Steven Osborne extends his prodigious gifts into the two sets of Etudes-Tableaux of Rachmaninov.

Rachmaninov: Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33 and Op. 39 – Steven Osborne, piano – Hyperion CDA68188, 61:39 (7/27/18) [Distr. Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

When Rachmaninov composed his first set of Etudes-Tableaux in 1911, he still felt the influences of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, especially in their mastery of small forms that could convey, as Schumann remarked, “the import of whole symphonies.” In his 1930 letter to composer Ottorino Respighi, who intended to orchestrate several of the pieces, Rachmaninov admitted as to having some “program” in mind, but he wished the public to “listen to the music absolutely.”  Originally, Rachmaninov composed nine of such tonal-pictures, but he would withdraw three of them: the C Minor would furnish material for his future G Minor Concerto; No. 5 in D Minor would appear posthumously in 1948; the A Minor became transposed to the Op. 39 set of 1917 as No. 6.

Even with the forthright opening of No. 1 in F minor, Osborne projects its resolute affect akin to aspects of Chopin, its martial gait and pianistic confidence, marked alternately by diaphanous clouds and Russian bells. The ensuing C Major proffers a nocturne, whose right-hand melody soars much in the style of the equally lovely Op. 32, No. 12 Prelude. The No. 3 in C minor presents a grave elegy in a relatively large canvas. Its middle section, sad and wistful in C Major, Osborne makes heart-breaking. The D minor (No. 5, replacing the transposed No. 4), Moderato, moves staccato, in the manner of a brilliant touch etude, set to a Russian, funereal gait. A study in audacious harmony and metrics, the No. 6 in E-flat minor benefits from long study of Liszt’s complicated figurations, cross-fertilized by Scriabin. A healthy, vigorous optimism saturates No. 7 in E-flat Major, “a scene at the fair,” which Osborne plays with relish. The next, in G minor, presents a lyrical nocturne possessing two cadenzas. The “melting” chords mix with baritone and bass harmonies to produce a voluptuous song. The ambiguities of major and minor harmonies mark the last, the C-sharp minor Etude, for a boldly declamatory piece that exudes both tragedy and triumph, a virtual “symphonic poem” for the keyboard.

Portrait of Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninov

The second set of Etudes-Tableaux indicates a deepening of Rachmaninov’s harmony, and the pieces are generally longer than those from Op. 33. It would difficult find the “poetry” of No. 1 in C minor, a driving etude with monster spans and demands for the player. Osborne negotiates the repeated chords with colossal security. Tragic in tone, the Etude in A minor, Lento assai, says Rachmaninov, depicts “the sea and seagulls.” But the main tune in the course of this extended study becomes the ubiquitous Dies Irae chant in increased, thundering tones. Agogic shifts mark the F-sharp minor, since the triplets move in irregular beats. The unsettling, brilliant sensibility of the piece allies it much to Scriabin. The D Major/B minor Etude offers no time signatures; instead, it demands a martial tempo in staccato chords and repeated notes in delicate textures. The No. 5 in E-flat minor again displays Rachmaninov’s capacity to create an epic in condensed form. Marked Appassionato, the piece moves in tremolo triplets and later via a theme stated in broad arpgeggios. Its fervent emotional tenor corresponds to the famous D-sharp Minor Etude of Scriabin. Rachmaninov claimed “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf” as “visual” inspiration for No. 6 in A minor. Exciting in its sixteenth notes and staccato chords, the piece makes as effective a vehicle for Osborne as it had for my first “acolyte” into its brazen charms, Beveridge Webster.

No. 7 in C minor, Lento lugubre, develops slowly into a huge elegy, moving from descending thirds, lamentoso, to a martial section, building to a potent climax in furious church bells and then relenting into quietude. We wonder if the Chopin Op. 60 Barcarolle does not inspire much of the lovely No. 8 in D minor Etude, Allegro moderato. The melodic interest maintains itself through a repeated motive, but it seems spare when compared to the supporting harmonies around it. The melody returns at the end, staccato. The last of the two sets is marked Tempo di marcia, D major, Allegro moderato. Its syntax and affect resembles the lat prelude from Op. 32, likewise recasting material heard earlier in the set. Declamatory and pompous, the piece exploits the purely percussive quality of the keyboard, here, Osborne’s brilliant Steinway, recorded with lush resonance by Recording Producer Andrew Keener.

—Gary Lemco