RACHMANINOV Complete Études-tableaux (Osborne)
Before his flight to Scandinavia during the Bolshevik Revolution, Rachmaninov’s last recitals in Russia included some of the Op 39 Études-tableaux. One St Petersburg critic wrote: ‘In the Études, Rachmaninov appears in a new light. The soft lyricist begins to employ a more severe, concentrated and deepened mode of expression’; while a Moscow critic concluded: ‘Who among Russian pianists is the strongest, most radiant? For me, the choice is clear: Rachmaninov.’ So from the beginning, it would seem, the new compositional directions and attitudes inherent in the Études-tableaux were apparent.
Steven Osborne’s thrilling new recording leaves no doubt of the Études’ unique position in Rachmaninov’s oeuvre. As brilliant as Osborne’s execution is throughout, it is his freshness of conception that, for me, is most striking. Naturally, every agogic, dynamic and tempo indication is scrupulously observed. On that firm foundation Osborne layers his inerrant rhythmic sense, chaste rubato, his seemingly infinite dynamic palette and, above all, his beautifully sculpted singing line.
In the more poetic Études – Op 33 Nos 2 and 7, Op 39 Nos 2 and 8 among them – melodies sing unimpeded by sentimentality or over-indulgent rubato. After establishing several planes of aural activity in Op 33 No 3, arrival at the Meno mosso occurs within a hushed ppp that is positively breathtaking in its ethereal beauty. Probably no composer was more obsessed with the sounds of bells than Rachmaninov. Their evocation here is fascinatingly varied: distant tolls in Op 33 No 4, tocsins in Op 39 No 3 and festive peals in Op 33 No 6. The desperate flights of Op 33 No 5 and Op 39 No 1 are as frantically driven as anything in Chopin. Two mini-epics stand out. The implacable force of Op 33 No 8, bordering on violence, takes no quarter and brooks no expressive compromise. And the most famous of the set, the E flat minor, Op 39 No 5, stands as a model of pacing. Its shapely melody soars mightily above (and below) thick chordal textures, evoking a vast battlefield where, for once, the pianist isn’t among the casualties.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Osborne, the past master of the French Impressionists, should bring us so singular a Rachmaninov, at once architecturally magnificent and abundant in rich detail. These interpretations, with shadows of ambiguity, foreboding akin to terror and a profound, tender regret, anchor this music incontrovertibly in its historical moment: the waning of the Russian Silver Age. Rachmaninov fans won’t want to miss this; nor will connoisseurs of intelligent, meaningful piano-playing.