Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Ten Preludes, Op. 23 [34:28]
Prelude in D minor (1917) [2:23]
Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3 [22:33]
Mélodie (1887) [3:55]
Oriental Sketch (1917) [1:45]
Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32 [40:09]
Moments musicaux, Op. 16 [26:32]
Dmitri Alexeev (piano)
rec. Forde Abbey, Chard, Somerset, UK, November 1987 and September 1989
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5099909637528 [70:33 + 66:41]
Dmitri Alexeev’s Rachmaninov Preludes are not special or distinctive in any way; as I listened, I nearly always knew his next move, anticipated his rubato and phrasing. There’s no prelude that sounds distinctive here, although at least none of them sound below average, either.
It is very hard to play all these works well, as diverse as they are, and many artists have a habit of being better at some than others. Santiago Rodriguez’s take-no-prisoners charge through is thrilling and probably would have pleased the composer, and his nervous, on-edge Op. 23 No. 1 is one of my favorite recordings of anything. But there’s not much subtlety to the quieter, more contemplative works. Constance Keene also cuts a fast, energetic, and wholly unique path through the twenty-four, and although I find much of what she does eccentric, I devour her preludes like popcorn just to hear what happens next. Her B minor is incomparable. On the far end of the spectrum is Steven Osborne on Hyperion, much more the poet and the thinker; his is Rachmaninov for people who think Rachmaninov beneath them.
Alexeev’s playing is — I suppose it must be in the middle. It’s so normal it may not really be situated anywhere. I certainly never felt curious to hear what he would do next or surprised by any of his decisions. His Op. 32 No. 1 is exceptionally well-voiced and clear, as opposed to the slight muddle some are prone to - as in Eldar Nebolsin’s otherwise very good traversal - but that’s the shortest of the twenty-four. When there is some kind of choice to be made between the magisterial and virtuosic approaches, Alexeev opts for the latter. His virtuosity isn’t as electrifying as Rodriguez, though, and his majesty not as well-done as Osborne or Nebolsin. Consider 32/5 in G: Osborne’s hushed tone and feather-light delivery of the theme is a world apart from this, as is the nocturne-like atmosphere conjured up by, of all players, Rodriguez. Op. 32 No. 8, fleet, powerful, and stern but with dazzling finger-work, may be the best performance here. By contrast the titanic B minor prelude is rather plain when set next to my favorite account, Constance Keene’s, although for sheer prosaic blandness nothing on the disc beats Alexeev’s D major from Op. 23.
Virgin has expanded the 79 minutes of preludes into two full discs by adding more miniatures: an extra prelude in D minor from 1917 which seems to never show up on “complete preludes” discs, Lilacs, Daisies, an Oriental Sketch, and the Moments musicaux Op. 16. This creates good value, and these performances are generally very good. There’s rather more poetry and delicacy in some of the miniatures than there are in most of the preludes, which is odd. The Moments musicaux have some especially good moments, and the Morceaux de fantaisie give Alexeev a chance to include That Prelude, in C sharp minor, rather ordinarily dispatched - though the following Mélodie is well-done.
The sound is perfectly good, indeed rather better than just good. It’s gratifying. The set comes with a booklet listing all track details, but imprudent editing makes it clear the liner-notes have been drastically trimmed from their original form. Alexeev doesn’t get a biography. That seems harsh, unless Virgin thinks he plays a bit like a computer, or a robot. That’s true in some places here but not in others. If you can find the set for a really good price, it may be worth it for the Moments musicaux and various miniatures.
Perhaps worth it for the miniatures, not the impersonal preludes.