Steven Osborne’s Remarkable Presentation of The Music of Silence

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Feldman, Crumb: Steven Osborne (piano). Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, London, 31.5.2016. (CC)

The Music of Silence

Feldman, Intermission 5 (1952); Piano Piece 1952. Extensions 3 (1952); Palais de Mari (1986

Crumb, Processional (1983); A Little Suite for Christmas, AD1979 (1980)

To celebrate Steven Osborne’s recent release on Hyperion of music by Feldman and Crumb, he presented this selection of pieces in the second half of this Milton Court event; the brief first part was Osborne in conversation with Tom Service. Osborne spoke of his continuing fascination with the concept and experience of silence – what music comes out of, what music goes back to – and its near relative, extreme quiet. He mentioned also identifying the positively sensuous heart of Feldman’s music and how when one plays at minimal dynamic level, it creates a certain tension that draws the listener in. Also explored was the question of whether, as modern humans, we are hard-wired to find a narrative in the music we experience, be that the narrative of a story or even that of established formal workings, perhaps; and whether or not Feldman relented in the late Palais de Mari, where Osborne hears a “subtle [formal] shape”.

While Feldman’s Intermission 5 includes some grindingly harsh fortissimo chordal gestures, the silvery response to them speaks of an altogether more rarified world. Osborne was able to hold the concentration perfectly, his pianissimo chords particularly impressive in their perfect weighting (this despite a somewhat restless audience, including one early and rather noisy departing figure).

George Crumb’s Processional was written for Gilbert Kalish and is based on a tonal, whole-tone and modal harmonic vocabulary. A drone pervades the first section, and four strongly marked chords announce the second part, which holds the piece’s climactic moments. From its rather dreamy opening, Osborne ensured the work attained a notable sense of grandeur; part of the journey to the climax was a section of gorgeous harmonies, illuminated by Osborne’s imaginative use of pedal.

Two Feldman pieces followed: the sparse Piano Piece 1952 delivered with great control  – a piece in which individual pitches take on huge meaning – and Extensions 3, in many ways the perfect complement to Piano Piece 1952 because of its emphasis on repetition. The performance was marred by another audience member’s exit, a collection of splutters and a loud complaint about another audience member’s continued use of a mobile phone, Osborne still managed to create a lovely sense of atmosphere – quite a triumph in itself.

Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas, AD1979 was inspired by the Giotto frescoes of the Arena Chapel in Padua. Reflecting the childlike nature of the frescoes, Crumb’s score is frequently delightful. Cast in seven movements, extended techniques such as plucking the strings, or glissandi on the piano’s strings, enlarge the piano’s vocabulary but never arrive just for the sake of effect. Occasionally the piano sounds like a harp. A Debussian slant to ‘Berceuse for the Infant Jesu’ enhances its effect of distancing; elsewhere a gamelan is invoked. A reminder of Crumb’s endless imagination as well as a stunning piece in its own right, Osborne’s performance simply underlined the work’s stature. Osborne’s clear alignment with Crumb’s though processes was quite remarkable.

Finally, the most extensive piece on the programme, Feldman’s Palais de Mari, a work inspired by the composer’s interest in Near and Middle Eastern rugs and their inexact symmetries, reflected perhaps in the music of Webern, Stravinsky and Reich as well as, in painting, Mark Rothko. Lasting some 25 minutes, Palais de Mari was also inspired by a painting Feldman saw in the Louvre of the Babylonian Palace of Mari, another example of this imperfect symmetry. On Feldman’s musical surface, gestures that are closely similar or near-identical become hypnotic via the slight shifting of colour or rhythm (or both); by retaining a low dynamic level, small differences become acute. Instantly in this performance, the rapt voice of late Feldman was there (he died in 1987; this dates from 1986). Hyper-delicate, near-inaudible yet always transfixing, this was a performance of high integrity.

This was a remarkable concert, thought-provoking on one level but heart-breakingly touching on another.

Colin Clarke