Six Bagatelles, Op.126
Piano Sonata No.3
La cathédrale engloutie Préludes Book 1
Piano Sonata No.4
Steven Osborne (piano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 9 January, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Steven Osborne completed his Wigmore Hall survey of Michael Tippett’s four piano sonatas with compelling performances of the two that are the longest and most demanding.
Tippett went on a long, diverse and radical compositional journey over his seven decades of writing. The jazzy and ‘popular’ aspects of Sonata No.1 (completed in 1938) bear little to the craggy, concentrated masterpiece that is No.2 (1962). These different ‘periods’ of Tippett’s art found their corollary in his ‘final’ phase, from which both these sonatas (from 1973 and 1984, respectively). Yet both are different; and both are exacting if rewarding. The emphasis on song and rhythm is true to both.
Tippett’s rough-hewn, communicative and deeply expressive music may be likened to Beethoven’s, so the Bagatelles opening Osborne’s recital proved an ideal foil, each a bigger world than the title suggests. Osborne played the slower numbers simply and affectingly, maybe slightly too spaciously, but with no lack of poetry; the ones in E flat and G (numbers 3 and 5) being especially moving; only the B minor Presto (No.4) sounded too contained and the one occasion that Osborne spilt some notes. In perfect contrast was the exquisite chord-balance and climactic poise of the Debussy. His softness of tone, too, marks Osborne out as one of the most thoughtful and refined pianists around.
All these elements are present in these two Tippett sonatas, yet the music can only be his – a definition of greatness, maybe. Osborne’s devotion to Tippett’s music is palpable. The three movements of the 25-minute Sonata No.3 are fast-slow-fast, the middle one a long meditation of expansive import, the gravity-pulling chords and Impressionistic decoration separated by concise energetic movements, the first establishing the importance of silent-bars that also link the movements, and the finale’s toccata dispatched fearlessly by Osborne to its single-chord summation.
For all the complexity of Tippett’s music, there is also a heart-to-heart directness, and a logic that becomes apparent as the music reaches journey’s end. Thus the final chord of the 35-minute Sonata No.4, ultimately, seems the destination that Tippett had in view all the while (was he thinking of the final movement of Beethoven’s C minor Sonata, Op.111?). Yet Tippett 4 is also a tough piece to crack, and one wants to get under its skin. The middle ‘Slow’ movement, which shares material with Symphony No.4, is the deepest music here and is offset by a scherzo of lyrical impulse and playful syncopation. The ‘Slow’ final movement (Tippett uses the plainest directions, although ‘Medium slow – medium fast’ for the first movement needs thinking about!) can seem meandering; but, then, the final cadence is reached so rationally and so definitely – suggesting the listener needs to catch up with the composer. Osborne is hopefully recording Tippett’s sonatas for Hyperion; may this happen soon!