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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op 3 No 2 [4:51]
Ten Preludes, Op 23 [35:56]
Thirteen Preludes, Op 32 [37:38]
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. 7-8 and 20-12 August 2008, Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA67700 [78:15]
Experience Classicsonline

There is a very welcome trend nowadays for the piano world’s future superstars to record the complete Rachmaninov preludes. The 24 preludes are amongst my favorite cycles in the piano music canon, and to have so much attention lavished on all of them-not just the well-loved preludes in C sharp minor, G minor and G major-is a real luxury. In 2000 Santiago Rodriguez, a Cuban pianist whose talents are sadly not given the recognition they deserve, recorded an urgently expressive, generally strong cycle on Elan. Marietta Petkova completed the cycle for the Challenge label in 2007, although I have not yet heard her account. Eldar Nebolsin’s Naxos traversal in 2008 was very impressive indeed, combining considerable technical ability with a lyrical demeanor that made Rachmaninov’s fireworks poetic - you might even say subtle.

And now Steven Osborne, one of Hyperion’s core group of super-talented pianists, arrives with his own traversal of all twenty-four. Osborne’s performances on this label have all been well received, although my favorite of his recordings is a recital of piano music by Nikolai Kapustin, a living Russian composer who writes jazz in classical clothing. My roommate summarized Osborne’s stature aptly when he walked into the room as I was playing this Rachmaninov album. “Who’s the pianist?” he asked. When I told him it was Osborne, he responded, “I knew it was somebody really good.”

This is a very intelligent and well-thought-out presentation. Osborne envisions them, as his liner-notes explain and his performance bears out, as an essentially unified series which is primarily a vehicle not for flashy playing and loud, clattering chords, but for lyricism and melancholy. Even the fastest and angriest of the preludes, in Osborne’s hands, is basically introspective by a composer who is emotional but never sappy. As a result, the B flat prelude is not a race to the finish line, the C sharp minor is rather more high-minded than a cascade of mighty chords, and the G minor is less ferocious in Osborne’s hands than in Horowitz’s or Richter’s or the composer’s. In other words, the power Osborne projects is emotional, not physical.

Osborne’s vision holds together remarkably well, and it appeals to me more and more every time I listen. Initially, for example, the soft edges of Op. 23 No. 7 left me wishing he would be more assertive, but repeat hearings have helped me understand how this playing serves the greater vision. Sometimes I will be in the mood for a truly monstrous Op. 23 No. 5 (the famed G minor), and when that time comes I can put on Rachmaninov’s own recording. Osborne’s view is different, but he knows what he is doing and has the elegant style to do it.

On the other hand, perhaps these pieces do call for more contrast at the risk of structural disunity. When I listen to Constance Keene’s admittedly highly idiosyncratic recording, now long out of print and somewhat of a collector’s holy grail, I notice the extreme staccato of Keene’s Op. 23 No. 3 (D minor) prelude, and the way the abrupt chords make the piece seem icy and forbidding. What better way to contrast it with the lyrical magic of the D major prelude that follows? One of my very favorite pieces in the set, Op. 32 No. 4 (E minor), receives a performance by Osborne that is simply too cool and distanced compared to nearly everyone else. The G sharp minor, another of my favorites, features the nigh-impossible accompaniment articulated with phenomenal ease and fluidity, but the main ‘story’ lacks the last bit of tension that Wladyslaw Szpilman and Earl Wild bring. Wild and Rodriguez also add a dash of nervousness to the opening of Op. 23 No. 1 which I have come to expect in performances, but which is missing here.

As a performance and as a vision, this really is a success. Osborne is at his very best, as one would expect, in the more lyrical moments: the D major really sings, even more than on Eldar Nebolsin’s Naxos recording of last year. He is miles ahead of the comparatively terse Rodriguez. The way that Osborne controls the slow, steady decrease in drama and tempo from the G minor prelude through the end of Op. 23 speaks of a great understanding of the cycle as a structural whole.

I cannot really recommend this as a first choice, and if you have never heard the Rachmaninov Preludes or need to buy your first recording of them, you are still better off with Vladimir Ashkenazy or the incomplete sets by Sviatoslav Richter and Earl Wild. But those who are used to fire-and-brimstone readings will want to hear this alternative take. Osborne’s performances are intelligent, thoughtful, and eloquent; they are not meant to be the last word on the subject, but rather a useful contribution to an ongoing artistic discussion of what we are finally realizing is one of the deepest, most varied bodies of work in the romantic piano repertoire. Rachmaninov lovers will want to give this album a listen, although its rewards are best enjoyed after repeated hearings.

One last word: the sound quality is stellar. Listening to the beautiful tone of Osborne’s piano, captured with such clarity and warmth by engineer David Hinitt, was a great pleasure all by itself.

Brian Reinhart 

 


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