Pictures at an Exhibition
Steven Osborne (piano)
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 26 February, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
That’s not to belittle Debussy’s present to his daughter Chouchou, for the suite is exquisitely coloured and composed with obvious affection. Steven Osborne took a while to portray this in ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’, which was rather dry from the outset, the pianist stock still as he concentrated on the fast passagework. Gradually the thaw took hold however, with a powerful growth of musical intensity toward the end.
Elsewhere the suite gave greater rewards though could still perhaps have done with more charm. That said, the softly played ‘Jimbo’s Lullaby’ was a treat, as was the flighted ‘Serenade of the Doll’, where the piano sounded a touch muffled at the climax. No such problems with ‘Golliwog’s Cake-Walk’ though, which was taken with a swing, the second theme particularly florid.
Again the pianist was a little rigid at the start of Pictures at an Exhibition, though this was a far more valid approach as the visitor viewing Hartmann’s paintings is only beginning to peruse them. A strongly characterised suite followed, impressively structured with the ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ always the goal but plenty of care taken to vividly evoke the ten preceding pictures.
‘The Old Castle’ was suitably sombre; the inner parts subdued so that the troubadour’s repeated bass became rather haunting, the upper melody twisting around it. ‘Bydlo’ had a heavy tread, the wagon taking some time to lumber into action but its clanking industry was brutally conveyed by Osborne, whose fortissimo was impressively clean. The soft response to this, a truncated ‘Promenade’, was unexpectedly moving, an ideal preparation for the ‘Ballet of the Chicks’ with the playful unpredictability of Mussorgsky’s writing perfectly caught. Meanwhile the ominous ‘Catacombae’ placed plenty of emphasis on the composer’s use of dissonant harmony.
Occasionally Osborne could have given the music more space – ‘Gnomus’ was a little too straight, for instance, while ‘Baba Yaga’, though suitably grotesque, took a little while to grow. This particular approach worked, however, with considerable momentum built up for the arrival at the ‘great gate’, checked by huge E flat chords. Osborne was superb here, the tolling of the bell near the end given more prominence before the thunderous finish.
As a suitable ‘come down’ from these heady excesses, Osborne retreated to the opposite end of the dynamic range for a Debussy Prélude, ‘Canope’, a beautifully rendered encore that complemented the main act perfectly.