Beethoven Through the Eyes of Steven Osborne

CanadaCanada Beethoven and Schubert: Steven Osborne (piano), Chan Centre, Vancouver, BC, 22.2.2015 (GN)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90
Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’
Schubert: Klavierstuck in A major, D. 604



Pianist Steven Osborne has played regularly for the Vancouver Recital Society in recent years, and each concert has been special. Usually, he has concentrated on modern repertoire, where his cleanness of attack and subtle intellect has always produced memorable rewards. Last time, however, he included Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on his programme, giving quite an individual performance with a very distilled, yet relatively fleet, opening movement and strong angular projection in much of the rest. This time the Beethoven journey got more serious, moving to three late sonatas including the ‘Hammerklavier’. Osborne seems to draw some parallel between the composer’s ‘late sonatas’ and the ‘late quartets’, very much highlighting Beethoven’s own inner world of fragmented expression and intellectual experiment, and the composer’s only fleetingly-abrupt recognition of an outer world of expansive feeling and nuance. Accordingly, Osborne’s playing mainly eschews grandness or radiant warmth, seeking to combine both a sharpness of utterance and a variety of subtle watercolours in a way that penetrate the nerve ends of this intimate world. Above all, we learn of the sheer capriciousness of much of the composition – as it twists and turns its way through so many ideas, and spontaneous improvisations on them.

There is clear mastery in Osborne’s somewhat deconstructive approach, even if one leaves aside reference to Beethoven’s encroaching deafness and other dimensions of ‘biographically informed’ interpretation. And it is quite an individual statement for this era. Young quartets now do not aim to find the same intimacy in the late quartets that the Busch and Vegh quartets did years ago, while current Beethoven pianists such as Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, François-Frédéric Guy and, as just witnessed a month ago, Alexandre Tharaud, often want to make the composer more outwardly vivid and romantic rather than less. For something closer to Osborne’s clarity and weight of articulation, we might have to go back to early Wilhelm Kempff, Solomon and, on some occasions, Walter Gieseking – though Osborne’s articulation is sharper and there is scarcely a trace of the Germanic in his make-up.

The first movement of the Op. 90 sonata was beautifully sculpted and poised, immensely aware of the complexities of the work’s motion, contrasting moments of unbridled energy with the most pensive, inward musing. Expression was economical, but always telling, as it was in the lovely closing movement. The latter was elegant and refined but slightly quicker and tighter than usual. One might have welcomed a more naturally coaxing and expansive lyricism, and slightly less feeling of control, but that is not Osborne’s way.

The improvisatory components of Beethoven’s writing started to surface more strongly as we moved to the Op. 101 sonata, the recognition that the composer seemingly starts one idea, then abruptly moves on to something else that fixates him, then improvises on that before recalling the initial theme again, and so on. This was particularly evident later in this sonata where time and again moments of uncontrolled animation and attack were suddenly turned into moments of the most probing inward musing and still, themselves giving rise to smaller moment-to-moment changes in mood and attitude. In Osborne’s hands, there were also so many styles of composition brought to light. Sometimes Bach peeked through the textures; other phrase shapes almost suggested abstract 20th-century constructions.

 As expected, the ‘Hammerklavier’ was not fully the grand, projected statement that it usually is. The pianist was compellingly decisive at all the right points but the work was articulated with hardly any romantic veneer – sharp, precise and clean. In some ways, the opening movement turned out more as a study in capricious and ingenious composition, moving in one way, then another, then perhaps moving in all ways at once – through some complex abstract association between the work’s parts. For me, the only slight casualty was the glorious Adagio, which seemingly requires an inexorably sustained stillness (as Solomon, for example, gave it). Osborne was faster and less settled in some ways, his improvisational rubato and purposiveness making the movement feel a little over-adorned in its different snapshots – not pure enough. Nonetheless, the finale was consistently illuminating.

 A great deal went on here and I have rarely been at a concert with as many new interpretative ideas. While it is difficult to make a full judgment on only one hearing, I do think that it is absolutely impossible to question Steven Osborne’s pianistic skills or intentions. One reaction however might be that the interpretations are somewhat too cerebral, even if they do give us a richer understanding of Beethoven’s compositional complexity. A related reaction might be that they are not emotionally free or warmly lyrical enough. I personally don’t think that either of these concerns have much weight. My only question is whether the ‘fineness’ and control in the pianist’s micro-management – stunning as it is – always adds up to a completely fulfilling emotional whole. I know the pianist intends such; I am just not sure if I always feel it yet. Of course, new interpretations take time to absorb. One thing that I am certain of is that this is remarkably novel and perceptive Beethoven, in many ways freed from time, place and tradition.


Geoffrey Newman


Previously published in a slightly different form on


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