"The practice of composing sets of piano preludes in all twenty-four keys became increasingly popular after Chopin’s Op. 28 appeared in 1839, yet it seems that Rachmaninoff did not originally plan to write a full set of twenty-four preludes. His first, "Prelude in C-sharp minor," was written in 1892 as part of five Morceaux de fantaisie. In 1903 he composed Ten Preludes, Op. 23, still without any intention of creating a cycle, but seven years later he decided to complete the set by writing Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32 in the remaining keys.
As a genre, the piano prelude was quite common in Russian music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but, as opposed to the rather intimate preludes of Lyadov or Scriabin, Rachmaninoff’s are much larger, much more developed pieces with a very obvious 'concert' profile. As ever in Rachmaninoff's music, allusions abound in these pieces. In some the composer uses certain genres – a Minuet, a March, a Barcarole – yet these are just hints of the original dances. For instance, in the D minor Prelude, the fateful pace of a Sarabande can be felt more than an innocent Minuet. Some preludes, especially those based on a motoric motion, are very similar to Chopin’s Études, and are definitely influenced by Chopin’s piano style.
With points of reference spanning the years, Rachmaninoff's twenty-four preludes present a microcosm of his music and his major musical ideas. Contained within these pieces one can find every single element of his style, with its poetry, depth and originality."
I love these preludes, every last one of them. You may recognize his first, that fateful piece which would come to define the composer's life long after it was first penned at the age of 19 (which brings to mind Anthony Burgess' thoughts on A Clockwork Orange... a piece he was not altogether proud of, but would later be his most well-known work). The truth is, each of these are extraordinary. I am no critic on interpretation, and it seems like that of Weissenberg's is either loved or hated, but I certainly could find no fault with it. I saw Berezovsky has done the full cycle (as did Ashkenazy, but why not switch it up a little) so I'd like to give those a listen. One of my favorite of the Preludes is the second of the Op. 23, in B-flat Major - here is a look at the opening measures: