C sharp minor, Op.3/2
10 Preludes, Op.23
13 Preludes, Op.32
Steven Osborne (piano)
Recorded 7 & 8 and 20 & 21 August 2008 in Henry Wood Hall, London
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: May 2009
CD No: HYPERION CDA67700
Duration: 78 minutes
Steven Osborne makes a commanding beginning to his survey of Rachmaninov’s 24 Preludes; his weighty and searching account of the famous example in C sharp minor aims at the music’s soul rather than its public appeal; Osborne also catches the music’s volatility with a degree of spontaneity that transcends the rigours of a recording session, and he is blessed with immediate and dynamic sound quality.
In the remaining 23 Preludes – the iceberg itself (although the analogy is at the extreme to music so passionate and personally revealing) – Osborne disdains a showy approach to reveal the character of these pieces, each of which might be short but every one has immense outreach and with expression not commensurate to brevity. The storming B flat (Opus 23/Number 2) is heroically played but is not made a showstopper (there is dignity, an emotional underbelly present, too) and a yielding into less-tempestuous waters that reminds of Rachmaninov’s ability to retain intense expression while ‘loosening’.
Osborne makes each Prelude a distinct world, and if, on occasions, something a little more Slavonic, something more subterranean in its lugubriousness might be wanted, his achievement is to make one listen afresh to familiar music without finding novelty for its own sake. One particular highlight is the D major Prelude (Opus 23/Number 4), its endless melody wonderfully captured here and with a sense of expectation that is rapturous in both anticipation and delivery (Osborne’s conviction is at its most noticeable in his intake of breath at just before the one-minute mark – something I am pleased that producer Andrew Keener left in; it ‘makes’ the performance). The march-rhythm of the next Prelude (the well-known G minor) is steady and ineluctable, the ‘melting’ to the ‘trio’ another beautifully timed ‘escape’.
Elsewhere, Osborne’s heart, intellect and technique have a persuasion that sustains the most demanding of these pieces, not least the pianist’s clarity when keeping tune and ornamentation separate yet entwined. The last Prelude (G flat) of Opus 23 has particular poetic resonance, and in Opus 32, edgier and more elusive for the most part (the impressionistic G major aside, which is particularly picturesque here), Osborne doesn’t lose sight of Rachmaninov’s sense of musical biography, for here the pieces remain as revealing of the man as well as being perceptive and illuminating versions of the music itself with a real sense of ‘journey’s end’, salvation even, albeit with some trauma midway, when the D flat Prelude is reached. Recommended with enthusiasm!