Steven Osborne at St John’s Smith Square

Schubert
Four Impromptus, D935 – No.1 in F minor & No.4 in F minor
Debussy
Masques
Images, Série II
L’Isle joyeuse
George Crumb
Processional
Rachmaninov
Etudes-tableau – in C, Op.33/2; in C minor, Op.33/3; in D minor, Op.33/5; in A minor, Op.39/2; in E flat minor, Op.39/5; in D minor, Op.39/8; in D, Op.39/9

Steven Osborne (piano)


Reviewed by: Brian Barford

Reviewed: 3 February, 2016
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Steven OsbornePhotograph: © Benjamin EalovegaAs queues stretch across the Royal Academy’s courtyard for its Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse exhibition, Impressionism seems at the forefront of the public imagination. Some of Debussy’s musical equivalents formed the centrepiece of Steven Osborne’s recital. He started this sequence with Masques and caught its disconcerting Scaramouche-like quality remarkably well with its agitated dance, thrumming repeated notes and odd stretches of inserted melody. He then went on to deliver the second Set of Debussy’s Images, homage to pure sensation and vividly pictorial. Osborne presented each with an incredible range of colour allied to a feeling for musical line. L’Isle joyeuse, prompted supposedly by Watteau’s great painting L’Embarquement pour Cythère, is more obviously voluptuous with its lilting rhythm and irregular passagework for the left-hand. It was played not only as an explosion of virtuosity but also captured a sense of transported enchantment.

The evening had started with two of Schubert’s Impromptus (from D935), both in F-minor. In the first, the brooding main theme was set against the warmly embellished second with sensitivity and lack of mannerism. No.4, with its darting runs and rippling scales leading to a brief if emphatic coda was thrown off with aplomb.

The recital’s second half began with George Crumb’s Processional (1983), a ten-minute piece that eschews the extended techniques this American composer (born in 1929) is known for and perhaps suggests the succession of nature. It is distinguished by a regular if not obsessive pulsing of chords. Processional is not too far from Debussy’s soundworld and is immediately appealing.

Rachmaninov’s Etude-tableaux demonstrate his interest in non-specific imagery and are mordant, terse, visionary and poetically simple. Opus 33 was written when he was focused on large-scale pieces and seems to compress grand ideas into concise forms. Opus 39 was the last music that Rachmaninov wrote before he left Russia in 1917 and are couched in more cosmopolitan terms. Osborne was throughout attentive to nuance and detail without undue emphasis. Technical complexity was delivered without it being externally imposed. Whether gently agitated, tender, consoling, plaintive or agile – or when pianism was pushed to its limits – Osborne was true to the composer, catching the visionary glow behind the virtuoso facade.

Osborne offered an encore of further Rachmaninov, the Prelude in D (Opus 23/4), given a reading of gentle nostalgia that was a fitting end to a remarkable evening.

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