Wigmore Hall: Spotlight on Steven Osborne – Beethoven Bagatelles, Waldstein and Opus 111

Bagatelles, Op.33
Piano Sonata No.21 in C, Op.53 (Waldstein)
Bagatelles, Op.119
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111

Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 1 October, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Steven Osborne. Photograph: Ben EalovegaThis was the first recital in Wigmore Hall’s “Spotlight on Steven Osborne” series and it covered all those attributes that distinguish this great musician’s playing – a lightly-worn authority and interpretative wisdom, a laser-like rhythmic incisiveness, a majestic control of sound and colour, a magnetic engagement with the music, and that instantly discernible, indefinable element: grace.

In the two sets of Bagatelles, Osborne completely had the measure of their scale and idiom, the more ebullient of them responding well to Osborne’s robust good humour. In the absence of formal complexity, he was a demon in projecting their extravagances of figuration. These pieces may have been described, by composer and publisher, as trifles, but Osborne’s needling inquisitiveness played up their astonishing (even by Beethoven’s standards) originality. In the Opus 33 set, there were many moments when Osborne let flashes of Beethoven’s later style imply themselves, and his approach vividly honoured the sheer audacity of Beethoven’s delight in the potential of the piano. There was even a subliminal echo of Osborne’s French sympathies in the way that his playing encouraged you to apply titles to some of the pieces, as in Debussy’s Préludes, where the printed music ends with the title. You appreciated the discretion with which Osborne suggested the similarity of the last of the Opus 33 set to the pulsating opening of the ‘Waldstein’, and he drew the same sort of tactful cross-reference between the final one of the Opus 119 collection to the ‘Arietta’ of Opus 111.

After these miniatures of epigrammatic significance, the Sonatas seemed grander and more complex than ever. In the ‘Waldstein’, I loved the way in which Osborne gave the right-hand’s opening figure a half-light that quickly burgeoned into brilliance. He sustained a punchy momentum from the start, the first-movement repeat racketing up the tension into a hard-driven development. It made sense, though, in a brilliantly prepared reprise – one of Beethoven’s most thrilling, and delivered with panache. Similarly, he gave the slow release of the slow movement into the finale great finesse and understatement. I parted company with him over the ferocity of Opus 111’s first movement and of the syncopated third variation in the second. In every other respect, though, in the magisterially controlled trills and the huge distances evoked by the high piano writing before the coda, this extraordinary music was as it should be, miraculous and transcendental.

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