Steven Osborne at Queen Elizabeth Hall [Moonlight Sonata, Gaspard de la nuit, Visions fugitives, Rachmaninov]

Piano Sonata No.14 in C sharp minor, Op.27/2 (Quasi una fantasia – Moonlight)
Gaspard de la nuit
Visions fugitives, Op.22
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.36 [Vladimir Horowitz edition with emendations by Steven Osborne from the 1913 and 1931 versions]

Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Neil Barrett

Reviewed: 5 October, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Steven Osborne. Photograph: Eric RichmondSteven Osborne, a pianist of considerable prowess and dexterity, here presented a challengingly diverse programme as part of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series.

From the opening measures of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata it was evident that intellectual control and clarity of texture were at the top of Osborne’s priorities. This is not to say that atmosphere was in any way lacking, for judicious use of pedals and a firm steady pulse were carefully maintained. The second movement felt somewhat prosaic, despite elegance of phrasing and nuanced detail; and the finale lacked emotional involvement, the adherence to rather measured pacing served to rob the music of its inherent drama. The pauses seemed calculated rather than organically improvised, and only in the closing pages did a slight sense of derailment ironically tease the ear into a suspenseful moment of anticipation. The Sonata came to a gruff and clangourous close.

Gaspard de la nuit looked to offer a provocative contrast. In this landmark work it is difficult for any pianist today to escape the overwhelming influence of Michelangeli’s Machiavellian account, which whilst not necessarily the final word on this masterpiece has been a benchmark for over fifty years. In Osborne’s reading there was little evidence of the great Italian’s influence, which would be unimportant had there been something novel and personal in evidence. (For all his eyebrow-raising mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, one can at least say that Ivo Pogorelich made this piece his own, whatever the reservations.) Instead, we had to be content with a rather careful surface performance, one that seemed devoid both of genuine enchantment and the psychological undercurrents that are intrinsic to the piece. Hypnotic and bewitching this was not.

It was interesting to find a measure of respite in the shape of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, a marvellous smorgasbord of skewed volatility and quixotic musings. Delivered complete by Osborne with occasional charm and nicely shaped contours, the pieces were perhaps made a bit too polite most of the time. Suddenly I found myself recalling Nikolai Demidenko’s wonderful traversal in the mid-nineties and asked myself: ’Does one have to be Russian in order to fully grasp, digest, and convey their underlying subversive qualities?’. In any case, a shade more colour and sense of irony would not have gone amiss.

Most pianists believe that by performing Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata at the end of a recital, one is guaranteed success as long as the notes are played in the right order. It is little surprise that very few interpreters come even remotely close to Horowitz’s ‘knees-up’, barnstorming recording from the late-1960s. (Leonid Kuzmin and the late Joseph Villa are notable exceptions.) Thankfully there has been a trend over the past ten to fifteen years to resurrect many of Vladimir Horowitz’s transcriptions and re-workings, such as the 1968 one he provided for this Sonata. Kudos must be given here to Osborne for his own clever work fusing the composer’s two versions (from 1913 and 1931) with Horowitz’s interpolations. A pity, then, that he should play the piece so squarely and predictably. Climaxes could be seen approaching from miles away, and the close of the work, quite loud as might be expected, was crowd-pleasing. The encore, the fourth of Rachmaninov’s Opus 23 Preludes – a thing of rapturous and voluptuous beauty – also made less than its due effect.

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