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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Études-tableaux, op.33 (1911) [23:29]
Études-tableaux, op.39 (1917) [38:10]
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. 2017, St. Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
HYPERION CDA68188 [61:39]

Steven Osborne’s recording of the Rachmaninov Preludes (2009) was widely welcomed, and this new disc of the complete Études-tableaux has also already attracted high admiration. I can only add to the chorus of praise. As the curiously hybrid title the composer invented for these pieces suggests, they require both technical skill and pictorial imagination, and Osborne has plenty of both. Rachmaninov once said in an interview quoted in the CD booklet, “a small piece can become as lasting a masterpiece as a large work”. But there seems little that is really small about these pieces, even if all but three of them are less than five minutes in duration. The power of suggestion they display, the rich emotional world they inhabit, and the formidable skill needed to encompass them all, make them mighty miniatures indeed.

The first set of Études-tableaux (Op 33) was written on Rachmaninov’s country estate at Ivanovka in 1911 and has curious numbering – numbers 1 to 3, then 5 to 9, are left without the original number 4, which ended up revised and inserted into the second set as Op 39 No.6. The second set appeared in 1917 as Op.39, and was the composer’s final composition in Russia. Rachmaninov’s two trademark obsessions, bell sounds and the use of the plainchant Dies Irae, colour a number of the pieces, such that the Op.39 publication has even been dubbed “a set of variations on the Dies Irae”. Above all, like almost all of the composer’s work, they are rich in sentiment but never sentimental, which Osborne seems to grasp instinctively with compelling interpretations of almost every one of these studies.

The first piece of O.p33 is an Allegro non troppo in F minor. It is basically a march, but Rachmaninov is no slave to the bar line, and the metre shifts between 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, and 3/2, and Osborne struts through it all with a sturdily boisterous rolling gait. As the music evaporates into delicate bell sounds, the pianist neatly etches in its plaintive pianissimo coda. In fact, his lyrical playing is touching and exquisite throughout the disc, and he is very persuasive in the expressive melody of No.2, an Allegro in C major and especially in the C minor Grave of No. 3. In the Presto of No. 5 in E flat minor (“The Snow Storm”) with its challenging octave leaps and chromatic scales, and the Allegro con fuoco in E-flat major (No.6) that follows, Stephen Osborne rises to all the virtuoso demands that the score requires him to meet, but never at the expense of the poetic and even pictorial dimensions of these pieces.

In 1929 Rachmaninov selected a group of his Études-tableaux for Respighi to orchestrate, four of them from Op.39. Respighi gave each étude a title from the clues in a famous letter that Rachmaninov sent him. These included “The Sea and the Seagulls” (Op. 39, No. 2), “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf” (Op. 39, No. 6), “Funeral March” (Op. 39, No. 7), and “March” (Op. 39, No. 9). Rachmaninov never refuted these titles, and elsewhere spoke of his use of programmes and non-musical ideas to stimulate his writing, especially that for solo piano. In a recent Gramophone magazine interview about the Études-tableaux Osborne refers to some of these pieces, and gives some insights into his preparation of them, especially that “Funeral March” one (No.7) – “Ah I love this one” he says.

It actually sounds as if he loves them all in fact, and there is great thoughtfulness behind whatever he does – including choosing not to follow every marking or every aspect of Rachmaninov’s own way with the three numbers he recorded. That does not mean Osborne is eccentric or too personal, rather he always seems to find his own way of being persuasive in each study. Thus in Op.39 No.2, where the seascape is suggested by an element of repetitive monotony, alleviated by certain shifts in tonality, Osborne’s ability to inflect the music through subtleties of articulation and dynamic pays great dividends. So too with the “Red Riding Hood” scenario of No.6, the drama is fully realised, and with virtuoso aplomb, even in the hectic presto section. The great fifth study of Op.39 in E flat minor, probably the only one that could be said to be a popular piece, has all the melancholy Slav feeling and passion that its appassionato marking and throbbing chords imply. One can hear why Richter declined to play it, claiming it made him feel “emotionally naked”.

There are classic recordings of the Études-tableaux still in the catalogue, from Ashkenazy (Decca) in 1986 to Hayroudinoff (Chandos) in 2006, and there have been quite a few more recent discs of these two sets (not always coupled together), of which I especially liked Zlata Chochieva (both sets, from the Piano Classics label in 2015), but her impressive way with the music is perhaps for those wanting a more personal view (review). But no other version could claim to be unequivocally superior throughout to this very fine and well-recorded account from Stephen Osborne. It is good news that he plans to record more Rachmaninov, the wonderful First Sonata and the Moments Musicaux Op.16.

Roy Westbrook


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