In a welcome return to London after several years’ absence, acclaimed Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky opened the 2014 International Piano Series concerts at Southbank Centre with an impressive and absorbing recital of music by two of the finest composers of preludes for the piano, Debussy and Rachmaninov, interspersed with Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata.

An imposing presence on stage, with broad shoulders suggesting great power and strength, Berezovsky began his concert with two pieces not listed in the programme – “Reflets dans l’eau” and “Mouvement” from Debussy’s Images. Rather in the manner of a 19th-century virtuoso, these pieces provided something of a “warm-up” for the audience and set the tone for the first half of the concert. They were anything but warm-up pieces for the performer, however. The delicacy and subtle shadings of “Reflets dans l’eau”, its shimmering “droplets of sound” given great clarity and luminosity by economic use of the pedal, contrasted wonderfully with the percussive pulse and metropolitan soundscape of “Mouvement”, suggesting the vibrancy of Paris before the First War.

These were followed by a delightful selection from Debussy’s first book of Préludes. Published in 1910, these pieces follow in the line of Chopin, a composer Debussy much admired, but he takes the genre in a striking new direction. By placing the title of each prelude at the end of the piece, he wanted the performer to avoid over-interpretation. Landscapes and places were the theme of the preludes Berezovsky selected: the hushed mysteries of ancient Greece in “Danseuses de Delphes”, a quivering mistral and frenetic gusty west wind in “Le vent dans la plaine” and “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” to the chilly, measured stasis of “Des pas sur la neige”, the naïve sensuality of “La fille aux cheveux de lin”, strumming Spanish guitars in “La sérénade interrompue”, and finally to Eastbourne in the company of a band of wandering “Minstrels”. Each individual piece’s character was skillfully delineated by acute attention to detail, sensitive dynamic colouring, translucent sound and an elegant touch, and at no point was the sound compromised by technique. Taken together, these pieces had a wonderful and rare intimacy, which is hard to achieve in a venue the size of the Royal Festival Hall.

The house lights were dimmed to create a greater sense of mystery when Berezovsky returned to play Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. One of the most famously challenging works in the piano repertoire, Berezovsky, who has been praised for his exceptional technique, made light of its exigencies, though never once substituting flashy virtuosity for pure pianism. He played with modesty, allowing the music to speak for itself. “Ondine” rippled from the piano, the same soundworld of Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau” re-imagined to conjure up the eponymous water nymph of Aloysius Bertrand’s poem. “Le Gibet”, its obsessively tolling B flat evoking both a distant dead bell and a body swaying in a gentle breeze, had an intense beauty, which belied the gruesome narrative. “Scarbo”, the shape-shifting gnome, was a lively romp, by turns humorous and malevolent.

A return to the prelude genre for the start of the second half, this time in the company of Rachmaninov, who was, like Debussy, following in a grand tradition which stretched right back to Bach’s “48”, and encompassed gems by Chopin and Scriabin. Rachmaninov wrote several sets of preludes and by the time he reached his Op. 32, he was at the peak of his powers as a performer and in huge demand as a practising musician. Following hot on the heels of the Third Piano Concerto, he composed the Preludes in the space of just nineteen days. They may be short works, some lasting only a matter of a few minutes, but they are complex and harmonically advanced, their orchestral textures and motifs redolent of the grand scale of the Third Concerto.

In interviews, Boris Berezovsky has not claimed a particular affinity with the work of his compatriot Sergey Rachmaninov, and yet, in his performance of a selection of the Op. 32 Preludes (refreshingly, the lesser-known ones) and particularly in the Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, one had the sense of a musician with an appreciation of the broad scope the music and the vastness of the country of its origin. Here, Berezovsky harnessed his forces, mental and physical, to bring glorious sound to the most forceful of fortissimos, never once compromising quality of tone in an imposing and well-judged rendition of Rachmaninov’s stream of musical consciousness.

Two generous encores rounded off a splendid start to this year’s International Concert Series.