Review: Rachmaninov – The Complete Preludes

The music of Rachmaninov has found a passionate advocate with the pianist Leon McCawley in these thrilling performances.

Rachmaninov is one of those composers whose legacy over the years has been damned with faint praise. Variously described as a “great minor composer” or a “minor great composer” (take your pick), it seems that his advocates are still reeling from the condescending assessment of Eric Blom in the 1954 edition of the musician’s bible Groves’ Dictionary of Music and Musicians in which he stated that Rachmanov’s music consists of “artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios.”

This assessment does seems particularly harsh when reflecting on his 24 preludes; for in these pieces Rachmaninov developed an unmistakeable musical language as distinctive as that of Chopin, Schumann, Debussy or Bartok. Anyone who doubts this should immediately go out and buy this album for his music has found a passionate advocate with the pianist Leon McCawley in these thrilling performances.

That Rachmaninov’s piano music is difficult and beyond the reach of most amateur pianists is perhaps stating the obvious. (I have two pristine scores of the preludes, spoilt only by a few markings I bravely made – once). With a lyrical expression grounded in the tradition of Borodin and Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov’s pianistic style was undoubtedly inspired by the highly influential (but largely forgotten) composer and teacher Adolph von Henselt (1819 – 1889) who was active in Russia. Henselt’s style is characterised by a constant and dynamic interplay between both hands and with an especially well developed (and tricky!) left hand part. Along with Henselt’s penchant for sombre and almost painful melodies, Rachmaninov takes this mode of expression to new heights in his own dazzling compositions.

Rachmaninov composed his 24 preludes in all the major and minor keys, starting with the early C sharp minor prelude (op 3 no 2) which made him famous. The later two sets of preludes (op 23, op 32) are no less striking, the differences between the two possibly reflecting the circumstances under which they were written. The op 32 set was composed over a few weeks and is the more confident with a more unified feel and (at times) colossal sound. The op 23 set, on the other hand, is more loosely constructed but with a greater variety. Rachmaninov avoids writing elaborate “songs without words”; in spite of the frequent interplay between the hands in both sets,  the rhythmical patterns assume a greater importance as if to emphasise that he was not simply a purveyor of “aimlessly meandering romantic melodies.”

This album starts with the renowned C-sharp minor prelude, op 3 no 2. The hammer blows which announce the work are one of the most instantly recognisable openings in all classical music and McCawley makes you sit up with a bold but measured account of this perennial favourite. He also wisely avoids the temptation to wallow in the sound which would otherwise make the music sound like a slog. (Interestingly, the pianist Raymond Lewenthal once pointed out that Henselt had used the same opening motif for the beginning of his own, but rarely-performed, Piano Concerto in F minor).

McCawley navigates the technical and interpretive demands of the op 23 preludes with great aplomb and some of his accounts stand out. He gives a barnstorming performance of the defiant second prelude which in his hands sounds like an extended, exuberant fanfare. The famous fifth prelude bristles with a spiky military pomp and contains a beautifully measured central section with hushed, rippling arpeggios and an exquisite, unhurried interplay of voices. The meandering left hand in the sixth prelude is quite hypnotic against a rather severe melody in the right hand (we are clearly here in the territory of his piano concertos). And among the preludes which most resemble studies, the brooding seventh prelude contains rapid, delicate and crystalline finger work which builds to a breathtaking climax.

In the harmonically more daring op 32 set there is plenty to admire. I particularly liked McCawley’s bravura performance of the programmatic fourth prelude in which a Beethovenian military scherzo builds to a phenomenal climax. Was Rachmaninov trying to outdo Alkan with those crashing, full-fisted chords? No matter, McCawley sails through the piece. Equally compelling is his account of the great tenth prelude in B minor, a sombre work in which McCawley brings out the full sonorities of the piano in a sustained peroration of great power. And if that wasn’t enough, for the final hymn-like prelude, in which Rachmaninov seems to recapitulate what has gone before, McCawley rounds off the album with blistering display of virtuosity, leaving you aching for more. Bravo!

The performances are matched with a fine recorded sound and the album contains informative notes on the music.

Performance: 5 stars
Recording: 5 stars


Kevin Painting

Published 25 April 2016 on primephonic.


Rachmaninoff: The Complete Preludes
Leon McCawley, piano.
SOMM Recordings. SOMMCD0143
Release date: 25 March 2016.