Steven Osborne at Wigmore Hall – Debussy, Berg, Prokofiev

Préludes, Book I – X: La cathédrale engloutie
Piano Sonata, Op.1
Piano Sonata No.7 in B-flat, Op.83
Préludes, Book I – IV: Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir
Piano Sonata No.6 in A, Op.82

Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Ateş Orga

Reviewed: 7 July, 2018
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Steven OsbornePhotograph: Benjamin EalovegaWith Steven Osborne you get a no-frills pianist of integrity and enquiry, willing to explore and take risks, no repertory too little or too large, no style beyond his understanding. A connoisseur of the keyboard, his playing is delectable, his dynamic range all-embracing, from the quietest imaginable pianissimo, the notes there yet scarcely touched, to raging torrents of fortissimo, not a bad-tempered misjudgement within earshot. Playing from music, he makes a virtue of the page. Art before ego.

On the face of it, a couple of prefatory French Preludes, and three uncompromising Sonatas, landmarks of the twentieth-century though they might all be, make for unlikely planning. Whatever the logic, nothing was spelt out in Anthony Burton’s programme note. In a personable introduction at the start of the concert, Osborne called to the Wagnerian in us, stressing and illustrating links between Alban Berg’s Sonata and the Tristan chord, but otherwise said nothing beyond requesting no applause in each half since he wanted to generate an ongoing experience, each work leading into the next. Connections, though, were what this recital was cumulatively, challengingly about. Not so much instances of mood, fantasy or extra-musicality as a fine-tooled interplay of pitch and pivotal relationships, endings bridging into beginnings. Thus the vertical C-major cadence of ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ transmogrified into the linear G-C opening of the Berg. The lingering, tonally conflicting Zarathustrian C/B close of the Berg morphed into the rapid C-B quavers at the start of Prokofiev Seven. ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ led directly, inevitably even, into the A-major of Prokofiev Six (the C-major slow movement of which, like its E-major Scherzo and the Andante caloroso of the Seventh, proving to be a long-term aural memory of turnings met in ‘La cathédrale engloutie’). Subsequently a brief allusion to P6 – the initial motif, recalled cyclically in the penultimate andante and closing section of the Finale (its throw-away reference to major thirds on C, B-flat and A discretely encapsulating the evening’s ‘tonality’) – made way for the encore, a partially improvised adaptation of Bill Evans’s transcription of George Gershwin’s ‘I loves you Porgy’.

Osborne’s take on Prokofiev is less obviously that of a virtuoso instrumentalist, more one of a searching conductor. Maybe the Finale of the Sixth was not as precipitous as Richter or Lugansky; maybe others (not Sokolov) make more of the transcendental character of the Seventh’s 7/8 Finale (both Trpčeski and Vondráček bringing a tensioned ‘rising’ psychology to the C-sharps of the left-hand theme). But the cumulative impact of these two Sonatas bordered on the orchestrally symphonic, Osborne seeking out a host of touches, articulations and colours to suggest woodwind, strings and tutti. The slow movement of the Seventh was a vision of high ‘Romeo and Juliet’ lyricism, the tenor-and-baritone tenths of the melody proving a masterclass in oily legato texturing, pedalling kept to a minimum, the later bell motif insistent if lonely. A Beethovenian drive and energy sent the Precipitato on a spiralling journey of rampant physicality and gritty harmonic theatre.

The 1940 Sixth Sonata, for many the best of Prokofiev’s ‘War’ trilogy, witnessed Osborne hewing an epic sculpture, conceiving its contrasts and tempo changes with a larger organic design in mind, reminding us repeatedly of the place this music commands in the canon of great masterworks. His staccato chords in the Scherzo, his left-hand ‘strums’, were fabulously light-winged and coordinated. And he gifted us a richesse of niceties in the valzer lentissimo of the third movement – cantabile, long-breathed phrases, sonorities melting into each other, landscapes built out of glistening rivulets and sudden explosions of thunder.

Berg’s Sonata, with exposition repeat, dealt in edgy poetry, gripped, glassy harmonies, and weighted climaxes – a concentration of overtones, fundamentals, motifs and debate. Osborne was here at pains to focus its intensities, clarification and cleansing of texture at a premium. Rather than be faced with pedalled post-Romantic lushness, we were offered a reading of sparse lining – a chamber-symphony in one movement, strikingly delicate and introverted yet not shy of grand gesture. Wandering Debussy’s world found ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ viewed in mist from a distance, and ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ cloaked in falling dew, harmonieux et souple, here moving on, there holding back to glimpse a quivering of night-birds or the dark As of bottomless wells.

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