Steven Osborne tells us that in preparing this recording he was struck “by the enormous scope of these preludes. What other collection of pieces manages to create so many utterly distinct and compelling worlds?” Indeed, their sheer variety of feeling all but overwhelms the reviewer by the time the closing “Feux d’artifice” has exploded dazzlingly into cascades of light and then fizzed into silence. But Osborne has prepared well, and every prelude glows, always rich in atmosphere.
The opening “Danseuses de Delphes” has a commandingly grave serenity and “Voiles” floats effortlessly. Yet “Les collines d’Anacapri” dances with sparkling rhythmic vitality and “La danse de Puck” is deliciously capricious. Osborne’s delicacy of feeling (and texture) is at its most magical in the soft footfalls “sur la neige”, although “Feuilles mortes” has similar moments of evocative quietness. The unpredictability of “Le vent dans la plaine” is matched by the simulated violence of “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest”, and the thrilling climax of “La cathédrale engloutie” has rich depth and sonority. By contrast, “La fille aux cheveux de lin” has a ravishing simplicity, without sentimentalising. “S Pickwick” brings a momentary smile but his eccentricity is banished by the calm of “Canope” and the joyful virtuosity of “Les tièrces alternées”.
Osborne’s virtuosity is never for its own sake and always reflects the music’s spirit. The obvious comparison is with Zimerman’s stunningly vivid recording (DG, 3/94); but his extraordinarily brilliant playing is at times almost over-projected and I found Osborne’s natural spontaneity and powerful conveying of inner feeling every bit as telling – less intense but deeply satisfying. The Hyperion recording is very realistic and Roger Nichols’s perceptively detailed notes are revealing. Highly recommended.