate. (Gramophone, UK)
  • Vardo Rumessen, himself an Estonian, is as Tubin seems to have acknowledged, a master of the music. (Hi-Fi News)
  • Rumessen’s visit was not only a great musical event; it was a reminder for us to keep alive in our minds the struggle for Iceland’s independence and culture. (Morgunbladid, Iceland)
  • A master pianist... one of the most notable interpreters of Tubin... (Länstidningen, Sweden)
  • It would hardly be possible to play the music any better... (Goteborgs-Posten, Sweden)
  • The world will largely depend upon Rumessen for interpretive insight into Eller’s work, as he is one of the best known advocates not only Eller, but of Estonian music in general. (The Morning Journal, USA)
  • He plays them here with extraordinary sensitivity and poetic freedom... (American Record Guide, USA)

Download: Vardo Rumessen in 2005, photo by P Vähi, jpg, 300 dpi, 1235 KB

Distribution by Easy-Living Music

See also other recordings of Vardo Rumessen by ERP: Koidust Kodumaise viisini, The Call of the Stars, Wiegenlieder der Schmerzen, Eduard Tubin And His Time, Northern Lights Sonata, Estonian Preludes, The Well-Tempered Clavier I, Fryderyk Chopin. Melancholy, Silent Moods