Vladimir Ashkenazy plays Rachmaninov's Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39

A film by Christopher Nupen

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Vladimir Ashkenazy — Pianist

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Russian by birth and training, Icelandic by adoption, the great pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy gives a breathtaking all-Rachmaninov recital in 1985 featuring two of the composer’s greatest 20th-century solo-piano masterpieces. 

The program begins with the 1931 Variations on a theme of Corelli, the only work Rachmaninov would compose for solo piano after his exile from Russia because of the Russian Revolution in 1917. A catalyst for the later Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, the piece’s variations can be divided into four groups to create a sonata-like structure, although the composer himself didn’t always follow this structure in performances: as he put it, “I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing increased, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order.” Ashkenazy continues the evening with a selection of the composer’s Études-tableaux, Op. 39, a dark and richly complex book of studies completed in 1917 that pose considerable technical challenges even for the most virtuosic of pianists.

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