Fantasia on a Theme of Handel
Piano Sonata No.1
Piano Sonata No.2
Piano Sonata No.3
Piano Sonata No.4
Steven Osborne (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Concerto and Fantasia recorded 12 & 13 May 2007 in City Hall, Glasgow; Sonatas recorded 28-31 July 2006 in Henry Wood Hall, London
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: December 2007
CD No: HYPERION
CDA67461/2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 21 minutes
Back in the 1970s, it was the magical opening of Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto that first got me irrevocably hooked on his music. Dating from 1953-5 it comes in the wake of the composer’s first opera, “The Midsummer Marriage”, and reflects its soundworld and its life-enhancing energy. It’s good to be able to welcome this new recording, placed in the context of Tippett’s entire published output for piano.
It’s a performance that luxuriates in the work’s lyrical warmth but also gives it a backbone of steel. Typical of this approach is the impressive force with which Stephen Osborne launches into the cadenza-like solo towards the end of the first movement, which he then softens, as directed, with superb control. When Tippett (1905-1998) asks for the later part of this passage to be “luminous and very soft”, that’s exactly what Osborne gives him. The second movement, in which the piano maintains richly profuse textures against a series of rather austere wind and horn canons, is superbly sustained by both pianist and orchestral players, so that the flood of string tone that overwhelms the score at the climax comes with a thrilling sense of release, while the exuberant, dancing energy of the finale simply leaps off the page.
The Fantasia on a Theme of Handel, from 1941, has tended to be something of a poor relation among Tippett’s orchestral works. But this performance shows it to be a work of real substance, albeit one rather more given to grand rhetorical gestures than Tippett generally contemplated.
Osborne’s identification with Tippett’s distinctive vein of keyboard fantasy continues into the four sonatas. In No.1 (1938), originally entitled Fantasy-Sonata until revised in 1942, which concludes the first of the two discs, Osborne’s lively characterisation of the first movement Variations is followed by a profoundly moving account of the second movement’s meditation on the Scottish traditional song “Ca’ the yowes”. In the finale, where Peter Donohoe, in his Naxos disc of Sonatas 1-3, slightly misjudges the throwaway ending, Osborne gets it just right.
Sonata No.2, of 1962, emerged from the changed expressive landscape of Tippett’s second opera, “King Priam”, with its abrupt juxtapositions and grittier harmonic language, but Osborne, like Donohoe, manages a fine balance between the hard-edged discontinuities and the moments of flowing lyricism.
Osborne finds exhilaration in the stark two-part texture at the start of the Third Sonata, from 1973, with the hands dancing furiously at opposite ends of the keyboard, from where they gradually move together for the exploratory lyricism of the big central movement. Here Osborne’s playing has the most extraordinary delicacy and feel for Tippett’s distinctive piano sonorities. He shatters the calm effectively with the toccata-like finale, giving a bright, ringing quality to the final chord that stops the music in its tracks.
The last of the four sonatas (1984) is also the biggest in scale. Tippett’s original conception of the work as a set of bagatelles is reflected in its strongly contrasted sections. The third of its five movements begins and ends with a quotation from the opening of Tippett’s Fourth Symphony from some seven years earlier, a strikingly resonant image (in more senses than one) which is eventually brushed aside by the scherzo fourth movement. This, in turn, suddenly evaporates to leave the long slow finale (the five movements play continuously). Again, Osborne has the measure of the sonata’s wide-ranging character, finding moments of playfulness in the fourth movement – echoes of Variation 4 in the first movement of Sonata No.1 – and profound tranquillity and tenderness elsewhere.
The orchestral recordings have spaciousness and clarity, and the piano sound is superb throughout. In the Concerto I thought at first that the celesta, which plays an important part in the first and last movements, was rather recessed, but later hearings suggest that its slightly veiled presence adds an extra degree of enchantment and mystery to, for example, its brief duets with a solo viola in the first movement.
The drab browns and greys of the cover illustration (a piece of Russian cubism from 1915) seem an odd choice for discs of music with such abundant colour and vitality, but the performances serve Tippett’s teeming imagination with sympathy, energy and commitment. They are backed up by Ian Kemp’s generously detailed booklet note and the many insights therein are supplemented by Osborne’s own valuable comments.