A Perfect Blend of Virtuosity and Musicianship from Steven Osborne

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Debussy, George Crumb, Rachmaninov: Steven Osborne (piano), St John’s Smith Square, London 3.2.2016. (RB)

Schubert: Impromptus D935 Nos 1 & 4
Debussy: Masques; Images, Set 2; L’isle joyeuse
George Crumb: Processional
Rachmaninov: Études-tableaux, Op 33 Nos. 2, 3 & 5; Op 39 Nos. 2, 5, 8 & 9

Steven Osborne is regarded by many as the finest British pianist of his generation. In this concert he performed works by three composers with whom he has become closely associated: he recently released a recording of Schubert’s second set of Impromptus to much critical acclaim and he has also recorded the complete preludes of Debussy and Rachmaninov.

The recital opened with Schubert’s two F Minor impromptus from D 935 which were written in the penultimate year of the composer’s short life. The first of the two Impromptus opened in sombre serious fashion with Osborne bringing us instantaneously into Schubert’s dark emotional world. I wondered if he might have done more to mine the poetry of the major key episodes – the playing was a little too straight and sober. However, the wonderful rich tone colours he achieved in the middle section were gorgeous while the intricate hand crossing was deft and highly accomplished. In the second Impromptu Osborne brought a mischievous quality to the sparky dance rhythms and offbeat accents. He brought weight and depth of tone to the coda before dispatching the work with enormous flair and virtuoso fire-power.

Osborne’s performance of the Schubert Impromptus was very good but I felt he raised his game even further in Debussy’s second set of Images. In Cloches à travers les feuilles he created a nuanced tapestry of textures and sonorities as we heard the reverberations of bells against the rustling of leaves. The use of pedal was very subtle and I was struck by the clarity he achieved in the intricate interweaving textures and the way in which he was able to convey intangible and transitory sensations so convincingly. There was remarkable control of tone colour in Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut. Osborne expertly conveyed the stillness of the moonlit scene while at the same time creating some mesmerising hypnotic effects. Poissons d’or was stylish and accomplished with Osborne doing a magnificent job navigating our way through Debussy’s shifting tableaux. There was wonderful control of touch and timbre and the technical execution was dazzling although I would have liked to hear more of the capricious elements in the score. The first half concluded with a masterful performance of Debussy’s great show-piece L’isle joyeuse which the composer wrote in 1904 while under the spell of Watteau’s L’embarquement pour Cythère. Debussy litters his scores with very precise markings so I was pleased to hear the enormous textural variety in this performance: some of the opening figurations were quite dry and precise but the music had a wafting perfumed lustre when required while some of the finger work was dazzling. The coda was a tour de force, bringing the first half of the recital to a thrilling conclusion.

The second half opened with Processional, the piece which George Crumb wrote in 1983 for Gilbert Kalish. It was written without bar lines and features a regular pulsing of double cluster chords. Osborne gave a rapt meditative performance and the piece was pleasant to listen to but it was not particularly memorable or in the same league as any of the other works in the programme.

Osborne finished the recital with a selection of Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux from both Op 33 and 39. Rachmaninov did not give too much away about what pictures or stories he had in mind for the pieces but it is clear from his discussions with Respighi (who orchestrated some of them) that he did have specific scenarios in mind. Many of the pieces are highly virtuosic and infused with a brooding sense of melancholy. Once again there was much to admire in this performance: it was clear from the outset that Osborne was on top of the daunting technical demands and he gave us a ravishing array of colours and rich layering of sound. Occasionally, I felt the playing was a little contained and introspective although some of the pieces have a brooding ruminative quality which lends itself to this. I enjoyed both the luminous tone he conjured from his Steinway in the C Major with its flickering right hand and the changes of colour and rhythmic vibrancy he brought to the D Minor. I was less convinced by the epic E Flat minor with its gargantuan chords which did not quite have the symphonic weight and depth of sonority that it needs. Osborne ended the recital in style with a highly charged and dramatic account of the Étude-tableau in D Major.

After being coaxed back to the stage multiple times, Osborne performed Rachmaninov’s D Major Prelude from Op 23 as an encore. Overall, this was very fine playing from Osborne showing a perfect blend of virtuosity and musicianship.

Robert Beattie

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