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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Preludes Opp.23 & 32 (selections)
see end of review for track listing
Colin Horsley (piano)
rec. c. 1954 and 1959? London
ATOLL ACD442 [76:00]

Although he spent most of his life in the UK, Colin Horsley (1920-2012) originated from Wanganui in New Zealand (North Island). Starting the piano at the age of six, he made rapid progress. In 1936 he was sent to London, after winning a scholarship, to study at the Royal College of Music. There his teachers included Herbert Fryer and Angus Morrison. There was also some input from the famous pedagogue Tobias Matthay, and mentoring from Irene Scharrer, herself a Matthay student.
He made his London debut at the Proms in 1943 as a participant in the Bach Triple Concerto. One of the other pianists in that performance was Fanny Waterman, who later founded the Leeds Piano Competition. He made his solo debut later with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. As these were the war years, he frequently played in concerts for the troops and in the early stages of his career he played under such conductors as Barbirolli and Beecham. Throughout his life he made the occasional trip back to New Zealand. In the last sixteen years of his career he taught at the Royal Northern College of Music. At the age of seventy he left the mainland and retired to the Isle of Man. He died on holiday in Italy in 2012 aged ninety-two.
Horsley was often associated with then contemporary composers such as Nikolai Medtner, John Ireland (he recorded his piano concerto - EMI 352279-2 ), Alan Rawsthorne, Humphrey Searle and his fellow countryman Douglas Lilburn. However, it was with Lennox Berkeley that he was most closely linked; the composer wrote two piano concertos for him. There are some recordings of Berkeley’s music with the pianist on the Lyrita label, though our paths have never crossed. My experience of Horsley comes from the very fine EMI recording of the Mozart Quintet K. 452 for piano and winds with Dennis Brain, and his distinguished collaborations with the violinist Max Rostal on Testament, playing Delius, Walton and Elgar (SBT 1319).
It was in the 'fifties (precise dates and venues unknown) that Horsley recorded excerpts from both sets of Rachmaninov Preludes on two separate occasions. The seven selected Op. 32 Preludes, the Prelude No. 6 in E flat from Op. 23 and the transcriptions were issued on a World Record Club LP. The remaining six Op. 23 Preludes included here were consigned to one side of another LP shared with César Franck’s Prélude, Aria et Final. Atoll Records, a New Zealand record label dedicated to classical, historical and contemporary music, has brought these two Rachmaninov LPs together on this very desirable CD release.
What we encounter in the Preludes is a pianist of urbane refinement. These are not large-scaled readings like those of Richter, but more contained. In the technically demanding Op. 23 no. 2 in B flat I found Horsley less rhetorical than Richter — who excels in this piece — with fervour kept under wraps. Yet, in Op. 32 no. 5 in G major there is a pure simplicity and lyrical eloquence that I’ve never heard matched. In no. 12 from the same set, Horsley emphasizes the rich bass line with persuasive phrasing. In no. 13 in D flat he lets the music speak for itself; not, in any way, forcing the issue. Referring to the G flat Prelude of the Op. 23 set Roger Fiske, in Gramophone (May 1956) commented that Horsley ‘lets his love of Rubato rob the music of its direction’, I’m afraid I can’t identify with that sentiment. The D major Op. 23 no. 4 is heartfelt and ravishingly played; the effect is spellbinding. No. 5 in G minor is delivered with energy and drive.
The eight Transcriptions provide a light contrast. The Mendelssohn Scherzo is a scintillating whirlwind of dexterous fingerwork, as is the Flight of the Bumble Bee, which is driven with rhythmic incision. I love the way, in Wohin? from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, Horsley points up the melody against a discreet rippling accompaniment. Kreisler’s Liebeslied is imbued with Viennese charm and a tasteful and restrained rubato.
It is regrettable that Colin Horsley did not record both sets of Preludes, yet what we have here provides an insight into his Rachmaninov playing. He frequently performed the second and third Concertos, and sadly no commercially recorded document of these exists either. Sound quality throughout this CD is perfectly acceptable for the age of the recordings, and Atoll have done a sterling job with the transfers, using first-class source material. Booklet notes by Peter Mechen are in English only, and provide an informative biographical background to this fine pianist.
Atoll are to be commended for making available these recordings made by a pianist who may be known to few.
Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

Track listing
Preludes Op.23
No.6 in E flat major [2:39]
No.10 in G flat major [3:33]
No.9 in E flat major: No.4 in D major [4:28]
No.5 in G minor [4:02]
No.1 in F sharp minor [2:59]
No.2 in B flat major [4:06]
Preludes Op.32
No.1 in C major [1:18]
No.25 in G major [3:10]
No.12 in G sharp minor [2:27]
No.3 in E major [2:40]
No.10 in B minor [5:52]
No.4 in E minor [5:41]
No.13 in D flat major [5:17]
Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Mendelssohn) [4:29]
Lilacs Op.21 No.5 (Rachmaninov) [2:26]
Lullaby Op.54 No.16 (Tchaikovsky) [4:37]
Flight of the Bumble Bee - Tsar Saltan (Rimsky-Korsakov) [1:15]
Gopak - Sorotchinski Fair (Mussorgsky) [1:55]
Minuet - L’Arlésienne Suite No.1 (Bizet) [3:24]
Wohin? - Die schöne Müllerin (Schubert) [3:14]
Liebeslied (Kreisler) [4:27]