Well Designed and Purposeful Recital from Osborne

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Ravel, Rachmaninov: Steven Osborne(piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 26.1.2014 (GPu)

Prokofiev, Sarcasms, op.17
Ravel, Miroirs
Prokofiev, Visions Fugitives, Op.22
Rachmaninov, Sonata No.2 in b flat minor, Op.36


Steven Osborne has a reputation (well-deserved) for designing well-made and purposeful recital programmes. This was no exception. It constituted a kind of conspectus of the repertoire for solo piano written during a period of some twelve or thirteen years early in the last century. The earliest of the four works on his programme was Ravel’s Miroirs (composed 1904-5), followed by Prokofiev’s Sarcasms (1912-14), Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata (19130 and Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives (1915-17). These were, even looking beyond these four works, rich years for the solo piano repertoire. Other works that come to mind include Berg’s Piano Sonata (1906-8), Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit (1908), Stravinsky’s Four Studies for Piano (1908),  Bartok’s Burlesques (1908-11), Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces (1909) and  Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro (1911). (I would not be surprised to learn that my increasingly fallible memory has led me to omit something of primary importance).

 The stylistic diversity of the works listed, played and not played on this particular occasion, is testimony to the fascination of this transitional period in musical history, the meeting ground of late Romanticism and Modernism. More than a little of that transition and the kinds of musical dialogues implicit in it are present in Prokofiev’s five Sarcasms, with which Steven Osborne opened his programme. Prokofiev’s current fascination with the ‘grotesque’ and perhaps the political climate in which the pieces were written, conditioned these short pieces as by turns contributions to, and mockeries of, prevailing musical fashions. Thus the first of the Sarcasms, marked ‘Tempestuoso’ begins with some wittily dissonant and percussive writing, utilising both ends of the keyboard, but then indulges (the word seems appropriate) in a rather sentimental passage, more dream than storm. What, if anything, is the object of Prokofiev’s sarcastic commentary – the romantic dreaminess or the ‘modernist’ violence? Or both? I’m not sure that Osborne’s fine performance solved the problem for me, given that he let the music issue its challenge, set its question, without attempting to answer it on the audience’s behalf, as it were. What he did do, was full justice to both aspects of this brief, tantalising piece in which opposites are, if not actually reconciled, then held in mutually balancing tension. The second of the Sarcasms seems to play with the idea of momentum, of forward movement, full of gestures which suggest an onward rush without actually going very far! Perhaps,the point of Prokofiev’s overall titles is that as a verbal form ‘sarcasm’ involves the use of language to ‘say’ the very opposite of what the words used appear to say. Ironic ambiguity seems the very essence of this fascinating group of piano pieces and irony is, after all, so hard to pin down to a single and absolute meaning. It may, indeed, be entirely misunderstood by some of those who read or hear it. It teases (mocks?) interpretation. Take the fourth of Prokofiev’s pieces, marked ‘Smanioso’. My limited Italian told me that the word meant ‘yearning’. But consultation of an Italian friend was rewarding. ‘Yearning’, yes, but the root of the word, and what gives it its particular force, is in ‘mania’, so that the yearning that ‘Smanioso’ delineates is obsessive, a symptom of a psychiatric disorder. The darkness in Prokofiev’s writing, the sense of disturbance and disquiet of mind and soul, which Osborne brought out brilliantly, makes more sense with that knowledge. This is, to my ears (and mind) the most fascinating of these five early pieces by Prokofiev, thoroughly unsettling and unsettled, almost painfully ambiguous in mood and full, as it is, of “fancifulness, compounded of intricate, clownish melodies, with strange skips and distortions” (Israel V. Nestyev, Prokofiev, translated by Florence Jonas, 1960).

 The sequence of pieces which Ravel collected as Miroirs, is somewhat less problematic than Prokofiev’s Sarcasms. This may, in part at least, be because the Ravel approaching 30 who wrote these pieces had developed a more integrated voice as a composer than had yet been discovered by the 21 year old Prokofiev; and also because, as their titles (‘Noctuelles’, ‘Oiseaux Tristes’, ‘Un barque sur l’ocean’, ‘Alborada del gracioso’ and ‘La vallée des cloches’) indicate they are more obviously representational. than Prokofiev’s five pieces. Technically, of course, they have their own demands to make on the performer, whether in the cross-rhythms, chromatic writing and tempo changes of ‘Noctuelles’ or the complex arpeggios of ‘Un barque sur l’ocean’. Osborne negotiated all such difficulties with seeming ease, producing a vivid sense of watery, glistening textures in ‘Un barque’ and a sense of rapid, flexible flutterings of movement in ‘Noctuelles’. But such textures were imbued with a more than merely representational quality, as the best ‘impressionist’ art is; the ephemerality of the night-moths evoked in the first piece seemed at the same time to speak of the transience of human life and emotions. Nor is the pervading melancholy of ‘Oiseaux Tristes’ merely ornithological. The sadness of the blackbird’s whistling melody, insistently reiterated by Ravel, is of course an anthropomorphic fantasy and transferred to the high artifice of Ravel’s art its implications have far more to do with human life than with the natural world. Even in the relatively conventional (or at any rate less adventurous) writing of ‘Une barque sur l’ocean’ Ravel seems to have had in mind (and perhaps expects his hearers to have in mind) not just a literal boat on an actual sea but one of the oldest and most resonant of metaphors, in which the individual’s life is seen/felt as a ship tossed on stormy seas. St. Augustine used the metaphor more than once, as when he wrote “The life of this world is a raging sea which we must navigate on our journey homeward. If we are able to resist the sirens’ song, we will reach the harbour of eternal life”. It would no doubt be wrong to freight Ravel’s music with so explicit a religious sense, or with so explicit an allegorical interpretation, but it would be equally wrong to regard the music as merely pictorial, as devoid of profounder human resonance. Certainly it was this underlying humanity that I was most struck by in listening to Steven Osborne’s fine interpretation of these pieces. this is perhaps more obvious in ‘Alborada del gracioso’, the only one of these pieces to have an explicit human presence – the ‘clown’ of Spanish theatre, albeit a clown who, like some of Shakespeare’s fools such as Feste or Lear’s Fool, fuses laughter with pathos, comic with tragic. As such the interaction of comic and tragic perspectives perhaps prepares one for ‘La vallée des cloches’ by alerting one to the kind of multiplicity of purpose and association implicit in the ringing of bells, so brilliantly discussed in Alain Corbin’s Les Cloches de la Terre (translated by Martin Thom as Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th-Century French Countryside, 1998. Whether sounding military alerts, the summons to prayer, announcing a funeral or wedding the sound of the bells, as transmuted in Ravel’s piano writing, is an inescapable invocation of many aspects of human existence. Without wanting to overload these pieces with such associations, I think it is true that these are what give them their weight and in a performance such as Osborne’s, which eschewed all mere pianistic display, they are more audible than they sometimes are in other performances.

 There is perhaps a more direct recording of inner states, of the introspective, in Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives than in the more outwardly-directed pieces in Sarcasms or Miroirs. Where the sarcasms might be thought of as rather scabrous epigrams, the pieces that make up the Visions Fugitives are better thought of as lyrics, almost as songs without words. Not that that means they are all ‘pretty’, or ‘poetic’ in the limited (and limiting) sense of the term – lyrics can embrace the grotesque and the disturbed too. In fact the range of these twenty short pieces – the longest of them only just over two and half minutes of in length – is considerable, including as it does the contesting and percussive energies of No.14 (marked ‘Feroce’ and a piece which Osborne played especially well), the lively contrasts of register and mood in No.4, the almost neo-classical elegance of No.6 and the magical ‘fairy-tale’ moods of Numbers 16 and 17 (the last of which is, indeed, marked ‘Poetico’). Osborne was very much on top of this work, characterising each of the pieces vividly, but without exaggeration or self-indulgence. The effect was of a kind of overview of all that Prokofiev could then do, and an anticipation of much that he would later go on to do. This has, before now, struck me as a work that merits a place high in the ranks of that genre of the suite of short piano pieces which the Romantics essentially created, and Steven Osborne’s performance reinforced that sense, putting forward, as it did, a persuasive case for the intelligent variety and clear structural pattern of the sequence.

 If I say that it was in the performances of these three suites of short pieces, rather than in that of the one large-scale work, Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata, that I found the most satisfying elements of Steven Osborne’s programme, that should not be understood as a criticism of Osborne. Rather my unease lies with the work itself, an unease which the composer himself evidently felt and which more than one later pianist has also felt. Rachmaninov originally wrote the sonata in 1913 and gave the first performance. Although the work was generally well-received, Rachamninov himself had some reservations about it and for a long while intended to return to it and revise it. He only found time to do so in the summer of 1931, seeking to shorten it and to tighten the structure of the work. This second version omitted some fine keyboard writing and in the omission of some transitional/connective passages actually made the structure less rather than more clear in some respects. This second version of 1931 (R2) is some 5 minutes shorter than that of 1913 (R1). But by no means all have agreed that R2 is a definite improvement, some finding it an impoverishment of the original or at best an uneasy compromise between two different – if closely related – musical visions. Things get even more complicated if one considers what later pianists have done with the work. Vladimir Horowitz, for example, felt that in R2 “what might have been gained in conciseness of expression had been outweighed by losses in pianistic sonority and drama”. He persuaded Rachmaninov, in the last year of the composer’s life, to collaborate with him in the production of a third version, which was essentially a fusion of the elements Horowitz most admired in R1 and R2. This third version was first performed by Horowitz in 1943. In his later years Horowitz continued to amend the score in performance. Other performers, such as Van Cliburn, have also revised one or both of R1 and R2 (see the interesting postgraduate dissertation by Lee-Ann Nelson, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Sonata Op. 36: Towards the Creation of an Alternative Performance Version, Pretoria 2006 – available online at http://upetd.up.ac.za/thesis/available/etd-11052007-142018/unrestricted/dissertation.pdf).  Nor indeed has the Horowitz/Rachmaninov version been regarded as providing the last word. In the programme notes for this concert, Steven Osborne is quoted thus: “Rachmaninov’s revision seems to me clearly inferior because he cuts out so much good stuff and the structure suffers as well, but the original is a bit unfocused in places. I’m not exactly doing the Horowitz version as I tinker a bit myself too”.

 I offer this (condensed) account of the sonata’s textual history in the belief that it helps to explain the feeling that I have had before now that this is, for all its impressive moments, a frustrated and frustrating work. ‘Frustrated’ because the materials from which it is made have never found their ‘ideal or inevitable formal incarnation and frustrating for the listener because the sonata in its various realisations doesn’t confront one with the inescapable and compelling inner logic which truly great works have. One consequence is that some of the work’s best passages feel more like impressive keyboard rhetoric than like real ‘poetry’ – since poetry depends on the writing’s successful integration with its surrounding elements, not merely its own intrinsic qualities.

 Even Steven Osborne’s many qualities as a pianist – his intelligence, his certainty of technique, his clarity of thought and execution, his capacity for both ferocity and tenderness, his grasp of large structural patterns – didn’t finally persuade me that this sonata is, frustratingly, more than a near masterpiece that doesn’t quite come off. In fairness to Osborne, I have to say that his playing, especially in the bravura opening of the first movement and in the virtuosic momentum of the finale, came closer to convincing me than I have ever previously come that it can be made to work altogether satisfactorily.

Glyn Pursglove