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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Twenty-Four Preludes Opp. 23 and 32 (1901-1910)
Joyce Hatto (piano)
rec. Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, UK, March 1999 and December 2001
CONCERT ARTIST CACD-9127-2 [77.12]

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To state baldly that Rachmaninov composed twenty-four piano preludes, one in each of the different keys, seems to suggest a kind of late-romantic Well-Tempered Klavier, but this is to give a false impression. The first to be composed was the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, in fact the second of a set of five pieces published in 1893 – the composer’s twentieth year – under the title Morceaux de Fantaisie. Of the Op. 23 set, the fifth, the march-like G minor prelude, was the first to be composed, in 1901; the others following in 1903. The Op. 32 set was written during a period of intense creativity in 1910. Clearly the decision to use all twelve tonalities was a conscious one, but the only striking factor as regards the progression through the different keys is that the first and last preludes share the same key centre, C sharp/D flat. Rachmaninov never performed all twenty-four preludes in public at a single sitting and it is probably better to get to know them in smaller doses. Much has been written about Rachmaninov’s indebtedness to Chopin in these pieces, but there are significant traces of Debussy too, of Schubert and even of Brahms.

Collectors who are familiar with the ongoing series of Joyce Hatto releases from Concert Artist Recordings, particularly those who have heard her performances of the Rachmaninov piano concertos, will already be convinced and hardly need to read further. For those unfamiliar with the pianist I encourage them to hear this superb disc without delay.

The C sharp minor prelude is perhaps Rachmaninov’s most celebrated work, certainly one of the most widely known. Joyce Hatto quite logically begins with it, and a more striking reading it would be difficult to find. So well known is it that it is perhaps easy to miss the point here, to lose sight of its deeply tragic nature. Stravinsky famously referred to Rachmaninov as "a six-foot scowl", and Barbirolli, after seeing the composer in his coffin, declared that he seemed "a bloody sight more cheerful than he ever did in life". A wide range of emotions are presented in these preludes, and not a little humour, but frequently even those pieces which begin in a lively, optimistic fashion will end in dark, brooding melancholy.

Many of the virtues of Joyce Hatto’s Rachmaninov playing are apparent in her reading of the C sharp minor Prelude. The opening octaves are immense and powerful but without a trace of hardness in the sound – no feeling at all of the piano as a percussion instrument – and the scrupulous care taken with the pedalling in the following bars is indicative both of her thoughtful approach and the technical skill on display. The climax of the piece is stunning, and I have never heard the final diminuendo, sustained over nine bars, more gradual or more convincing than this.

Once into the Op. 23 set the full range of the playing becomes apparent. Hatto manages beautifully well the integration of the rather nervy accompaniment figure with the cantabile melody in the F sharp minor prelude, whereas the exuberant virtuosity of the following B flat minor piece makes one want to cheer. Hatto’s way with tempo and pulse in the wistful, nostalgic fourth prelude in D major demonstrates her total understanding of Rachmaninov’s style; this is a beautiful performance, equalled in my view by the touchingly pensive final prelude in G flat major

The first of the Op. 32 Preludes is one of those which opens with panache and brio, but the mood is fragile and short-lived and a series of chords closes the piece in a world filled with sadness or regret. Joyce Hatto beautifully manages the two moods. The B minor Prelude is one of the best known and is said to have been the composer’s favourite. It would be easy to imagine the repeated chords which make up the second section transformed into a kind of hammered nonsense, but there is no danger of that in this performance where we never lose sight of the musical and dramatic sense.

Many of the greatest names feature amongst those who have recorded the Rachmaninov Preludes. Richter and Ashkenazy are magnificent, though very different from each other. I’ve also been listening to John Ogdon, Howard Shelley and Hélène Grimaud in some of the pieces. Whilst we may prefer this or that pianist in individual preludes, Joyce Hatto’s playing is characterised throughout by her beauty of sound, even in fortissimos, and a mastery of Rachmaninov style through playing which, though never anonymous, seems totally at the service of the composer. These are deeply satisfying performances. The disc has been well recorded and there are informative, descriptive notes by Jonathan Woolf. Highly recommended.

William Hedley

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