RACHMANINOV (24) Preludes
At a recent London exhibition of the work of New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg the highlight was a remarkable 10 metre-long drawing where he literally took a line not simply for a walk but on a round-the-world trip; it was an illuminating and compelling adventure. I had a comparable aural experience listening to Steven Osborne’s Rachmaninov Preludes. It’s all too easy to coarsen Rachmaninov’s melodic genius with an overtly applied emotionalism, its clearly drawn lines becoming smudged. But Osborne conveys both the monumentality of these pieces, even the most fleeting, and their very human qualities. It’s rare to find the balance so acutely achieved – with Ashkenazy, Donohoe and Richter tending more towards the former, Lympany and Shelley (Hyperion) towards the latter. The composer himself, of course, knew how to achieve that equilibrium, but then he had a head start.
Yet this is only a starting-point – the detail is equally delectable: the way that Osborne shapes the tear-stained melody of Op 23 No 4, for instance, and picks out the line from the dark, bustling figuration of Op 23 No 7 or the left-hand countermelody of Op 23 No 8. Then, in the Op 32 set, there’s the simplicity of the second, with its incessant tolling around the note C, through to the meditative quality of No 10, the line rising out of the depths as sonorously as Debussy’s cathedral. Another fascination is the way Osborne’s range of touch puts the Preludes into such a clear historical context – from the hints of Chopin in the étude-like Op 23 No 9 and the floating roulades at the end of Op 32 No 5, forward to the motoric rhythms of Prokofiev’s keyboard-writing in Op 32 No 1, and Ravel’s Gaspard in the Scarbo-esque overtones of Op 32 No 6.
Osborne throws down the gauntlet with a towering C sharp minor Prelude: it’s arguably too slow but makes an apt curtain-raiser on a set that glories in the magnificence of this music. And while there’s no empty barnstorming on display here, that’s not to say the technical challenges are shirked or underplayed in any way. There are few pianists who offer such range and depth of palette: not even Ashkenazy’s seminal reading.
So where does this new version fit in? Well, no one can compete with the composer, especially in Op 32 No 12, and Richter, similarly, is irresistible, but of the complete sets, only Ashkenazy and, perhaps, the third of the Lympany recordings (now on Apex) offer serious competition. This has award-winner written all over it.