Steven Osborne plays Ravel at Wigmore Hall

Gaspard de la nuit
Pavane pour une infante défunte
À la manière de Borodine
À la manière de Chabrier
Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn
Sérénade grotesque
Menuet in C sharp minor
Jeux d’eau
La valse

Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 February, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This 75th-anniversary year of Ravel’s death – hardly likely to go unmarked – will feature fewer fine events than this recital of almost half the composer’s solo piano output given by Steven Osborne at Wigmore Hall, whose credentials in this music were confirmed by his complete survey on the Hyperion label issued about a year ago.

Steven Osborne. Photograph: Eric RichmondOpening with the Sonatine (1905) worked well inasmuch as it set out the ostensible poles between expressive subtlety and formal discipline which are central to Ravel’s maturity. True, the first movement – written for a competition whose sponsor folded before the prize could be awarded – has an all-round poise such as any later additions could scarcely have hoped to equal, yet Osborne went much of the way to mitigating this through deftly opening-out the minuet’s emotional range during its coda then imbuing the finale with an élan whose lyrical episodes audibly linked to the opening and so confirmed the thematic cohesion of the whole.

Next Gaspard de la nuit (1908), the culmination of Ravel’s overtly Impressionist phase and music whose unstinting virtuosity is as evident in its restraint as in its bravura. If Osborne sounded a little unsettled at the start of ‘Ondine’, his handling over the piece’s outward-curving dynamics and teasing final withdrawal was immaculately done, after which ‘Le Gibet’ was notable for its air of claustrophobic inwardness (though the belated change of key did not quite evince the startling change of tonal colour other pianists have secured). Nor did he succumb to any temptation to overemphasize the visceral demands of ‘Scarbo’, rather ensuring that its coruscating climaxes were made the outcome of a logical and remorseless process of textural as well as expressive accumulation whose culmination does not arrive until the music vanishes into a ‘black hole’ of its own devising. Seldom, moreover, have these three pieces emerged as so cohesive and cumulative.

Grouping most of Ravel’s shorter piano pieces into a viable sequence affords numerous permutations, with that devised by Osborne for the eight he performed after the interval being as effective as any. The archaic manner of Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) was affecting without being cloying, while Menuet sur le nom de Haydn (1909) leavened its dry wit with an appealing humour. The brace of A la manière de… pieces (1913) were stylishly rendered: that for Borodin could easily have been a belated addition to his Petite Suite, while that for Chabrier deftly touched upon the latter’s often risqué humour. Good that Sérénade grotesque (1893) has been accepted into the Ravel canon, as its alternation between rhythmic aggression and harmonic piquancy finds the teenager venturing onto soon-to-become-familiar ground, while a brief and only recently published Menuet (1904) is a chip of highest-grade timber. Jeux d’eau (1901) was a miracle of improvisatory elegance (a shame, even so, that Osborne ran through his tone in the final cadence), while the Prélude (1913) that Ravel essayed as a test-piece for the Paris Conservatoire duly emerged as more than usually expressive – a reminder, if such were needed, that he was never more effective than when operating on a limited canvas.

The advertised recital concluded with La valse (1920) in the solo piano guise that has only recently come into its own (with not a little help from Osborne), and which is undoubtedly a major contribution both to Ravel’s own output and that of piano repertoire in general. While it necessarily eschews the textural intricacy of the familiar orchestral version, the present incarnation lacks nothing in dexterity while its timbral consistency arguably makes the work’s formal ingenuity more immediately evident. As given by Osborne, moreover, it typified the ‘meaningful virtuosity’ abundant in Ravel’s output as a whole and his piano music in particular.

A spectacular conclusion, then, to an impressive recital and Osborne had enough in reserve for a brief though pertinent encore: the whimsical ‘La belle et le bette’ from the Ma mere l’oye (1908), here given in an arrangement (Osborne’s own?) for solo piano which brought the evening to a limpidly affecting close.

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