The task of choosing a recording of Rachmaninoff's Preludes would have been much simplified had Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatoslav Richter (or the composer himself) thought to record the complete set instead of selected examples scattered over long careers. Richter came the closest: his studio recording from the 1970's (first released in the West on EMI/Melodiya) includes six preludes from Op. 23 and seven from Op. 32. It is, in every respect, one of the great piano recordings and belongs in any collection of the composer's music. Alternately dashing and brooding, Richter has never been as compelling, as riveting as he is here.
For want of a better alternative, I suspect, critics have consistently chosen Vladimir Ashkenazy's 1975 Decca recording of the complete set as their default recommendation. Alas, I've never been a big fan of the pianist. It's always seemed to me that Ashkenazy's early promise — he was the youngest member of the first wave of Soviet pianists that also included Gilels and Richter — was betrayed by too many high profile, but essentially lackluster performances. In the Preludes, Ashkenazy's formidable technical abilities are never in doubt, but his interpretive approach is generalized and — the one thing you never want to be in Rachmaninoff — coolly objective. It doesn't help that here the Decca engineers have too closely recorded the piano producing a clangorous sound that is wearying to listen to.
Steven Osborne, a young Scottish pianist who has been very selective in his choice of repertory, now corrects this situation with a recording of the complete Preludes that can be recommended wholeheartedly and without hesitation. In a recent Gramophone interview, Osborne claimed that his decision to record the complete Preludes was the result of an obsession with Rachmaninoff's music that came upon him suddenly, "out of nowhere." Not surprisingly, Osborne's take on the composer's music is singularly Romantic: "With Rachmaninoff, it's as if he's without a skin in the way he composes; there's clearly structure there, but his first instinct is simply to pour out what is in his heart."
Accordingly, Osborne's performances are deeply felt and intimate. Compared with Richter's monumental and idiomatically Russian approach, Osborne is less turbulent and brooding. There's an unaffected, improvisatory feel to these performances that makes them sound intensely youthful. In the early, more inward Op. 23 Preludes, he gives each piece its own distinct character, its own expressive shading. The B-flat Major prelude is both urgent and flowing at a tempo slightly more expansive than Richter's. In the lovely D Major, Osborne allows the soulful theme to develop at a leisurely pace that accentuates Rachmaninoff's plaintive embellishments. In the more extroverted, volatile music of Op. 32, Osborne is appropriately urgent and impulsive.
I was surprised to read (in the same interview I referred to earlier) that Osborne considers the shape of his hands to be wrong for Rachmaninoff. You'd never know it from the performances. Given the finger-busting complexity of their kaleidoscopic demands---each prelude presents a different technical challenge from the one that precedes or follows it---these works are as consistently difficult as anything in the solo piano repertory. Osborne plays them with an authority, a purity of expression, and an honesty that is both luminous and self-effacing. Just about every pianist has had a go at the famous C sharp minor prelude, but Osborne's intensely concentrated, dramatic performance makes it sound newly minted.
I've praised Hyperion's piano sound in the past, but they've outdone themselves here. Recording engineer David Hinitt has captured the transparency and warmth of Osborne's Steinway Grand with a realism and intimacy that sounds incredibly state-of-the-art. Close your eyes, and it's hard to shake the illusion that Osborne's living presence is right there in your listening room. Anyone looking for a demonstration quality piano recording need look no further.
Reviewing this disc, NPR critic Lloyd Schwartz claimed that Osborne had restored Rachmaninoff's Preludes to their first innocence. It's hard to argue with that. Certainly this is Rachmaninoff without the heavy breathing. But Osborne has also accomplished something else very special here. His performances make a compelling and convincing case that Rachmaninoff's Preludes belong in the same company with Chopin's and Debussy's. What greater compliment could a pianist pay the composer than that? Needless to say, this disc wins my highest and most enthusiastic recommendation