Roy Westbrook
MusicWeb International
August 2022

Stephen Osborne has recorded much solo Rachmaninov for Hyperion over the last decade or so, encompassing the studies, preludes, Corelli Variations and the Second Sonata. Here the main work is the near 36-minute First Sonata. It is as profound in content as it is large in scale—this befits a work which the composer said related to the Faust legend. Once rather overlooked on disc, it has had a growing number of fine recordings in recent years, and here is another excellent account.

Osborne’s very poetic opening of the Allegro moderato illustrates his narrative intuition. He precisely calculates the dynamics, pedalling and phrasing to suggest a magic casement opening onto a legendary domain. The sound is very natural and warm, the piano well prepared and with a welcome taming of the super-bright treble sometimes associated with a Steinway, at least in some hands. The second subject chant is as restrained in its first appearance as it is mighty and sonorous at its climactic return. The playing in the lovely Lento is initially untroubled in its serene tranquillity, unlike the middle section where the turbulence features some complex counterpoint, very clearly articulated by the pianist, as is much else, right up to the sequence of trills in the coda.

The barnstorming finale is driven and devilish. Osborne keeps the rhythm tight, never sacrificing metrical precision to virtuoso pyrotechnics. Others might display greater abandon here, but Osborne’s focus on cumulative power is just as exciting, maybe even more so. The appearances of themes from earlier movements to act as structural signposts in the finale are tellingly played, so as to serve well both the compelling form of the work and its emotional narrative. A fine First Sonata then, up there with the best such as Lugansky, Hayroudinoff and Berezovsky (the first two offer both of Rachmaninov’s solo sonatas).

The much earlier Moments musicaux are a substantial collection of six pieces, varying from three to seven minutes in length, and sequenced so as to be quite effective when heard straight through. Though they were written as popular and marketable pieces, to recover some funds after a robbery the composer fell victim to, they have more substance than that makes them sound. The opening Andantino is melancholy, as much of the opus is. Osborne evokes that sentiment but never with sentimentality. The third piece, a seven-minute Andante cantabile extends that mood but is still more touching and melodically memorable, with one of the many allusions to the Dies irae in the composer’s output. The swifter second and fourth pieces are despatched with virtuoso aplomb and an ear for the passing details that add so much to this composer’s solo piano music. The penultimate item is a lilting barcarolle. Osborne characterises its watery motion atmospherically, and then rises to the noble grandeur of the closing Maestoso.

Of the three small items from 1917, the Oriental Sketch is the best known, since Rachmaninov himself performed and recorded it (he took 1:44 versus Osborne’s 1:52 in this fizzing toccata). The Prelude in D minor, published only in 1973, is the discovery here, haunting indeed. Marina Frolova-Walker’s excellent booklet note properly mentions Chopin as a model, but really this does not sound much like anyone else, including Rachmaninov!

The composer’s transcription of the Nunc dimittis, the most eloquent passage of his supremely eloquent Vespers, is merely a monochrome portrait of the original, its swaying chords robbed of a Russian choir, its soaring prayer unsung by a Slav tenor. Rachmaninov asked that the original be sung at his funeral, which it was not, so we cannot begrudge its presence as a filler in this splendid recital.