Edinburgh International Festival – Steven Osborne

Préludes – Book II
Preludes, Op.32

Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 23 August, 2006
Venue: The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

This was the second of a pair of late-morning Edinburgh Festival recitals in which Steven Osborne played both Books of Debussy’s Préludes (which Hyperion has just issued, CDA67530) and the two sets of Rachmaninov’s. One might almost say ‘an embarrassment of preludes’. Apropos Williams Wordsworth’s famous poem, “The Prelude”, which runs to forty pages, one wag once commented that if this was only the prelude, heaven knows what the real thing would be like. Be that as it may, this programme contained some of the most demanding music written for piano both in terms of colouristic effects and outright virtuosity, a pianistic obstacle-course that – for the most part – Osborne negotiated with great assurance.

When first published in Britain, Book II of Debussy’s Préludes was significantly less successful than Book I, selling less than half the number of copies despite its British references – Rackham’s statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’), George V’s Indian Durbar (‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’), and “God Save the King” (‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C’). Osborne seemed far more at home in the more evocative insubstantial worlds of ‘Brouillards’ (Mists), ‘Feuilles mortes’ (Dead Leaves) and the hieratic ‘Audiences du clair de lune’ than in the character pieces such as ‘Général Lavine – eccentric’, which lacked a certain tongue-in-cheek quality. However, there was no doubting Osborne’s consummate virtuosity in the hugely demanding ‘Les tierces alternées’ or in the concluding ‘Feux d’artifice, both despatched with exuberant relish.

Rather less successful were the 13 Preludes of Rachmaninov’s Opus 32 set. (To make the requisite number of 24, there are 10 Preludes in Rachmaninov’s Opus 23 collection and the famous C sharp minor Prelude is the second piece of Morceaux de fantaisie, Opus 3.) In Osborne’s traversal of Opus 32, technique was there in abundance but this is music that calls for greater emotional generosity than he seemed able to summon up, at least on this occasion. Whilst there is a case for crisp, cleanly pedalled Rachmaninov, the outburst of joy in No.3 seemed strangely muted and No.4 sounded more like a study. One found oneself scribbling ‘Yes, but where’s the abandon?’ Best was No.10, its sounds hanging Debussy-like in the air, its ending quite hypnotic.

Elsewhere Osborne’s forceful, slightly literal approach and lack of fantasy led to some monotony. One emerged impressed at the feat of his playing but a little battered by the end result. On this evidence Osborne is far more at home with Debussy than Rachmaninov.

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