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 Recording of the Week  Rachmaninov Preludes

Rachmaninov is probably one of those composers that you either love or hate. His music is so emotionally charged and speaks so directly to the listener that I suspect some people find this rather daunting and either fear it or dismiss it as being too shallow and self-indulgent. The fact that his music is frequently used in films to portray a moment of tenderness or melancholy obviously doesn’t help this image - the most famous example being his Second Piano Concerto used in the film Brief Encounter, but there are plenty of others.

Steven Osborne
Steven Osborne

Personally, I have a lot of time for his music. I don’t see why being emotionally direct is necessarily a bad thing and only regret that he was so busy during his lifetime as a concert pianist that his output (particularly after he had moved to America in 1918) was really quite limited.

A new recording of his 24 most famous preludes is released today on Hyperion played by Scottish pianist Steven Osborne. It has to be one of Osborne's finest recordings to date and also one of the great recordings of these works ever made, and there have been plenty. It is a huge credit to Hyperion that they were willing to record them at all when they already have another truly outstanding cycle from Howard Shelley in their catalogue.

Rachmaninov’s preludes show how cleverly the composer could turn a tiny melodic or rhythmic fragment into a quite substantial and complex miniature (substantial compared to the preludes of say Chopin). And although admittedly you can probably find stereotypical Rachmaninov moments of longing and inwardness in most of them, they still contain a wide variety of moods and styles, probably more so than in any of his other works.

The other thing to say about them is that they are technically very demanding. As mentioned above, during his lifetime Rachmaninov was primarily a concert pianist (with famously large hands). This means that although in some ways you could argue that they are interpretation-wise relatively straight-forward, this is easily made up for by the sheer difficulty and number of notes that is required to perform them.

Stephen Osborne is well up to the task, and like any truly great pianist makes them sound easy. He also plays with real authority and combines his trademark musical intelligence with both fire and tenderness. It already has a 5-star rating from the BBC Music Magazine and will be an Editors Choice in the next issue of Gramophone. Very highly recommended and I’ve put a few samples for you to listen to below.