Steven Osborne plays Debussy [Hyperion]

4 of 5 stars

… D’un cahier d’esquisses
L’isle joyeuse
Images – Série I & Série II
Children’s Corner

Steven Osborne (piano)

Recorded 31 October-2 November 2016 in Henry Wood Hall, London

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: November 2017
Duration: 73 minutes



Steven Osborne opens his latest Hyperion release, the second devoted to Debussy, all the latest selections from the first decade of the twentieth-century, with Masques, at once fleet-fingered and rhythmically chiselled; a wide (Alexis Weissenberg-like) dynamic range, too, although the loudest fortissimo is rather fierce (elsewhere also) if explicit and focussed, so the ensuing slowing and softening is balm to the ears, before clangour returns and then the tumult subsides and leads naturally into … D’un cahier d’esquisses (From a Sketchbook), a subtly expressive gem, enigmatic and hypnotic; and irresistible enough to delay listening to the rest of the disc – I just had to play it again (and again!).

Once such indulgence has been satisfied, then the glittering, playfully lilting, warmly lyrical and ecstatic course of L’isle joyeuse is found to be compellingly charted; this is indeed a “happy isle” (Roger Nichols’s booklet note). Of the two books of Images (three pieces in each set) there is much to admire in Osborne’s approach – hard-edged and overly-incisive as he can occasionally seem (although the celebrated Michelangeli might be thought of as similar, and anyway Debussy wasn’t keen on the Impressionism tag) – with much that is seductive, delicate and painterly, such qualities a significant part of Osborne’s armoury, whether for water or for moonlight, and also sensitive, as illuminates the bittersweet and half-lit reflection of ‘Hommage à Rameau’, if with no lack of incremental emotion at its midpoint.

Whether Japanese or Javanese in its inspiration, ‘Pagodes’, to open Estampes, is Debussy at his most expressive and mysterious, so something a little more inward and languorous from Osborne would have been welcome (Claudio Arrau an exemplar) – and the release of the pedal at the very end is somewhat untidy – but ‘La soirée dans Grenade’ has a nice lilt (if maybe too much brightness at its loudest), while ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ is a masterclass of how to dance with droplets and embed song into the mix.

If a few reservations along the way thus far, then none for Children’s Corner, magically evocative, enchantingly ebbed and flowed, caringly touched, storybook-characterised and – in ‘Golliwogg’s cake-walk’ (with its Tristan sideswipe) – irrepressible swagger.

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