City of London Festival – Steven Osborne Plays Debussy Préludes

Préludes – Book I
Préludes – Book II

Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 5 July, 2007
Venue: Drapers’ Hall, City of London, EC2

An inspired mapping of music and art by the City of London Festival, using the Livery Hall as a pictorial setting for Debussy’s 24 pictures in sound.

Experiencing both books of Debussy’s Préludes in one sitting is a challenging but hugely rewarding exercise; taking in scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” while doing so only added to the frisson. Steven Osborne was our guide, though those following in the programme would have experienced the Préludes in a different order to that listed.

Osborne remained faithful to the principles evident in his January 2006 recording for Hyperion of the Préludes (CDA67530), using this ideal acoustic to apply the exact details of the music if not always their extremities of expression. In this he was aided by sensitive use of the pedals and an extremely wide dynamic range – both essential tools in any performance of this music.

The extraordinary intimacy of Debussy’s piano writing was evident from a languid ‘Danseuses de Delphes’ (Book I/Number 1) right through to ‘Canope’ (Book II/Number 10), which had the quietest two notes of the entire evening forming its closing statement.

Osborne made use of the wide dynamic range to emphasise the schizophrenic nature of ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick, Esq. P.P.M.P.C. (Book II/Number 9) and its bungled version of “God Save the Queen”. Occasionally this spilled over into percussive hammering – not an invalid approach, by any means – but one evident in the final notes of ‘Les collines d’Anacapri’ (Book I/Number 5) and especially Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (Book I/Number 7).

Each time Osborne was careful to contrast with opposite moods, so that the stillness of ‘Des pas sur la neige’ (Book I/Number 6) grew slowly to motion, and the prodded opening of ‘La sérénade interrompue’ (Book I/Number 9) became a playful exchange between the voices.

Especially impressive was a big boned ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ (Book I/Number 10), a charming Bruyères (Book II/Number 5) and accounts of ‘Les fees sont d’exquises danseuses’ (Book II/Number 4) and ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’ (Book II/Number 7) that kept this elusive music at arm’s length.

Suffused in Debussy’s exotic soundworld, Osborne’s concentration was well-nigh-flawless, and succeeded in stilling a potentially restless audience at the outset of each book. The crowning glory was a sharply characterised ‘Feux d’artifice’, the last of the Préludes, the abruptly cushioned low notes particularly evocative.

Osborne made the brave decision to provide an encore, and opted for James MacMillan’s Lumen Christi, a brief study of alternating thirds that provided an appropriate commentary on what had gone before. Osborne’s Debussy was technically beyond reproach, and his playing brought much insight and pleasure to this remarkable music.

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