Our guest blogger Robert Emanuel has performed guitar with jazz great Jools Holland and piano with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Wales. Robert shares his insights on how to practice and perform one of the most challenging of piano pieces - Rachmaninov's Prelude in Bb Major, opus 23.
I first came across this prelude when Evgeny Kissin played it as one of two encores after a performance of the 2nd Piano concerto at the proms in 2000 (the other encore being the G minor prelude from the op. 23 set). I had always had it set aside as one of the pieces I would play when I was “ready” and, having decided I would never be ready until I gave it a go, finally began learning it properly in January 2011. If you have not played any other Rachmaninov pieces then this may not be the best piece to start with as you may find the amount of time it takes to get the piece up to speed frustrating.
There is no reason you could not use it as a study piece but you will get results faster with pieces such as the G minor prelude or the G# minor prelude from the op.32 set (or of course the C# minor prelude op.3 no.2). I have listed these in descending order of difficulty and think they are an easier way to get a feel for Rachmaninov’s piano writing. It would also be good to have some Bach fugues under your belt as Rachmaninov is very fond of using contrapuntal lines. It is easy to fool yourself into thinking playing the notes Rachmaninov has written is enough and discover after having practised the wrong phrasing to death that you have neglected the correct way to play the part writing.
Performance and Practice Notes – Rachmaninov Prelude in Bb Major
It is best to bear in mind that the suggested tempo (80 bpm) is ridiculously quick and your barometer for learning the piece should be achieving a Maestoso (Stately/Majestic) feel. The required stately feel is still possible at the indicated tempo but it is much better to be in control of the prelude than to sound rushed in your performance. It is worth bearing in mind that, for example, Ashkenazy’s 1975 recording sounds very fast and he is only playing at around 70 bpm. Richter’s recording (admittedly recorded when he was in his 70s) is even slower and has a lot of rubato in it. Kissin in the performance mentioned above (which is on youtube - the one where he is wearing a white jacket) takes it at 80 bpm with some rubato in tricky bars such as bar 52 and Gavrilov pretty much takes it full pelt at 80 bpm throughout. This piece will take a fair amount of (tasteful) rubato and so there is scope to “slow down for the hard bits” but in order to achieve a secure performance you will want to have a baseline speed at which you can play the whole thing without any rubato. This is one of Rachmaninov’s more dangerous pieces (especially at bars 18-33) and if you cannot play it at a steady and safe tempo you may end up feeling like it might fall apart at any moment (it usually will fall apart, and sooner rather than later). I am not sure, however, that you could do this piece justice below around 60bpm. That is no reason not to start practicing it slower than that and work your way up to speed.
Robert Emanuel performing Rachmaninov Prelude in Bb
The main difficulty the piece presents is one of timing. The right hand (for example, in the third and fourth beats of bar 3) is playing the melody in octaves which are off the beat and playing it alternately with the thirds in between which come on the beat. This figuration is taken to the extreme throughout bars 18-27 where the rhythmic drive of the section comes from the right hand octaves. This becomes especially tricky, for example, in the fourth beat of bar 20 when the Ab in the left hand comes a semiquaver earlier than the right hand Ab octave and the Bb in the left hand falls with the right hand Bb Octave. This is one reason why you may want to try, for example, the G minor prelude first – if you have difficulties with the middle section of the G minor, then you are likely to have serious problems with bars 18-27 of the Bb prelude.
- For fingering I will use Thumb =1 through little finger = 5
- Where the hand has to play chords I will put them in  square brackets
- I would also recommend you number your bars
- Skip to the last paragraph for a top tip on playing double octaves!
Fortunately, the “A” section of the piece is fairly repetitive and it is easy to loop the harder bars on themselves. For example bars 3-4 can be repeated continuously (include the Bb chord at the start of bar 5). The potential to loop bars is available throughout the A section. You will then only have to conquer bars 9,10 15 & 16 and you will have the whole A section under your belt – as the A section is repeated note for note at bars 38-50 you will start to feel rather pleased with your progress quite quickly.
In bars 1-2 I use the following fingering for the left hand arpeggio:
, 2,1,2,1,4, , 3, 4, 1,2,3
5, 2,1,2,1,4, , 3, 4, 1,2,3 (end bar 1)
I have seen other fingerings on the internet but I like the above as it relies on strong fingers at the start of the piece where the left hand is on its own and exposed. It also keeps things simple when you come to add the right hand. This will eventually fit under your hand quite comfortably and it is worth noting that you can play bar 1 on a loop until you master it. I like a strong accent on beats one and three – the accent on beat three can give you some impetus back down the arpeggio which can help at full speed.
Keep an eye out for the early semiquaver at the end of bar 3 in the left hand. Take some time to ensure that you play this accurately as it will be almost impossible to fix if you practice bars 3 and 4 with the low Bb on the first beat of bar 4.
Note that the first right hand entry has an accent on the octave and on the [DF] minor third. One way to bring this out is to use  for the octave and then play the third with  but on the closest edge of the white keys (see the Kissin performance on youtube). Your wrist should be high for the octave and then can come down for the third for added power. This wrist motion will also help with adding definition to the semiquavers at the end of the bar (and at the end of bar 5 and the second beats of bars 7 and 8).
The big four note “Rachmaninov chords” need to rely on arm weight to hold them as much as possible. It is tempting to use brute force but remember that you only need to apply force to the keys until they hit the bottom of the key bed. You should avoid pressing the chord down once the keys have hit the bottom of the bed as this will tire you out long before the end of the prelude and potentially cause you injury if you do it too often. Practice playing a four note chord, holding it and then eliminating ALL downward pressure. If you are completely relaxed then the weight of your arm should be more than enough to hold the chord in place. Then repeat the four note chord each time saying to yourself “Down [i.e play the chord], Relax [Hold with arm weight alone), Down, Relax, Down, Relax [etc]”. Do this slowly at first to get used to the feel but, later on, when you have to deal with fast repeated chords (e.g. the first two beats of bar 6 and see the G minor prelude for this in the extreme) say to yourself “Down, Down, Down” on each of the repeated chords. This should remind you where the force should come, and remind you to let go and use arm weight only between chords.
Another useful way to play the chords is to alternate playing with high wrists (using the wrist to play the chord) on the unaccented notes and then bring your wrist down (using the elbow to play the chord) on the accented chords. Using this combination adds rhythmic security. It is however important to remember that, when you are doing slow, quiet practice, you must use the same wrist positions you would use when playing it full speed and at full volume. It is easy to fall into the trap of playing everything from the wrist when playing quietly – if you are going to use the elbow with your wrist down to play the chord when you play the piece up to speed, then use this position when practising slowly.
This piece is fairly forgiving for those with heavy right feet but can become a minefield because, on the occasions where the pedal has to change, it may have to change very quickly and several times. You can play the first two bars in one pedal and bar three in one pedal however the pedal should change on the third beat of bar 4 and the Eb 2nd inversion chord at the end of the bar should have its own pedal, then the pedal should change again for bar 5. You may want to try lifting the pedal entirely for the semiquaver sections in the right hand (third beat of bar 3, second beat of bar 7, etc) and bringing it back on the next beat. Generally however, you can rely on pedaling when the harmony changes and use the right hand as a guide to when you need to change within a harmony. For example the melodic “points of interest” at the fourth beat of bar 3, the first beat of bar 4 and the third beat of bar 4 may necessitate pedal changes. Pay attention however to the low Bb – you do not want to change pedal so frequently that it loses its underpinning effect on the harmony.
When you get to a point like the F octave at the end of bar 8 which leads to the DFAbD chord you may want to lift the pedal for the octave and bring it down slightly after the four note chord. This approach can be used going into the third beat of the bar. I also lift the pedal entirely for the first beat of bar 10 and bring it down after the F double octave. This approach can be taken in bars 15 and 16. In bar 15 lift the pedal on the BbDdFBb chord and bring it down slightly after the ACFA chord. Do the same for the EbF#CEb chord and the DGBbD chord in Bar 16 and for each pair of chords in the first half of bar 16. I change pedal on the first and third semiquavers in the quintuplet.
It is ok to allow some heavy rubato on the quintuplet – it can sound odd if it is played exactly in tempo (the same goes for bar 52). However ensure that there is a clear feeling that the third beat is a triplet and the fourth beat is a quintuplet (One,two,three, One two three,four,five). You will know if you are using too much rubato as the last two beats will just sound like eight semiquavers and you will lose the impetus towards the start of bar 17. You will also lose a lot of excitement.
This section is phenomenally difficult to pull together so don’t worry if it takes a while. It is best to leave out the pedal entirely until you have it in your fingers- This will force you to, for example, hole the Bb tie in the left hand between bars 20 and 21. Also, the right hand is marked legato, and, I think, has an octave melody which should itself be legato as much as possible (i.e hold the octave while you play the inner notes). The pedal can lead to mechanical playing of the right hand figuration which can result in you losing the melodic line. As I noted above the rhythmic impetus of this section comes from the off beat right hand octaves. You should still think of them as syncopated however the big danger with this section is that the first three beats of each bar are governed by the right hand octaves and then, in order to incorporate the cross rhythm the right hand plays a mechanical sextuplet on every third beat (I hate to name names, especially a name as accomplished as this, but listen to the Idil Biret recording on you tube – there is a jarring rhythmic contrast between the right hand when it is on its own and when it is playing against the left hand melody). The right hand melody should be a singing line of octaves throughout each bar. When you have mastered that, only then should you try and incorporate the left hand accompaniment. You should first play the left hand through on its own in its entirety and use a consistent fingering every time. One suggestion for practice would be to leave out those sections of the left hand where it is playing the triplet accompaniment and play only the right hand and the left hand melody in quavers (eg. fourth beats of bars 20 and 21). Make sure you use the same fingering when doing this as you would if you were playing the entire left hand part.
You should work on this section one bar at a time (starting with the right hand and ending with the first beat of the next bar). This will help your phrasing and make you focus on the right hand. Also, as noted, this section is very dangerous – if you can start from the first beat of any bar in the section then, should a catastrophe happen in performance then at most you will be able to pick yourself back up in four beats time. It is not advisable to practice the whole section through every time, even after you have mastered it, as starting the section again would be truly catastrophic if you get lost during a performance.
I generally change pedal on the first beat of every bar and on each of the left hand melody notes. This helps emphasise them – you should be careful not to panic and try and thump out the melody – the pedal change should be enough to let everyone know the left hand has the melody.
You can also use substantial rubato but remember to use “Rachmaninov rubato” - overall you should take the same time to play bars 18-27 without rubato as you do with. If you take some time over the left hand melody (e.g the end of bar 20 to the start of bar 21) then once you play the last melody note pick up the speed again. Think of it like breathing – you take a breath on the left hand melody notes and slow down, then speed up again after the breath. The worst thing that can happen to this section is if it gets slower and slower until bars 25-27 are played adagio. You can however take some time over bar 27 but the pace has to be picked up quite rapidly once you start bar 28.
Whereas hands separate practice is advisable for the previous section, the main challenge in these bars is the coordination of the two hands and you should try and get the hands together as soon as possible after learning the notes. It should be manageable to practice this section a half a bar at a time. This is perhaps more dangerous than bars 18-27 and it is good to be able to start cold from any place in the section if a catastrophe happens.
Where as correct pedaling was sufficient to bring out the left hand in bars 18-27 here you may want to add more of an accent to the double stemmed notes, especially as you reach the top of the crescendo.
Change pedal for every double stemmed note in the left hand and perhaps consider “fluttering” the pedal in bar 31.
These bars aren’t too bad compared to what has come before – the danger here is that it is tempting to rush, especially in bars 34- 36. Remember that, if you are playing this piece at 70 beats per minute – the demisemiquavers will be the same speed as semiquavers at 140 beats per minute – which is a nice way to remind yourself not to get carried away with the sea of black. In bars 32- 33 I lift the pedal on the first of every two chord group and bring it down for the second (or rather slightly after the second). For example, in bar 32 the pedal is up for the DGBbD right hand chord, down for the CGBbC chord, up for the EBbE chord, down for the DBBD chord (etc). You might also want to try playing the first of each of these two chord pairs with the wrists and the second with the elbow. In bars 34-36 I change pedal on each beat and leave it down for the whole of bar 37 (you may not agree entirely with that last idea but I like it!) In bar 37 I play the descending right hand run in triplets with on triplets for each of the left hand notes (where the left hand is playing F- Eb- F-F-Eb- F) I play the last four notes of the run as a quadruplet which I think gives an exciting lead back into the repeat of the A section.
This bar does not have to be played a tempo but it can’t be too slow either. Listen to some recordings to find a happy medium. Some people play it with pedal, some people play it without. I think it can sound a bit jarring without pedal (but each to their own). Breaking the bar into 6 sets of sextuplets I change pedal on the following chords
[1(Change)] 2 [3(change)] 456
[1(change)] 2 [3(Change)] 456
[1(change)] 2 [3(Change)] 4 [5(Change)] 6
[1(change)]2 [3(Change)] [4(Change)] [5(Change)] [6(Change)]
I also add an accent to each chord where I am changing the pedal by playing with wrist down and from the elbow. I use wrist up and playing from the wrists for the unaccented chords.
The rhythmic impetus and melody here comes from the left hand and it is important not to let the right hand overpower it. Remember again to maintain the stately feel from the start (you can see me spectacularly failing to do this at this link – what can I say, it worked in rehearsal). You should also be careful not to start the diminuendo to soon, or diminuendo too quickly – you are aiming for the p in bar 58, there is a marked dim at the end of bar 57 and so you shouldn’t be any quieter than mp by the third beat of bar 57. That way you can take your audience by surprise with an almost subito p at the start of bar 58.
Where the right hand is descending it is possible to play each of the quintuplets with a 54321 fingering but depending on how large your hand is you may need to be more creative. Allow your self the time to clearly demarcate the sextuplet at the end of each bar (again – something that escaped me at the performance above).
I change pedal at the start of bar 54, leave it down for the next two beats, change it on the fourth beat and then change it again for the first beat of bar 55. I take the same approach in bars 55 and 56 and change it on the first, fourth, fifth and eighth quavers in bar 57.
Bars 58 -61
Again the piano here should be a surprise. Remember not to start the cresc. until the third beat of bar 58.
I change pedal on the first, third and fourth beats of bar 58 and the second, third and fourth beats of bar 59. I lift it for the final quaver of bar 59 and then leave it down for the whole of bar 60; changing it for each of the minims in bar 61.
As promised – here is my top tip for playing double octaves (especially with wide leaps). When you play the high Bb octaves on the second semiquaver of bar 60 use a  fingering in both hands for the Bb’s (forget about the inner notes for now). Assuming you hit them correctly your hands are now in exactly the correct position to accurately play any double octave on the piano (all octaves are pretty much the same distance apart). Once you have hit the first chord imagine that both your hands are now a single unit. As long as you focus on hitting the right notes with your right hand thumb and keep your hands the same distance apart, you will always play accurate double octaves. For added security you can also focus on your left hand little finger if need be. I should say that I always had problems with the start (and end of the first movement) of the Grieg Piano Concerto because I tried to be clever and use 14 to finger the black note octaves. As soon as I stared using the above approach, using the strict 15 fingering for every octave I found that I could play the start of the Grieg accurately for the first time ever.
Good luck and best wishes!!