Steven Osborne at Wigmore Hall – Rachmaninov’s Opus 33 Etudes-tableaux & Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

Etudes-tableaux, Op.33 – I in F minor, III in C minor, VII in E flat & VIII in G minor
Pictures at an Exhibition

Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 2 February, 2015
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Steven OsbornePhotograph: Ben EalovegaIt’s true – Steven Osborne is one of the great musicians of his generation, and I treasure the times I’ve had my ears opened by the insights this remarkable pianist brings to everything he plays.

In this BBC Lunchtime Concert at Wigmore Hall, It was an effective bit of programming to place the mostly non-specific imagery of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-tableaux against the precise visuals that inspired Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Osborne’s subtle virtuosity reeled-in Rachmaninov’s fleeting moods of passion and melancholy with an inexhaustible supply of nuance and detail. In his selection from the Opus 33 set, the insecurity he built into the march-like No.1’s restless changes of metre that just about suppress a burgeoning lyricism, the burden of Tristan-like languor in the ravishing No.3 and the drained, grey sound he drew from the piano in No.8, all were brilliantly played examples of Osborne’s heightened identification with Rachmaninov’s elusive introversion.

After Osborne’s reading of Pictures at an Exhibition, I wonder if I’ll ever feel the need to hear it again in any of its numerous orchestral versions. It was one of those rare moments where a work you thought you knew well suddenly heaps surprise upon revelation. Instead of being a suite of impressions linked by a rondo-like ritornello, the ‘Promenade’ theme became a personality reacting to Viktor Hartmann’s paintings. The viewer’s character – confident, quizzical, receptive – his presence guided us round the gallery in the most privileged of private views, and explored by Osborne with infectious clarity and affection. It was easy to imagine the bulky, bibulous Mussorgsky as he paused to engage with each image.

Osborne’s technical panache, command of colour and unerring sense of direction were astounding, the angular asperity of ‘Gnomus’ honed with fresh spite, the nagging, blank rhythm of ‘The Old Castle’ sounding like a frail heartbeat, the huge volume of sound as the ox-cart hauled by ‘Bydlo’ lumbered into view, the terrible bitterness and sorrow of the dialogue between the rich and poor Jews – all the Pictures at this Exhibition were fully realised.

By the time Osborne let the bells of Kiev ring out, the transfiguring process of art and viewer becoming one was incandescently complete. It was a stunning account, the impression of which not even Osborne’s movingly played encore, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D (Opus 23/4), could efface.

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