These days there's an increasingly well-endowed catalogue of Rachmaninov's Études-tableaux (Study-Pictures) from his mature Russian period (1911, 1916-17 respectively) – music for some reason never as popular as the earlier Preludes. Post-Third Piano Concerto, the two cycles scale the heights, seeking out bold imaginative plains, unspoken languor, undefined histories and dark moods through thrilling, ferocious pianistic lenses.
Among the big guns of the digital era, notably (but not inevitably) Russian, Vladimir Ashkenazy (1985/86) and Nikolai Lugansky (1992) command the field, bringing invincible Russian authority to the equation and a certain Russian belligerence. Alexander Melnikov (2008) combines technical brilliance and sonic fantasy with a powerful theatrical underlay.
Steven Osborne holds his own aristocratically. He chisels poetry without sentimentality, every nuance finely held, glowing in dramatic tension, a tremble turned into the firmest handshake. And he has an innate feeling for Rachmaninov's keyboard idiom, steering a lucid course between dryness and sonority, bounced short staccatos and long-breathed legatos, chromatic underlay and diatonic exaltations, ricochet chords and soaring melodies, climaxes and aftermaths. Nostalgia and narrative are for the finding, but it's that sense of etched clarity, not a note troubled or misplaced, the crispness of articulation and visceral finish, that most immediately grips the attention. With Osborne you know you're in safe pianistic hands – the ride is a good one.
Come the last of the seventeen numbers you feel you've been given a folio of verses glowing like so many minerals from the malachite Urals. Tempted to write a detailed analysis of each, suffice to mention the two C-minors opening and closing the sets. The first, III – mystifyingly withheld by Rachmaninov (he used part of it in the Fourth Piano Concerto) and not published until 1948, in the Soviet Union – is an august canvas of grave colours, ravishing to the point of utter heart-break when the music changes to the major. The second, VII, deals in “funeral march ... fine, incessant and forlorn” rain, and “church bells” (Rachmaninov writing to Respighi in 1930, the latter orchestrating five of them). Through a variety of attacks, dynamics and pedalling, Osborne paints an expansive landscape, rising to a lofty clamour of basilica chimes, each icily voiced.
Elsewhere, in something like the posthumously issued D-minor, Opus 33/5, or the “fairground” E-flat, Opus 33/7, his firm hand on the reins prevents the pages racing away indiscriminately. In the “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf” A-minor, Opus 39/6 (written originally for the earlier set), he takes a temperamentally different, less 'silent screen' approach from Rachmaninov himself – especially in the integration of the chromatic scale 'wolf' motif – but follows his favoured diminuendo phrasing at the start (1921 piano-roll, 1925 recording), contrary to the rising hairpin of the printed edition. The dynamic control and touch is impeccable. In Opus 33/1 I prefer his coolly considered opening to, for example, Lugansky's – a difficult passage to gauge well, given that so many incline to confuse its current and off-beat chords with bombast. When Rachmaninov writes allegro non troppo/forte/diminuendo, marking only the right-hand melody molto marcato, that's a demanding set of parameters. Unfazed, without fuss or frill, Osborne quietly gets the message across.
With a pedigree Steinway, responsive acoustic, and quality production team on board, here is a reference recording for our time, of noble artistry.