Rachmaninov: Etudes-tableaux (Hyperion)
★★★★ (out of five)
I need to declare an interest. I have described Steven Osborne elsewhere as the most interesting British pianist of his generation, a declaration which practically precludes me from reviewing his recordings, predisposed as I am to praise them. It’s a dilemma which I try to resolve by listening to everything that Osborne does and allowing at least a year to elapse between one enthusiastic review and the next. You’ve no idea how taxing this can be.
That said, I am happily immersed in the two Rachmaninov sets of piano sketches, written in 1911 and 1916 and apparently not intended for public performance. Rachmaninov liked to work ideas for symphonies out at the piano before proceeding to full score. Only when he found himself yearning in exile for the Russian scenes he depicts did he start performing the Etudes in recital and attach names to some of the pieces.
What I like best about this performance is Osborne’s ruminative approach. Each little gem sounds like the composer at the piano, testing a theme for possibilities, giving it alternate measures of lightness and weight, and then setting it aside to tinker with another passing thought. There is neither ego nor assertion in this account. It is exploratory, improvisatory, analytical, self-critical. The famous G-minor Etude is subjected to pathological scrutiny and a faint grimace of distaste. In the lugubrious C-minor, you can almost hear Osborne telling the composer to man up and stop feeling so sorry for himself. He’s my kind of pianist.