In the Henle blog we have already published several posts on the Sergei Rachmaninoff topic (see here), but posting on him should certainly not be lacking this year. The composer is, after all, celebrating his 150th birthday in 2023, which calls for our special attention. For the anniversary year we shall publish not only several brand-new Rachmaninoff Urtext editions (for example, you can look forward to his Paganini Rhapsody and Third Piano Concerto), but we have also planned an extra surprise…

The “Rachmaninoff at Henle” edition project will, incidentally, soon be marking a milestone birthday as well: Published nearly 10 years ago – in January 2014 – were our first Rachmaninoff Urtext editions, to be met immediately with great approval by pianists all over the world. Since then, owing to the great demand, especially the much-loved and often-played 24 Préludes (HN 1200) and Études-Tableaux (HN 1202) have already had to be reprinted several times. This has encouraged us to prepare for all Rachmaninoff fans a little surprise in honour of the anniversary: Both the 24 Préludes and the Études-Tableaux will additionally appear this summer in elegant, cloth-bound versions (HN 1520 and HN 1521).

As editors of an Urtext publishing house, we are particularly pleased when many musicians and purchasers of our editions contact us, wishing to point out questionable passages or discuss ambiguous readings. If, as very rarely, a genuine printing error is to be found, we do, of course, immediately correct it within the next edition issue. Just in Rachmaninoff’s case, though, the matter of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is often difficult to determine, since his dazzling and complex harmonies allow for various solutions.

Here, I would like to present two examples from the Rachmaninoff Préludes, pointed out to me by pianists after the edition’s first issue was published. In both instances, I, as editor, have decided not to intervene in the original music text, but to add new footnotes, indicating the problems in each case and encouraging pianists to cogitate and come to their own decisions.

In the first case, it was none other than Boris Giltburg who signalled to us a possibly missing accidental in the E-flat minor Prelude. In measure 23, the 1st chord is notated in the work’s first edition as follows (see the yellow highlighting):

Rachmaninoff, Prélude in E-flat minor, op. 23, no. 9, first edition, A. Gutheil 1903/04, mm. 21–23

From the key signature the right-hand’s lower note without any accidental is, hence, a d-flat2, resulting in a pure B-flat minor chord. This is exactly what is written in the autograph and is also printed thus in our edition. Suspecting an oversight on the part of the composer – it seems, in fact, not uncommon for Rachmaninoff to forget accidentals because he is no longer considering the key signature, – Boris Giltburg argues strongly for d2 instead of d-flat2, that is, for a B-flat major chord instead of the tonally unusual modal resolution to B-flat minor. Other valid reasons suggesting d2 are the analogous passage in m. 9 (likewise with d2), as well as the cautionary accidental before the 5th note of the right hand in m. 23 – why would Rachmaninoff notate an extra flat accidental here if he had not previously had a d in mind?

Several later editions have indeed therefore tacitly added a natural sign before the note, such as this Soviet edition by Pavel Lamm:

There are, nevertheless, also good arguments against a change, such as, for example, a cautionary flat sign in m. 23 before the 4th note c-flat2, without having had a c directly before it (in m. 22 there is a c2 on beat 3, but the left hand already has c-flat1 again on beat 4). Perhaps both cautionary signs are only brought about by the natural sign before the 2nd note in m. 23. Moreover, m. 9 is only roughly similar to m. 23, but not really a parallel passage; for example, the climax in m. 9 is on the 1st chord, whilst in m. 23 the phrase “overshoots the goal”, so to speak, and only culminates on beat 2 (the d-flat3!) –  see also the different dynamics and continuation of the respective passage.

Therefore, I have chosen the “Solomonic” solution of a footnote, leaving the decision of a change up to pianists themselves:

Rachmaninoff, Prélude in E-flat minor, op. 23, no. 9, new edition, G. Henle, 2014, mm. 21–23

I owe the second reference to the pianist Mark Sullivan from California. Some time ago he wrote me about a possible missing accidental in the G-sharp-minor Prélude, op. 32, no. 12. When comparing sources during my editing work in 2013, I had already noticed that in m. 18 on the last, left-hand beat, a b must surely be meant, even if the natural sign is missing in both the autograph and first edition (see the green highlighting in the music example):

Rachmaninoff, Prélude in G-sharp minor, op. 32, no. 12, first edition, A. Gutheil 1910/11, mm. 16–19

Apart from the fact that the b-sharp minor chord notated here would be tonally very dubious in the context, the B in the immediately following sixteenth-note figure shows that it is surely just an oversight. For this reason, I have added a natural sign in m. 18, though putting it in parentheses as an editorial addition:

Rachmaninoff, Prélude in G-sharp minor, op. 32, no. 12, new edition, G. Henle, 2014, mm. 16–19

Mark Sullivan’s plausible assumption is now that an accidental is also to be added in the analogous place in m. 16 (see the yellow highlighting), namely a sharp sign before the f-sharp1 (instead of f-double sharp1 as before). This question can alas be answered less clearly by the musical context than that in the previous case. The clash of (harmonic) f-double sharp1 in the left hand and (melodic-motivic) f-sharp2/f-sharp3 in the right hand is in any event still no reason for suspicion, for this also happens in m. 18. The explicit cautionary accidentals before the last right-hand chord in m. 16 (these sharps are not actually necessary) could even be an indication of just this deliberately intended cross relation.

A strong argument for Sullivan’s hypothesis is, however, given by Rachmaninoff himself in his own recording of the G-sharp minor Prélude – there, I hear f-sharp1:

To be sure, this recording was made in 1921, more than 10 years after the composition of the piece. It is well known that in later years Rachmaninoff took small liberties in interpretating his own works, incorporating new variants, up to and including complete revisions (think of his Second Piano Sonata…). It is quite possible that he still meant and played f-double sharp1 at the time of composition and first edition. Therefore, in doubt here, I have opted for the source’s notation and simply referred to the possible f-sharp1 with a footnote.

Which variants would you favour in each case? Are there any other arguments about accidentals, pro or con, or what is your musical “feeling” here? Write us a comment!

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One Response to »Happy birthday, Sergei! A fresh look at Rachmaninoff’s Préludes for his 150th birthday«

  1. dFOURvONEd says:

    I tend to think the composer’s latest documented edition should be preferred version, especially if we have it as performed by the composer him/her self. What a luxury in this instance. (It also signifies that he himself is aware this is a trouble spot.) Accidentals that appear and disappear may be the composer negotiating with himself.

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