Osborne Tippett 1

Piano Sonata No.1
Three Preludes
Piano Sonata No.2
Three Page Sonata
Mikrokosmos – Five Pieces from Book VI

Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 7 January, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Although there seemed to be little, if any, stylistic relationships between Tippett’s first two piano sonatas and the rest of the works in this recital, the programme notes made it quite clear that such a “contextualisation” was based more on general principles, the main one being that of mixing popular and folk idioms with “serious” musical procedures, the secondary that of using the quotidian, the demotic, as a mere starting point, something either to transform beyond all recognition or react against, reject outright.

The trouble with Tippett’s music is that it can sound both hodgepodge and consciously constructed – probably due to the composer’s inclusive nature and the high value he placed on craftsmanship. Thus the First Sonata (a revised version of the earlier Fantasy Sonata) is a fusion of Beethoven (the outer movements are, respectively, saturated with the stylistic traits of the final movements of the ‘Waldstein’ and ‘Appassionata’), the traditional (the Andante being based on “Ca’ the yowes”) and neo-baroque (the Hindemithian contrapuntalism of the third movement Presto). And not to mention the jazz elements in the finale. A smashing performance though from Osborne, who obviously has some kind of unified conception of the piece, made manifest by careful shaping of the larger sections within each movement.

He followed it up with superb renditions of Ravel’s Sonatine and Gershwin’s Three Preludes. It was perhaps a little unfortunate to hear the Tippett in such close proximity to the Ravel…

The second half of the recital began with Tippett’s Sonata No.2, from 1963. What a different beast from the earlier work. But still the spectre of Beethoven is lurking behind the music – the sharp contrasts between two simple ideas, the antiphonal conversations, and the use of silence. But unlike Beethoven, there’s no attempt at development, merely the juxtaposition of short episodes. Certainly, one can hear Chopin in the fast octave passages and Debussy in some of the more meditative moments, but that doesn’t help to relieve the monotony. It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Again, an excellent performance from Osborne; but, again, following the Tippett with such fine works as Ives’s Three Page Sonata and a selection from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos only served to throw the Sonata’s shortcomings into even sharper relief. And a Debussy prelude as an encore didn’t improve matters.

To follow his recital, Osborne played jazz for an hour, which included his own transcriptions of improvisations from Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans, some ‘free style’ improvisation (which Osborne has a strong preference for over jazz per se), some extemporising on themes requested from the audience (the opening of Rhapsody in Blue and the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata) and more Beethoven with a hilarious Dudley Moore-style routine: it turns out that Osborne’s housekeeper has discovered the long-lost third movement of Beethoven’s final piano sonata (Op.111). Tonight we were privileged to hear the world premiere. The name? ‘Two Pounds of Carrots’. The result? A ridiculous mixture of Beethoviniana and Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer.

Steven Osborne continues his Wigmore Hall Tippett sonata survey on Sunday the 9th at 5 o’clock.

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