• Rachmaninov wanted his two sets of Etudes-Tableaux, Op 33 (1911) and Op 39 (1916-17), “picture studies”, to bring to mind external stimuli: a picture or poem or landscape. Yet the composer said little about what those stimuli might be. Later, Rachmaninov allowed Ottorino Respighi to orchestrate five of these short piano works, providing him with descriptions so specific (sea and seagulls; scene at a fair; an oriental march), you wonder about the silence concerning the rest. It instils the works with a certain mystery, captured imaginatively and authoritatively by Steven Osborne (on Hyperion). As Rachmaninov said, “a small piece can become as lasting a masterpiece as a large work”. Osborne proves his point.
• Valery Gergiev’s passion for Rachmaninov is evident in his recordings of the three symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra, made from 2008 to 2015. They’re now available as an LSO three-disc box set (with additional Blu-ray disc) that includes the late Symphonic Dances (1940). The early Symphony No 1 (1895), so dismally received at its first performance, sits jubilantly and ambitiously in the Russian tradition, equally as stirring as the popular Second Symphony. The Third is expressive but less gripping.
The LSO brass are on fire in these performances, the strings rugged but precise, the woodwind rising to the demands of Rachmaninov’s voluptuous melodies. Gergiev tightens or relaxes the reins as one who understands this music to the core. Two short works by Mily Balakirev – Tamara and Russia – make up the set, diligently played but pale in comparison.
• A summer distraction: try Piano Puzzler, a mildly addictive, low-key musical quiz podcast in which American composer Bruce Adolphe takes a popular tune and brilliantly transforms it into the style of a great composer. It makes you think hard about what makes music distinctive.