Steven Osborne recital

Rhapsody in B minor, Op.79/1
Sonata in B flat, D960
Pictures at an Exhibition

Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 February, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Steven Osborne left himself no hiding place in this attractive mix of very familiar pieces, played as part of the “International Piano Series”. On a purely musical level he won through easily – Osborne is a musician literally to his fingertips. On the more subjective aspects of Schubert’s ultimate sonata and the degree of characterisation needed for Pictures, things were less clear-cut.

Following a Brahms Rhapsody that justified the title – Osborne exploiting dynamic and tempo contrasts and giving Brahms a welcome malleability of form – the Schubert was a remarkably classical conception that breathed cool, fresh air. Osborne, although nowhere near Richter’s spaciousness, suggested some sort of withdrawal, and he was as thoughtful as Arrau without achieving similar depths of sonority. Osborne was equally nudging alongside Curzon in being structured and directional but without the same intensity, and he also knocked on Lupu’s door in terms of refinement but was not as exploitative of nuance. Schubert’s repetitions need more help.

The highlight was a very moving, hushed Andante sostenuto; elsewhere one longed for a little more colour and volatility, and poise occasionally – the scherzo’s da capo returned a little quicker than first time, which was already a little breathless. The finale’s normally commanding opening chord was dynamically reduced to make it rather quizzical, with justification (Osborne isn’t one for being obvious), the scale passages rather Mozartian. And there are few pianists that convince about leaving aside the long first-movement repeat; as Osborne currently interprets this work, the lead-back fortissimo bass trill cueing the first page again would have been totally out of place in a reading that was compelling and interesting and that seemed not so much in search of a distant place but reporting back from one.

Osborne’s way with Pictures could also be said to be within parameters. Rarely has Mussorgsky’s writing seemed so orthodox, his idiosyncrasies somehow ironed-out. Yet, Osborne also finds a through-line that takes the promenades and the images in a single gulp – although some pauses between are overdone – with his rhythmic vitality and innate phrasing often a joy. Yet Mussorgsky’s singular takes on Hartmann’s paintings lacked ’wet paint’ immediacy. The promenades could have been more ruminative, and Osborne could have made more contrast between the warm-coated Goldenberg and the shivering Schmuyle, but he kept The Old Castle moving along to advantage, made the Gnome both gawky and malevolent and suggested the Catacombs a place of static blackness.

For encores, Osborne played the first of Brahms’s Op.117 Intermezzos with a rare simplicity and sensitivity, and then delivered a stunning account of something by Medtner; I think Osborne said Troika, maybe one of Medtner’s many Fairy Tales. Here was power and passion. In many ways the encores signalled Osborne’s range rather more than the recital proper, something already well documented by his Hyperion recordings. Add in a natural and friendly platform manner: Steven Osborne is refreshingly himself.

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