Steven Osborne plays Ravel at Wigmore Hall (2) [Miroirs … Valses nobles et sentimentales … Le tombeau de Couperin]

Menuet antique
Miroirs [Noctuelles; Oiseaux tristes; Une barque sur l’océan; Alborada del gracioso; La vallée des cloches]
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Le tombeau de Couperin

Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 June, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Steven Osborne. Photograph: Eric RichmondFollowing Steven Osborne’s first Wigmore Hall recital devoted to Ravel’s piano music, it hardly needed the 75th-anniversary of the composer’s death to occasion a follow-up programme. This latter evening was largely devoted to three of his larger-scale cycles – albeit one commencing with the Chabrier-like though far from uncharacteristic Menuet antique (1896), to whose combination of pungent discords and (in the central trio section) ruminative discourse Osborne did ample justice. These qualities were to be given even greater emphasis in the composer’s orchestration almost 35 years later, yet the poise and conviction of the piano original is such as to make any such ‘rethink’ of relative value – if not downright superfluous.

An admirable foil, at any rate, to Miroirs (1905) – the most extensive of Ravel’s piano works and the fullest embodiment of his take on musical impressionism. Osborne undoubtedly had its measure – from the pellucid figuration of ‘Noctuelles’ and the distanced pathos of ‘Oiseaux tristes’, via the ominous ebb and flow of ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ (its underlying momentum controlled to perfection here) then the alternating verve and sultriness of ‘Alborada del gracioso’ (those two aspects being effortlessly integrated in the final bars), to the evocative remoteness and the deep serenity of ‘La vallée des cloches’ whose interpretative demands are arguably the greater in context and which Osborne realised in fullest measure.

If there was any disappointment, it came with Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911). Not that the playing was anything other than assured, as witnessed by a stinging account of the opening section, but the ensuing six waltzes – while pertinently characterised – rather failed to establish any underlying continuity of expressive purpose (something that may be easier to achieve in the subsequent orchestral version), thereby making the ‘Epilogue’ more a veiled recollection than a probing amalgamation of earlier ideas. Moreover, though the Schubertian connotation can be overstated in this work, to have it played down as intently as here risked missing the point entirely.

No such reservations regarding Le tombeau de Couperin (1917) – effectively Ravel’s last undertaking for solo piano and one which embodied recent and future concerns to an unwitting (?) degree. From the gentle eloquence of the ‘Prélude’ and methodical unfolding of the ‘Fugue’, Osborne was no less attentive to the deadpan irony of the ‘Forlane’ or bracing vigour (not forgetting its central pathos) of the ‘Rigaudon’, before investing the ‘Menuet’ with an unerring wistfulness that stood in greatest contrast to the scintillating display of the ‘Toccata’. Osborne winced as he momentarily went awry in the tumultuous final bars, yet it hardly detracted from as inclusive a realisation of the sequence as could be imagined.

Reaching the end of this recital made one appreciate just how conveniently Ravel’s piano music falls into ideally balanced programmes and, in consequence, regret that he did not pursue the medium during his remaining fifteen years of creativity. Having partly redressed the balance with his bravura rendition of La valse in the previous recital, Osborne rounded off this second recital with a melting rendition of ‘Petit Poucet’ from Ma mere l’oye, no less intimate than in its original guise for piano duet and which functioned as an ideal encore. One can only look forward to Osborne’s future Wigmore Hall recitals – perhaps to include the complete, or at least the major piano works of Debussy?

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