Steven Osborne in an Exciting Recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Ravel, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov: Steven Osborne (Piano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. 5.10.2011 (RB)

Beethoven:  Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor Op 27 No. 2 ‘Moonlight’
Ravel:  Gaspard de la nuit
Prokofiev:  Visions fugitives
Rachmaninov:  Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor


Steven Osborne is one of theUK’s most distinguished concert pianists and he has recently released Ravel and Rachmaninov CDs. His technical facility is second to none and for this recital he opted to play two of the most demanding works in the solo piano repertoire.

Osborne began his recital with Beethoven’s perennially popular ‘Moonlight’ sonata, a work which is so well known it is difficult to say anything fresh or original about it. He opted for a nice flowing tempo in the opening ‘adagio sostenuto’ evoking warm silky tones from the piano. The control of dynamics and tone was exemplary throughout and the melodic lines were beautifully shaped and crafted. The second movement was light, graceful and delicately articulated. The whirlwind arpeggios of the presto agitato finale were dispatched with energy and verve, and Osborne deployed a nicely judged variety of articulation before driving the sonata to its conclusion.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit is technically extremely demanding and consists of three pieces based on poems by Aloysious Bertrand. ‘Ondine’ is a water nymph who lures unwary young men to their deaths; ‘Le Gibet’ depicts a lifeless body hanging on the gallows in a bleak and desolate sun; and ‘Scarbo’ is a shape-shifting demon who whirls and dances around the room before vanishing from sight. Osborne’s technical command in ‘Ondine’ was astonishing and he conjured a wide range of tonal colour and perfectly graded textures and dynamics from the piano. I thought he could perhaps have brought out more or the mercurial and sinister elements that one hears in the greatest performances of the work (Argerich, Michelangeli) but it was extremely good nonetheless. The tonal control in ‘Le Gibet’ was again exemplary with Osborne bringing out beautifully the layered textures and sonorities. Osborne was completely on top of the technical demands of the fiendishly difficult ‘Scarbo’. He brought out the impish malevolence of the piece and demonstrated a huge variety of touch, texture and tone colour.

Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives (‘Fleeting visions’) takes its name from the following line in a Russian poem by Balmont: “In every fugitive vision I see worlds, full of the changing play of rainbow hues”. It consists of a set of twenty piano miniatures. Nowadays, many pianists play a selection from the set but Osborne opted to play all twenty pieces. The opening ‘lentamente’ was elegantly phrased while the subsequent ‘andante’ had lots of bite and sarcasm. Osborne used the set to demonstrate the full range of the piano’s technical capabilities including brilliance and virtuosity (in the ‘animato’ and ‘allegro tranquillo’), lyricism and tonal beauty (the ‘pittoresco’ and ‘poetico’), parody and grotesquerie (the ‘ridicolosamente’ and ‘con vivacita’) and barbarism and savagery (the ‘feroce’ and ‘presto agitatissimo’). It was a highly accomplished performance of a work which is difficult to bring off in the concert hall.

Rachmaninov wrote two versions of his Second Sonata, the original in 1913 and a simplified revised version (which is the composer’s final version) 18 years later. Horowitz produced his own version in 1940 which is a conflation of the two and which won approval from the composer. Osborne has produced yet another variant modelled principally on the Horowitz version. In terms of the multiple versions of the sonata, I prefer the composer’s own revised version from 1931 although it is often thrilling to hear the other versions in the concert hall given the extreme technical bravura involved.

I thought Osborne’s version was interesting and a valiant attempt at capturing Rachmaninov’s daunting pyrotechnics while at the same time solving some of the sonata’s structural problems. Having said that, I thought that the structure came across as flabby in places, particularly in the last movement. Osborne’s actual playing of the sonata, however, is quite another matter and was one of the most exciting performances of this work I have ever heard in the concert hall. The opening ‘allegro agitato’ had all the requisite power and virtuosity that one could wish for with Osborne successfully negotiating the dense pianistic textures. He adopted a full rich tone for the opening of the slow movement and brought out beautifully the layered textures and grand sweep of the music. The finale was taken at full throttle with Osborne displaying every technical device in the pianist’s lexicon before working the piece up to an electrifying conclusion. There were many well deserved ‘bravos’ from the audience which led to Osborne playing a Rachmaninov prelude as an encore. Bravo Mr Osborne!

Robert Beattie