United Kingdom Steven Osborne in Conversation with Robert Beattie
Steven Osborne is one of the UK’s leading concert pianists and he has won huge critical acclaim in many of the world’s leading concert halls. He has won two major international piano competitions and his recordings continually win Gramophone awards. Steven is capable of breath taking power and virtuosity but also of very poetically nuanced and sensitive playing. In addition to playing solo recitals and concertos he is also a regular chamber music collaborator with Alban Gerhardt, Paul Lewis, Dietrich Henschel and Alina Ibragimova. He has championed a number of lesser known works including piano works by Britten, Tippett, Alkan and Kapustin. Steven is also a keen jazz pianist and he has occasionally included jazz works in his recitals. Later this month he will be returning to one of the Everest’s of the piano repertoire in his Queen Elizabeth Hall recital – Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur L’enfant Jésus. Steven’s recording of the Messiaen has been widely acclaimed and won a Gramophone award. I asked Steven about his career to date, what informs his choice of repertoire and his thoughts on the Messiaen.
Robert Beattie You were brought up in Edinburgh and studied at St Mary’s School and the Royal Northern College of Music. Who were the key musical influences in your life?
Steven Osborne Richard Beauchamp was my piano teacher at St Mary’s and I learned a lot from him and from Nigel Manning who was the Head of Music at the school. St Mary’s is a very small school with a lovely, open atmosphere which encouraged pupils to be creative and imaginative. It did not have the pressurised, hot-house atmosphere which people sometimes associate with other specialist music schools. Richard and Nigel were both immensely encouraging and were a constant source of help and advice. When I moved to the Royal Northern College of Music, I studied with Renna Kellaway, who had been taught by Clara Haskil, Franz Osborn and Johannes Röntgen, and she helped me to build my technique. Renna had a strong European pedigree and she helped me to focus on clarity of texture, beauty of sound and clarity of structure. She also helped me to think about sound in an orchestral sense and how to create different musical sonorities.
RB When I heard you playing Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit at the Queen Elizabeth Hall recently I was very impressed with the clarity of your playing particularly in ‘Ondine’ – you seemed to use very little pedal.
SO It’s a difficult piece and I had to work very hard to sort out the detail and to achieve the musical effects that I wanted.
RB You won first prize at the Clara Haskil and Maumburg international piano competitions. How important were these in launching your career?
SO Winning the Clara Haskil competition brought me to the attention of agents and also provided exposure and experience of performing which is all useful. However, competitions can be something of a lottery. I was fortunate enough to have won two but I was knocked out in the first round of other competitions. A lot depends on how you play on the day and if the jury like what you do – there is always an element of subjectivity and personal taste involved. I also think competitions can sometimes stifle artistic integrity and creativity as competitors strive for a very polished but conventional performance that does not rock the boat too much. I remember John Lill giving an impromptu speech at the Leeds Piano Competition when he said it was important that these events did not stifle fresh and original approaches. I was pleased when he did this – I think it was important to say it.
RB Who are the pianists you most admire and why?
SO I really like Keith Jarrett’s free improvising and the intensity of his playing. Among classical pianists, I really admire Brendel and Clara Haskil because of the precision of their playing and clarity of structure. I also admire pianists like Horowitz and Argerich because of the unbounded quality of their performances and their striving to reach new heights of expression. Murray Perahia studied with Horowitz and it’s interesting to listen to recordings during the course of his career. His early playing is very beautiful and polished but contained somehow; but increasingly he seemed really to push the boundaries and reach new heights of expression. He is a pianist I admire very much.
RB Do you play much jazz and have you played jazz works in recital?
SO I love playing jazz and I have played a few jazz pieces in recital but not very much recently. When I play them in recital, they often come across as a novelty item rather than integral part of the recital.
RB You have a very wide and varied repertoire and you play conventional and also less well-known works by Britten, Tippett and Messiaen. What informs your choice of repertoire and what draws you to these lesser known works?
SO I like to play wildly contrasting works and I guess my choice of repertoire is down to how strongly drawn I feel to a particular piece – it’s a very intuitive process. I stumbled upon Messiaen’s Vingt Regards by accident and have a strong connection to the music. I came to Tippett through the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. One of my professors at College, Ian Kemp, was a distinguished Tippett scholar and he helped introduce me to the piano works. There is something very special about the late piano pieces. I don’t like to confine my playing to a single emotional world so I enjoy playing Messiaen, Beethoven and Rachmaninov and feel drawn to all of them in different ways.
RB Are there any composers you do not like playing?
SO I find Chopin problematic – there is a very subtle feel to his music and it does not have the certainty around rhythm and structure that one finds in, say, Beethoven. The Polish folk music elements and the rhythms are difficult to get absolutely right. They are alien somehow and it takes some time for them to seep in so that you can play in an entirely natural and unaffected way. I played Chopin’s Cello Sonata with Alban Gerhardt and one of the movements is a mazurka: it took a long time for me to get this movement to a point where I was completely happy with it.
RB As a reviewer, Chopin is the composer who seems to work least well for me in the concert hall – his music is often very poised between the classical and the romantic and pianists find it difficult to get the right balance.
SO He is a very difficult composer to bring off in concert.
RB You have recorded a number of works by Messiaen including Vingt Regards which you will shortly be performing live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. What is the stature of this work among 20th Century piano works? What are the technical and musical demands and will you be using a score in the live performance?
SO I have occasionally played a few pieces from the set from memory but I will be using a score when I play the whole thing. It’s stressful to do something so long and complex from memory and I think it’s better to approach it feeling relaxed. There is nothing quite like it. It stands like a Bach passion in the piano literature and introduces the audience to an overwhelming world of expression. I want to play the set without a break to ensure the audience are completely immersed in Messiaen’s emotional and mystical world. It is a complex piece to learn but it suits my technique well and, now that I have it in my fingers, I am relaxed when I play it. There are some reading difficulties when you approach the work at the outset and you need to be patient but as you become more familiar with the codified language the music becomes more predictable. I found Tippett’s music much more difficult as it is more unpredictable – nothing is quite as you expect.
Vingt Regards is one of those pieces where you feel that the audience should refrain from applauding at the beginning and end of the concert in the same way that they do with performances of Bach passions. Having said that, I will be happy for the audience to applaud at the London recital!
RB I always think of the last movement of Beethoven’s Op 111 like that – somehow it doesn’t seem right to applaud after listening to it. What repertoire are you planning to work on in the immediate future?
SO I am currently working on Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata, Schubert’s ‘Drei Klavierstucke’ and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in B flat. I’m also working on Brahms’ clarinet sonatas and Prokofiev’s violin sonatas which I’m planning to record with my wife, Jean Johnson, and Alina Ibragimova respectively.
RB I’m looking forward to hearing your performance of Vingt Regards and Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ in due course. It would also be good to hear you play some jazz.
SO I’m looking forward to playing Vingt Regards again. When I perform the work and speak to audience members afterwards, they always say how much they enjoy particular pieces in the set. There is an immediacy to Messiaen’s music which is really engaging and enjoyable for audiences. I hope they enjoy the performance!
The Royal Philharmonic Society today named pianist, Steven Osborne ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’ at their annual Award ceremony held at the Dorchester Hotel. The Award – considered to be the highest recognition for live classical music in the UK – was presented by Dame Janet Baker CH at a ceremony hosted by BBC Radio 3 presenters Sean Rafferty and Sara Mohr-Pietsch.