Edinburgh hears a splendid and thought-provoking rectal by Steven Osborne

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2021 [6] – Schubert, Crumb, Tippett, Beethoven: Steven Osborne (piano), Old College Quad, 12.8.2021. (SRT)

Steven Osborne (c) Ryan Buchanan

Schubert – Impromptu D935 No.1
Crumb – Processional
Tippett – Piano Sonata No.2
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor

I have heard a piano a couple of times already in this years’ EIF, but so far it has been accompanying either a trio or a singer. This is the first time I have heard one alone, played by local hero Steven Osborne, and the first thing that struck me was how fantastic it sounds in the Old College Quad tent, the concert hall which the Edinburgh Festival has, in Osborne’s words, ‘created out of thin air’.

His piano playing sounds clean, clear and perfectly resonant in an acoustic where you would expect it to disappear completely. That is partly a tribute to the superb acousticians who have worked on the venue, and partly thanks to Osborne’s own playing.

At first glance this might look like a hugely wide-ranging, eclectic programme, bookended by two works with which Osborne has become pretty closely associated in the last few years. However, the achievement of this concert was to draw out the links and similarities that range across this two centuries’ worth of music.

Steven Osborne (c) Ryan Buchanan

In Osborne’s Schubert, the dark bass of the opening theme dissolves into pellucid trebles and quivering arpeggios, all done with fluid, poetic beauty. Ingeniously, though, he went without a break into the gently tolling bells of George Crumb’s Processional, a piece which seemed to use the same rippling tintinnabulations as Schubert did. Perhaps they weren’t such distant musical relations after all.

Osborne played Crumb with an enormous sense of crescendo in the middle and a gently teased-out wind down at the end. It felt like a breath of meditation before Tippett’s volcanic second sonata, which slammed down defiant, muscular chunks of notes as though shaking a fist in rage, and Osborne stamped his foot at the points where, in the original score, the composer demanded the pianist should punch the piano with his fist, echoing a quotation from his contemporaneous opera King Priam.

But then, Beethoven, too, was not averse to contrasting thumping chords with delicate lightness, as you can see in the opening of his final piano sonata. Osborne has made a speciality of Beethoven’s last three sonatas since his 2018 recording, so he knows this work well enough to demonstrate his mastery in it. The dark opening led into a prowling main theme which then dissolved into a gorgeous cantabile for the main theme of the finale. Osborne carried it with hymn-like beauty of tone, and the variations seemed threaded together with a sense of progress and development. Prior to this, I had assumed that, thanks to his recording and his prior performances, I would find Osborne’s Beethoven a fairly predictable quality, but in the company of Crumb and Tippett, Osborne made him sound fresh and different.

The concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and will be available here until the middle of September.

Simon Thompson

The 2021 Edinburgh International Festival takes place until Sunday 29th August in venues across the city. For full details click here.

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