Steven Osborne at Wigmore Hall – Beethoven & Rachmaninov

Piano Sonata in G, Op.79
Fantasy in G minor, Op.77
11 Bagatelles, Op.119
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42

Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 7 June, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Steven Osborne. Photograph: Eric RichmondBeethoven’s G major Sonata of 1809 bears the hallmarks of a sonatina – and yet, like many things the composer considered to be ‘easy’ material for a pianist, it has many hidden pitfalls and is by no means straightforward to play. In this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert Steven Osborne presented it as an attractive coupling with the G minor Fantasia of the same year, and in doing so paired an essentially classical work with a more overtly romantic one.

The Sonata was bright of tone, but quite fierce at times as some of the left-hand octaves leapt out of the piano in the first movement. In this and the lightly humorous finale Osborne paid particular attention to the staccato figurations that kept a crisp punctuation, though these were naturally dimmed for the flowing second movement, a reverie of albeit rather more serious tone. The Fantasia was by nature unhinged and unpredictable, perfectly capturing the freedom of a form allowing Beethoven to begin in G minor but end in a far-off B major, transforming the melodic material with which he began. Osborne was again incisive with his left hand, but the tumbling right hand glissandos were perfectly weighted.

The Bagatelle was a form peculiar almost exclusively to Beethoven, and, Diabelli Variations aside, proved his primary form of expression for the piano after completing the final piano sonata (Opus 111). The Opus 119 collection of these short but poignant pieces made for intriguing listening, with Osborne enjoying some of the more unexpected harmonic twists and turns. The first in the set made a beautiful return to its home key of G minor through subtle sleight of hand, while the fifth was a strident march. Osborne enjoyed the pairing of the ninth and tenth, employing tasteful rubato in the former while enjoying the throwaway charms of the latter. The set was performed as it should be, without a break, the neat construction of Beethoven’s picture-postcards revealed.

Osborne finished with a terrific performance of Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations, technically not on a theme by that composer but on ‘La Folia’, as used by Corelli and many of his fellow-Italian contemporaries. From the off this was an extremely intense reading, Osborne holding back in the slower music but powering forward inexorably under Rachmaninov’s ‘vivace’ and ‘scherzando’ markings. The inner parts of the chromatic first variation were fully revealed, while the twisted toll of bells in the seventh was particularly striking (pun intended). The sheer volume Osborne secured from the piano at times was almost alarming, but at no point did it feel as if he was over-projecting for its own sake. This was a reading with deep-seated passion, completely in command of Rachmaninov’s structure, knowing just when to push forward and when to hold off. It flew in the face of the composer’s own early performances of the work when he missed out variations if the American crowds were coughing too much. Happily we did not suffer so, the Wigmore Hall audience being on its best behaviour!

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