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Hyperion Records

CDA67700 - Rachmaninov: 24 Preludes
Water Lilies (1895) by Isaac Levitan (1860-1900)
Astrakhan State Gallery B M Kostodiev, Astrakhan, Russia / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Recording details: August 2008
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: May 2009
Total duration: 77 minutes 53 seconds


'There are few pianists who offer such range and depth of palette: not even Ashkenazy's seminal reading … this has award-winner written all over it' (Gramophone)

'Outstanding Rachmaninov playing of acute perception, discretion and poetic sensibility, limpid, powerful and luminous in equal measure' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This sensational pianist … brings his technical wizardry and, above all, his penetrating musical intelligence to these much-recorded works of Rachmaninov … in his combination of modesty, inner fire and natural virtuosity he brings to mind that other Rachmaninov master, Ashkenazy' (The Observer)

'Extremely impressive all round … Osborne lavishes a remarkable level of authority on every one of these masterworks, playing with a rare combination of technical ease, tonal lustre and idiomatic identification. He also has the undeniable advantage of a magnificent Steinway instrument with a rich, opulent sonority and great solidity in its bass register … in summary, Osborne goes from strength to strength as he moves through the cycle, wrapping up the final page of the concluding D flat prelude in a blaze of glory … for a truly spellbinding modern account, Osborne now holds the winning ticket' (International Record Review)

'The brilliant Scottish pianist Steven Osborne is unafraid of challenges … he scales the 24 preludes of the great Sergei, and does so with passion and authority … Osborne flies free without ever rampaging. Sorrow and sunlight, death and life, all Rachmaninov is here, in three dimensions, luscious colour and widescreen. A most exciting release' (The Times)

'Osborne is perhaps the most convincing since Vladimir Ashkenazy … his dazzling technique illuminates the virtuosic allegro and allegretto sections, and his playing has a Rachmaninovian pliancy and beautifully achieved rubato in lyrical passages. One of the piano discs of the year' (The Sunday Times)

'The velvet tone with which Osborne caresses the tendrils of the melody at the beginning of Op 23/6, the stunning clarity of the gesture in Op 32/6 and the fingerwork in Op 32/8, the gloriously saturated climax of Op 31/13 … the subtly of color and his unerring control of phrasing and dynamics over long musical spans, the lyricism never turns saccharine, the introspection never turns to self-pity, and the melancholy never glowering … Osborne is arguably at the top of the list' (Fanfare, USA)

'This astonishingly good full set recording … Osborne's musicality is exquisite, addictive and sensational. This is a disc you'll want to listen to over and over again' (The Scotsman)

'Refreshingly personal and intimate … Osborne reveals that many of the preludes exploit a siciliano rhythmic pulse … [his] slow first pages, visceral acceleration, and old-castle carillon will haunt your musical memory for a long time' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'This is an absolutely superb disc, one of the very finest integral sets of these works I have ever heard. Osborne's playing is magnificent throughout … this issue simply has to go to the top of the recommended list' (Musical Opinion)

'Rachmaninoff's piano preludes are exercises in grand keyboard virtuosity but it's the rare pianist who can bring out the limpid grace and emotional transparency behind those flurries of notes. Steven Osborne is such an artist, as this ravishingly beautiful new disc demonstrates … the results are magnificent' (San Francisco Chronicle)

'Steven Osborne meets the considerable pianistic demands of Rachmaninov's Preludes with effortless aplomb and elegant, world-class mastery … collectors seeking the best combination of sound and interpretation will gain long-lasting satisfaction from Osborne's formidable achievement' (Listen, USA)

24 Preludes

‘A catalogue of revelations on how the Russian composer’s piano music should sound … one of the finest performances I’ve ever heard from the Scottish pianist—Osborne presented a textbook demonstration of clarity of thought and purpose … a philosophy which banished notions of Rachmaninov’s music as turgid, densely textured emotional upheaval in sonic form. This was so clear it had a rare purity, wholly refreshing the music in all its parts’ (The Glasgow Herald) ‘Textures that on the page look impossibly convoluted emerged wonderously clear, fluent and beauteous’ (Financial Times)

Steven Osborne’s live performances of Rachmaninov’s preludes were greeted ecstatically by critics and audience alike: a new benchmark for performances of these works, and a new departure for this most subtle and sensitive of pianists. Now Steven has committed the complete cycle to disc—a surprisingly rare recording venture in itself. His matchless musicianship has rarely been so blazingly evident as it is here. Also apparent is his deeply individual relationship with the repertoire. This is a disc to treasure.

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'Bach: Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 2 – Ferruccio Busoni' (CDA67324)
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MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 20-bit 44.1 kHz £8.50ALAC 20-bit 44.1 kHz £8.50 CDA67565  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the piano prelude was a firmly established genre, whether attached to a fugue in the Baroque manner (Mendelssohn, Liszt and Brahms) or more often free-standing, with the option of extending to a group of twenty-four in all the major and minor keys after the peerless model of Chopin’s Op 28 (Heller, Scriabin and Busoni, or the twenty-five of Alkan and César Cui). By common consent the prelude was a short, non-programmatic work, not conspicuously attached to dance idioms or any other predominant mood, and therefore allowing the performer and listener considerable latitude for interpretation. In function preludes could range from elegant calling cards for presenting at private soirées, all the way to barnstorming encores for prestigious recitals.

Rachmaninov’s twenty-four preludes are mainly of the latter type. They make optimal use of the full-size, industrial-strength concert grand, enabling it to fill all but the largest concert hall with an illusion of orchestral impact. Striking though their opening bars often are, many have reserves of textural amplitude that are gradually released, to breathtaking effect. Even the greatest virtuoso has to rise to their double challenges of athleticism and poetry, and they are equally well adapted to the gladiatorial arenas of conservatoire recitals and international competitions.

Where Scriabin’s twenty-four Preludes Op 11 are highly Chopinesque and hardly ever exceed two pages, Rachmaninov’s are equally indebted to Liszt and are generally at least twice as long; when Chopin comes to mind, it is as much the display element of his Studies as the intimacy of his Preludes that is recalled. And while the later Scriabin Preludes tend to be vaporous and mystical, Rachmaninov’s are almost entirely in the realms of emotional confession, exploring the poetics of heroic struggle and longing.

The C sharp minor Prelude sets out these qualities in terms that are hard to mistake. Composed in the autumn of 1892 by a proud recipient of the coveted Gold medal from his Moscow Conservatory graduation and of a publishing contract with the firm of Gutheil, this piece soon captured the imagination of audiences, especially in Britain and the USA. There it became a more or less compulsory feature—generally as an encore—of every Rachmaninov recital, from his London debut in 1899 until his last appearances in the year of his death. The reasons for its phenomenal popularity are not hard to find. Its Lisztian evocation of bells commands attention, while the pauses and layered textures give time for the ear to savour the overtone mixtures of superimposed chords. This gift for deriving maximum effect from minimum substance (a feature of Rachmaninov’s music that some early critics were quick to castigate) proved irresistible to audiences, many of whom found they could also recreate at least the basic effect on their own piano at home.

Rachmaninov had to live with the fact that he had taken a one-off fee for the C sharp minor Prelude, with no international copyright protection. So its countless arrangements and re-publications brought him no financial reward. Yet even when jazz versions began to appear, he could listen to them with enjoyment. And when a lady admirer sent him a postcard asking whether the piece was meant to describe ‘the agonies of a man having been nailed down in a coffin while still alive’, he chose not to disillusion her. Whatever associations the piece may have had for the composer, it would not be the quintessential Rachmaninov experience it is without the emotional tussle of its more lyrical middle section, cut off in its prime by the return of the ‘bells’, which thereby confirm their role as symbols of Fate.

Ten years on, Rachmaninov returned to the genre, once again in a mood of creative elation, having recently overcome two years of writers’ block to produce his Piano Concerto No 2. The harmonic and pianistic idiom of that work is strongly reflected in the collection of ten Preludes that make up his Op 23, composed between 1901 and 1903 (beginning with the famous G minor, No 5). If Rachmaninov needed emotional fuel for the soul-states explored in this set, he could have found it easily enough in his own past—in the joys of his privileged upbringing and especially the trauma of being twice uprooted from it (once thanks to the spendthrift habits of his father, then owing to failure in all his exams through laziness). The product of those elements was an intense nostalgia. At the same time, however, he had been building up one of the most formidable piano techniques of his day, thanks to the forcing-house regime of Nikolai Zverev and later the guidance of Rachmaninov’s cousin, the Liszt-pupil Alexander Siloti. And despite a certain reluctance to do his homework, he seems somehow to have acquired equally solid skills as a composer from his lessons with Sergei Taneyev, the greatest Russian master of counterpoint (as Tchaikovsky accurately described him). He was therefore able to fashion textures of maximal grandeur and opulence without resort to facile effect-mongering.

The opening Preludes of Op 23 establish three archetypes for the entire set. The sighing motifs of the slow F sharp minor, No 1, define a tone of melancholy introspection, while the florid arpeggios, indomitable chords and luxuriant final cascades of the fast B flat major, No 2, are redolent of a determination to master any adversity; No 3 in D minor, Tempo di minuetto, mediates between the extremes, its centre of gravity being a restrained neo-classicism that can shade into introversion or extroversion at will. The template established in these three opening Preludes is followed by the next four. No 4 is a Schumannesque song without words (compare the second of Schumann’s Romanzen Op 28), while the famous G minor Alla marcia frames melting lyricism with militant energy; the neo-Baroque phase then has to wait while the sighing lyrical E flat Prelude once again demonstrates Rachmaninov’s mastery of decorative accompaniment. When the maximalized Bachian toccata style of the C minor Prelude No 7 arrives, it does so as a tour de force. The last three Preludes in the Op 23 set are anything but anticlimactic. The A flat major No 8 sticks to its right-hand figuration as tenaciously, yet as resourcefully, as a Chopin Study, while the double notes of the Presto E flat minor are an earthier reincarnation of Liszt’s Feux follets (Will-o’-the-wisps) from the Transcendental Studies. Finally the slow G flat major avoids applause-orientated strategies and instead modestly closes the frame of the opus, reworking the sighs of the opening F sharp minor Prelude.

Unlike Chopin, Scriabin and even Shostakovich, Rachmaninov does not order his preludes systematically by keys. In fact it is not even clear precisely when he determined that he would complete a cycle of twenty-four, though he had evidently decided on that path when he came to compose the thirteen Preludes of his Op 32 in 1910. This was directly after his Piano Concerto No 3 (as before, there is a certain amount of overlap with the pianistic idiom of that work). Yet there are enough informal tonal relationships between consecutive Preludes—especially in the Op 32 collection, where eight of the preludes are paired by opposite modes—and enough variety in the succession of tempi and moods, to make performance of each set, or even of all twenty-four Preludes, as a unit a realistic option for any pianist intrepid enough to take it.

The C major finger-loosener often placed at the outset of such a cycle now appears as a launch-pad for the Op 32 Preludes. This one is not as ferociously sky-rocketing as its counterpart in Liszt’s Transcendentals, but it certainly issues a challenge, not least by proposing rising motifs as a counter-balance to Rachmaninov’s habitual dying falls. A neoclassical archetype not yet explored is the swaying siciliano rhythm, which now becomes the guiding thread through the B flat minor Prelude, No 2, a piece built on two waves of acceleration, neither of which succeeds in shaking off a fundamental melancholy or in avoiding a conclusion in a mood of stoical resignation.

The Allegro vivace E major Prelude does break free, however, in another neo-Bachian aerobic workout, almost like an updated solo version of a Brandenburg Concerto. There is even, perhaps, the ghost of gigue behind its shadowy successor, the E minor Prelude No 4, whose contrasting sigh figures are eventually given their due in a languorous central section. With the rocking motion and ecstatic, flowering melody of the G major No 5 we gain the first glimpse in the Op 32 set of consoling lyricism. At the opposite extreme, the turbulent F minor is full of wrathful passion. The nearest Rachmaninov comes to cheery playfulness in any of his Preludes is the almost genial F major, No 7. Pre-figuring the Étude-tableau from Op 39 in the same key, the A minor Prelude No 8 is implacably driven, as if with the wind at its back and the rain swirling round it. A further switch to the opposite mode for No 9 brings another luxuriant tapestry woven from the thread of a sighing motif. Then come two more siciliano-based pieces, the slow B minor Prelude, No 10, with its pulverizing contrasting section, and the faster, more restrained B major Prelude.

The G sharp minor Prelude, No 12, is the last favourite encore piece in the set, its harp-like figurations running like water down the window-panes of a Russian dacha. Finally the D flat major Prelude once again closes a frame, this time harking right back to the infamous C sharp minor of Op 3; it also has a certain summative quality, thanks to its inclusion of siciliano rhythms, sighing motifs, étude figurations, an accelerating middle section and a ringing chordal apotheosis. As if to trademark his piano idiom, Rachmaninov here concludes with a piece that demands a formidable hand-stretch, of the kind he almost uniquely possessed.

David Fanning © 2009

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