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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Études-Tableaux, Op 33 (1911) [23:29]
Études-Tableaux. Op 39 (1916-17) [38:10]
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec 2017, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
HYPERION CDA68188 [61:39]

Are Rachmaninov’s two sets of Études-Tableaux simply descriptive ‘picture postcards’, or do they plough some deeper emotional or philosophical furrow? That is one of the questions posed by Geoffrey Norris’s insightful essay accompanying this Hyperion disc, and it is especially pertinent here, as Steven Osborne delivers a poised, ruminative, almost exploratory account of these puzzling, frequently volatile pieces. My colleague Roy Westbrook has already provided a fastidious and glowing review of this disc for these pages, and I can only amplify his enthusiasm, and in doing so perhaps identify some personal highlights.

The earlier set from 1911 is generally seen to be more straightforward, from both an execution and listening perspective, given the mostly shorter durations of individual pieces. But I certainly sense that Osborne plumbs even greater depths in them than did Boris Giltburg in his fine account released last year (review) on Naxos (8.573629). In the initial brisk march of Op 33 No 1 for example, the Scot’s strong but never aggressive playing somehow retains sufficient dignity to cohere most elegantly with the piece’s resigned conclusion. Its rhythmic complexity often results in accounts which tend toward bombast, a characteristic which Giltburg does not completely avoid. The word ‘miniature’ will never apply to the extraordinary Op 33 No 3 C minor piece which the composer withdrew from the original set. Here Osborne finds a profundity which borders on the symphonic, achieved through a masterly control of dynamics and pacing. Giltburg certainly exults in its fragrant beauty but his reading, fine as it is, lacks, in my view the more open-minded sense of fantasy conveyed by Osborne. This could also, of course, have something to do with the sound of Osborne’s Steinway which is expertly managed (as always) by Andrew Keener. On the other hand Giltburg’s Fazioli certainly presents a striking impact – possibly to an excessive degree when heard alongside the new disc. (Interestingly the Naxos issue is also Keener-produced). Similarly, the dynamic contrasts in the pair of brief E flat minor and major pieces (Op 33 Nos 6 and 7) might seem a little over-cooked in Giltburg’s impressively virtuosic accounts; to my ears Osborne’s projections are ultimately more subtle and no less brilliantly played; in Op 33 No 7 in fact the fairground spirit is thrillingly conveyed. Osborne’s improvisatory freshness is possibly even more telling in Op 33 no 8, possibly the least attention-seeking of all these pieces.

Five years on and the second set of these jewels seems to find the composer pursuing as musically experimental a path as he ever would; soon after the Revolution he would leave Russia for good and once in America he would compose little for solo piano beyond the Corelli Variations (and the 1931 revision of the second sonata). Norris refers to an interview Rachmaninov gave in 1941 in which he stated “I myself could never care to write in a radical vein which disregards the laws of tonality and harmony….”; the Op 39 set is perhaps as radical as it gets. Notwithstanding this, in early 1930 he did apparently provide Respighi with some clues about the extra-musical inspirations of four of the Op 39 set (the Italian would orchestrate five of the Études-Tableaux in all) Thus in the A minor ‘seascape’ of Op 39 No 2 Osborne’s skill as a tone painter, honed in the past in exceptional recordings of Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen emerges in as marine an evocation of this lonely, rather desolate piece as I have ever encountered. Again the pacing is immaculate. Norris maintains that the more detailed narrative Rachmaninov provided for the C minor Lento lugubre funeral march of Op 39 No 7 is traceable in the music, and so it proves in Osborne’s hands. The piece becomes a seven and a half minute symphonic poem with its weary tread, distant orthodox choir, ‘rain’ music and the inevitable great tolling bells as it approaches its final bars and oddly throwaway ending. The lugubre direction is for once perfectly caught. There is profound concentration and palpable affection in this account. For all of its apparent detail, it remains music of atmosphere and mystery. The famous E flat minor Appassionato, Op 39 No 5, is thrillingly played, with consummately projected inner detail. At no stage do thoughts of over-familiarity intrude.

These moving and deeply considered accounts of Rachmaninov’s elusive Études-Tableaux are outstanding in every way. The disc constitutes an unmissable companion to Osborne’s two previous Hyperion discs of this composer. In an age of great pianists, and more importantly from the perspective of the CD reviewer, when considering great piano recordings, the idea that there’s some sort of league table and that ultimately one pianist is ‘the best’ is, of course, nonsense. But we all have our tastes and prejudices and if there’s one individual pianist whose records I collect as a matter of course it is this man, Steven Osborne. Is critical distance possible when your reviewer is an unabashed admirer? I certainly find it hard to identify an Osborne disc that didn’t at some point move, intrigue or provoke. And yet what emerges most of all, both in the concert hall and on disc, are Osborne’s humility and humanity. He wears his brilliance lightly. Times change – but I hope he never leaves Hyperion. Intuition tells me that label and pianist’s values largely overlap – and one can certainly be sure that Osborne’s live persona emerges utterly unscathed in the safe hands of Andrew Keener’s precision production.

In the event, critical distance is superfluous when faced with Rachmaninov-playing like this. One ends up scratching one’s head trying to figure out how any pianist can seemingly observe each marking on the score with such care on the one hand and sound almost as though they’re playing ‘on the hoof’ on the other. This is an exceptional disc even by Steven Osborne’s impeccable standards. Do not miss it.

Richard Hanlon
Previous review: Roy Westbrook

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