Sergey Rachmaninov

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Introduction and 24 Variations), for piano & orchestra in A minor, Op. 43

    Description by Robert Cummings

    The last of Paganini's 24 Caprices for violin has been the subject of many sets of variations, including the composer's own set of 12, Brahms' brilliant Paganini Variations for piano, those by twentieth century composers Lutoslawski, Blacher, Lloyd-Webber, and others. But the best-known off-shoot of this Caprice is Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, not least because one of its variations -- the 18th -- has become more famous than the Paganini tune it is based on.

    The Rhapsody was one of Rachmaninov's last compositions; however, it has little in common with the handful of works from the composer's last two decades. The Corelli Variations (1931), for piano, and the Piano Concerto No. 4 (1926; rev. 1941) display a colder, more modernistic Rachmaninov, while the Rhapsody harkens back to the passionate, post-Romantic world of the 1909 Third Piano Concerto. Also unusual is that, while the composer's output was paltry in his later years, this piece was finished in a mere month and a half, from July 3 to August 18, 1934.

    With three discernible sections, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini resembles the fast-slow-fast movement structure of a piano concerto. Variations 11 through 18 serve as the slow movement, with the preceding and following groups representing the outer movements.

    The work opens with an introduction that contains elements of Paganini's melody. There follows the first variation which states the theme, largely in the strings, the piano playing just single notes from the melodic line. The piano takes over in the next variation and shares the spotlight with the orchestra in numbers three through five, all of which are lively and light in mood. With the sixth variation, the tempo slows but the piano remains playful. The seventh brings on a drastic change, introducing what has become a trademark of Rachmaninov's major compositions: the Dies Irae theme, from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead; it appears in the next three variations as well. Some have suggested that this allusion to the biblical "day of wrath," while a feature of many of the composer's works, was here also a nod to the nineteenth century legend that the transcendentally gifted Paganini had bargained his soul to the Devil in exchange for his talents.

    The 11th variation, as mentioned above, is the beginning of what serves as a slow movement; here the music is ethereal and subdued, remaining so until the fiery 13th, which is then gives way to a pair of more brilliant variations. The lively 15th variation is followed by a markedly subdued 16th and 17th in order to prepare for the climactic 18th, which offers one of the composer's most memorable themes; Rachmaninov surely could have used it in another work without the least suspicion of its relationship to Paganini.

    The final "movement" begins with the 19th variation, which is somewhat academic-sounding. The next variations offer more color, though darker elements begin creeping in again with No. 22, which builds up to its finish in a way not unlike the finales of the Second Symphony and Third Piano Concerto. The next variation recalls parts of the Paganini theme closely and leads to the dramatic conclusion -- a powerful and ominous, if glitzy, restatement of the Dies Irae theme by the piano and orchestra.

    A typical performance of the Rhapsody lasts about 25 minutes. Rachmaninov premiered it on November 7, 1934, in Baltimore, with Leopold Stokowski conducting.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Introduction: Allegro vivace
    2. Variation 1 (Précédente)
    3. Tema: L'istesso tempo
    4. Variation 2: L'istesso tempo
    5. Variation 3: L'istesso tempo
    6. Variation 4: Più vivo
    7. Variation 5: Tempo precedente
    8. Variation 6: L'istesso tempo
    9. Variation 7: Meno mosso, a tempo moderato
    10. Variation 8: Tempo I
    11. Variation 9: L'istesso tempo
    12. Variation 10: Poco marcato
    13. Variation 11: Moderato
    14. Variation 12: Tempo di minuetto
    15. Variation 13: Allegro
    16. Variation 14: L'istesso tempo
    17. Variation 15: Più vivo scherzando
    18. Variation 16: Allegretto
    19. Variation 17: Allegretto
    20. Variation 18: Andante cantabile
    21. Variation 19: L'istesso tempo
    22. Variation 20: Un poco più vivo
    23. Variation 21: Un poco più vivo
    24. Variation 22: Un poco più vivo (Alla breve)
    25. Variation 23: L'istesso tempo
    26. Variation 24: A tempo un poco meno mosso

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Praga / Praga Digitals PRD 250338
    2016 Guild Historical GHCD 2420
    2016 Warner Classics 0825646480401
    2015 Testament SBT3 1509
    2015 Melodiya MELCD 1002349
    2015 DG Deutsche Grammophon B002335702
    2015 Claudio CB 60262
    2015 Luiz de Moura Castro 5638466297
    2015 Philharmonia Records PHR 0104
    2015 Alto / Musical Concepts MCSCD 6005
    2014 Ondine ODE 12302D
    2014 Cameo Classics CC 9021CD
    2014 Melodiya MELCD 1002128
    2014 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4793631
    2014 Warner Classics 2564627827
    2014 Decca
    2014 Broken Audio BRAU 1155
    2014 Decca 4786765
    2014 Decca B002033502
    2014 Sony Classical 88843045052
    2014 APR (Appian) APR 5505
    2014 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4792236
    2014 DG / DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2014 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2013 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2013 RPO RPOSP 044
    2013 Decca
    2013 Decca B001811702
    2013 Decca
    2013 Decca
    2013 Lifescapes Music 61028
    2013 Origin Classical 33016
    2013 RCA Red Seal / Sony Classical 88725462392
    2013 Decca 4785093
    2012 BD Jazz / Zebralution
    2012 BIS BISCD 975
    2012 Decca 4783361
    2012 Decca
    2012 EMI Classics
    2012 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4790058
    2012 DG Deutsche Grammophon / Universal Music Mexico S.a. De C.V. (Decca)
    2012 Denon Classics
    2012 Denon Classics UMI_00795041791
    2012 Denon Classics UMI_00795041791
    2011 J&R Adventures / Savoy
    2011 RCA Red Seal 886919369120
    2011 Broken Audio BRAU 0328
    2011 Deutsche Grammophon / DG Deutsche Grammophon 15338
    2011 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2011 Avie AV2191
    2011 Warner Classics
    2011 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099908519
    2011 EMI Classics 918726
    2011 ICA Classics ICAC5020
    2011 Nimbus NI 1720
    2011 Cascavelle VEL3151
    2011 Dutton Digital / Dutton Laboratories CDVS 1918
    2011 TwoPianists 1039060
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Guild 2349
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Decca
    2010 Decca
    2010 Decca
    2010 Mariinsky 505
    2010 Decca
    2010 Hyperion 14
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Brilliant Classics 9014
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 EMI Classics
    2009 Denon Records 17749
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099969759
    2009 Decca 4765900
    2008 Telarc Distribution 80737
    2007 EMI Music Distribution
    2007 HDC 40300
    2007 Guild 2326
    2007 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 0946392747
    2007 Living Era Classics 2014
    2007 APR (Appian) 6005
    2007 Zephyr 12807
    2007 EMI Classics
    2007 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099950087
    2007 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4429484
    2007 Berlin Classics 0186002
    2007 Decca 4758548
    2006 DG Deutsche Grammophon 583502
    2006 RCO / RCO Live 06004
    2006 MSR Records 1176
    2006 Decca 4757221
    2006 Decca
    2006 Doremi Records 7842-3
    2006 Edel Records 2832
    2006 Arte Nova 797600
    2006 Brilliant 7794
    2006 Mirare 19
    2006 Erato
    2006 Virgin 363291
    2006 Warner Music 2564 63675-2
    2006 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243476948
    2006 Berlin Classics 0185582
    2006 Warner Classics
    2006 Analekta 29277
    2006 RCA 67892
    2006 Word Distribution / Word Records WD 2886533
    2006 Brilliant Classics 99668
    2005 Rca Red Seal 184595
    2005 Prism Leisure Corporation (UK) / Prism Entertainment PLATBX196
    2005 Resonance 3050
    2005 DG Deutsche Grammophon 000427836
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 EMI Classics 5869922
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 Audiophile Records 038
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 Delta Distribution 16407
    2005 Chandos 24130
    2005 Nimbus 9003
    2004 History 205651
    2004 Crystonyx Productions 1005
    2004 High Definition Classics 023
    2004 Harmonia Mundi 807286
    2004 EMI Classics 85779
    2004 Brilliant 6214
    2004 Naxos 554477
    2004 Warner Classics 2564 60613-2
    2004 Hyperion 67501/2
    2004 Hyperion 67501/2SACD
    2003 DG Deutsche Grammophon 000085402
    2003 Decca 473601
    2003 Laserlight / Delta Distribution 40044
    2003 Vox 90118
    2003 Gega 84
    2003 Decca 473251
    2003 ASV 6128
    2003 PentaTone Classics 5186114
    2003 Decca 000055202
    2003 Chandos 10078
    2002 EMI 5751942
    2002 Decca 470457
    2002 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243575510
    2002 Naxos Historical 8110692
    2002 Vox Music Masters 90112
    2002 Naxos 110676
    2002 Sony Classical 89962
    2001 Cypres 9612
    2001 Philips 811
    2001 Philips 4689212
    2001 CBC Records 5129
    2001 Nimbus 1736
    2001 Seraphim UK 74522
    2001 Virgin 61976
    2001 Naxos 8 505177
    2001 St. Clair 7360
    2001 Rca Red Seal 63009
    2000 Decca 467446
    2000 Delta Distribution 14542
    2000 EMI Music Distribution 73765
    2000 DG Deutsche Grammophon 469178
    2000 Rca Red Seal 902668992
    2000 Naxos 550809
    2000 EMI Classics
    2000 Naxos 8501005
    2000 Rca Red Seal 63035
    1999 Delta Distribution 15818
    1999 Philips 462232
    1999 Philips 454987
    1999 Philips 456859
    1999 Philips 456775
    1999 Seraphim UK 7243573429
    1999 Decca 460632
    1999 Naxos 110602
    1999 Berlin Classics 0032052
    1999 Chandos 7114
    1999 RCA Red Seal 63000
    1999 Other Minds Records 1001
    1999 Decca 4605032
    1999 Philips 456853
    1998 DG Deutsche Grammophon 457583
    1998 Helicon Records 1035
    1998 Dutton Laboratories CDCLP4004
    1998 Nimbus 1761
    1998 RCA Red Seal 902668442
    1997 Brioso Recordings 111
    1997 RCA 68788
    1997 London 448604
    1997 BMG 68886
    1997 Melodiya 40068
    1997 London 455234
    1997 London
    1997 Dutton Laboratories 2504
    1996 Pearl 9194
    1996 Gallo 849
    1996 IMP Classics 2050
    1996 Naxos 504011
    1996 Sony Classical 62294
    1996 Laserlight 24415
    1996 EMI Music Distribution 68619
    1996 Carlton 01142
    1996 Nimbus 5478
    1995 Phoenix USA 124
    1995 Royal Classics 6451
    1995 Laserlight 14271
    1995 RCA 62710
    1995 APR (Appian) 5505
    1994 Vox 3020
    1994 RCA 61658
    1994 London 440653
    1994 RCA 61851
    1994 Chandos 6605
    1994 Hungaroton 31551
    1994 RCA 62695
    1993 IMP Golden Legacy 104
    1993 EMI Classics 67783
    1993 EMI Music Distribution 62034
    1993 EMI Music Distribution 54880
    1993 Chandos CHAN9192
    1993 IMP Classics 903
    1993 Decca / Philips
    1993 Philips 438326
    1993 Philips 438383
    1993 Philips
    1992 London 436386
    1992 Sony Music Distribution 47571
    1992 Vox 5008
    1992 Naxos 550117
    1992 RCA 61265
    1991 CBS Records 46271
    1991 Chesky Records 41
    1991 Sony Music Distribution 46541
    1991 Chandos 8882/3
    1990 RCA 7945
    1990 Telarc Distribution 80193
    1989 CBS Records 37812
    1989 CBS Records 44761
    1988 Virgin 59506
    1987 EMI Music Distribution 62019
    1987 London 417702
    1985 CBS Records / Masterworks 36722
    1984 Rca Red Seal 14934
    1980 Tahra 155
    Philips 410052
    Brioso Recordings 116
    IMP Classics 1074
    Time/Life Music 11B
    Originals 821
    History 205656303
    Cypres 9612-5
    RCA 6659
    Philips 426749
    Musique d'Or 1066
    CBS Records 45803
    CBS Masterworks 38672
    RCA 37713
    Gega New 84
    Excelsior Recordings 31025
    Decca 417880
    DG Deutsche Grammophon 477 5231GH
    Verdi Music 6809
    EMI Music Distribution 21245
    Nouveau 4449
    EMI Music Distribution 63788
    EMI Music Distribution 69829
    EMI Music Distribution 49966
    Harmonia Mundi HMU90 7286
    Brilliant Classics 99668/24
    IMP BBC Radio Classics 9116
    Warner Music
    RCA 6524
    RPO 7006
    Russian Disc 10025
    Russian Revelation 10002
    BBC Music Magazine 321
    EMI Classics 97170
    Aura Records 252
    Magic Talent 48075
    Chandos 8521
    Classical Records 010