Alexis Weissenberg has always been a very controversial artist. Whatever he played - Chopin, Liszt, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Debussy - he never played it in an ordinary way. I was introduced to his artistry by his concerto recordings with Karajan, which include Rachmaninoff's Second, Tchaikovsky's First, and Beethoven's five, and which are somewhat less idiosyncratic than usual with him. Later I heard quite a few of his solo piano recordings, but the truth is that I have never come to grips with Weissenberg. I almost always find his playing fascinating but I almost never really like it. In fact, the relationship is a typical love-hate one, both components being present on almost every single disc, sometimes even in the same work. This is pretty much the case with Weissenberg's complete recording of Rachmaninoff's preludes, alas. I heard it for the first many years ago and was completely appalled by what seemed to me mad rushing and gross insensitivity. Since then I have come back to the CD but a few times, always trying to free myself from my old prejudice, yet I always ended running away horrified. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to explain why the last of my efforts is most probably - the last.
The greatest problem with Alexis' interpretations of Rachmaninoff's preludes is the most obvious one: his tempi are highly unorthodox, usually much faster than anybody else's. What takes Ashkenazy more than 80 minutes, Alexis tosses off in less than 73 minutes, namely full 10% faster - which is a lot. Therefore it is all the more surprising to find here one of the slowest (about 5 min) renditions of the C sharp minor prelude (Op. 3/2). It works remarkably fine indeed, as Weissenberg combines drama and lyricism in a most spectacular manner. His highly uncompromising, not to say savage, approach to the keyboard yields rather fascinating results in some of the most vigorous preludes, most notably in Op. 23/7, Op. 32/6, Op. 32/8 and, above all, in Op. 32/4 whose sweeping climax is brilliantly done. Also impressive is Op. 23/3 which taken at such breakneck tempo acquires a curious streak of mockery and burlesque, reminding us that the generally dour and brooding Rachmaninoff actually had a fine sense of humour. However, even in those cases Alexis' performance is often marred by sloppiness, as in the cases of Op. 23/2 and Op. 23/5 where charming and exciting moments go hand in hand with perfunctory and indifferent ones. Alexis is surprisingly convincing in the mighty Op. 32/10 but he manages to ruin almost completely the equally majestic Op. 32/13 by rushing and banging through it without any regard for the music.
In the lyrical preludes Alexis is the same very mixed bag. For instance, Op. 32/5 clearly shows that when he wants he can play with tenderness and sensitivity, being original not at the expense of the music and also standing comparison with Horowitz and Rachmaninoff themselves outstandingly well. There is also much refreshing charm in Op. 23/4 or Op. 32/7, although their ethereal quality is largely, if not entirely, lost. Pretty much the same is true of Op. 23/1 and Op. 23/10, another pair of preludes that are among Rachmaninoff's most delicate and intimate pieces. While listening to these pieces I often have the disconcerting sensation that this music was composed for the heavens but Alexis has knocked it down and it has fallen down to earth.
The sound is decent and quite listenable for recordings made in 1968-69, but it is in no way exceptional, even for its time. It is often brittle and harsh, RCA's trademarks actually, and the piano seldom has anything like fine sonority. Interestingly, the rough nature of the sound closely resembles the playing.
All in all, I can't think of a single prelude that I would prefer in Weissenberg's interpretation over any other, including his fine C sharp minor one. I can listen to almost all of them with interest, and to some even with pleasure, but on the whole the set is absolutely no match for Ashkenazy's equally impressive technique but much, much more sensitive musicianship; the same goes for Lugansky in the first 11 preludes. As for individual preludes played by artists of much greater individuality, such as Horowitz or Rachmaninoff for instance, everything Alexis has to offer falls rather short, if not originality-wise, musically at all events. I am not even sure that Weissenberg's recording is a good introduction to this music, for it often takes liberties that verge on grotesque. I can't say that I find his wild eccentricity more convincing than Marietta Petkova's rather ordinary but much more musical approach. She is full ten minutes slower, in toto, and Alexis would have been wise to slow down too.
Complete recordings of Rachmaninoff's preludes being a rarity, this one is certainly worth having as a kind of curiosity. It might reward an occasional listening. Or it might not.