Steven Osborne, piano
December 1 2022
Review: William Ruff
Playing to nourish both head and heart from Steven Osborne
Doctors not only have the power to prescribe medicine but they can un-prescribe composers too – but only if you’re a star pianist with a tendon problem in your hand. So Rachmaninov was out of Steven Osborne’s recital on Thursday at Lakeside and Schubert was in.
Steven is one of this country’s most celebrated classical pianists. He’s performed all over the world, has dozens of top-rated recordings to his name and shot to stardom as the winner of several prestigious international competitions. Of course, if you’re a star who emits that much light, there’s no point in hiding that light under the proverbial bushel. Rachmaninov’s muscular pyrotechnics may have gone but the programme was still as exciting as it was dauntingly difficult.
The first half of his programme was all Debussy, starting with his suite Pour le piano, not a piece for a musical shrinking violet. It’s music at its most brilliant with some startling pianistic effects, such as when the fingers have to slide up and down the keyboard ‘like d’Artagnan drawing his sword’, as the composer rather colourfully put it. In the opening Prelude colours were bright, especially in the shimmering central section, like one of Monet’s most vivid canvases.
As well as including the exquisite Le Plus Que Lent and the sombre, quirky Berceuse Héroique Osborne also opted for the second book of Etudes, six pieces which set out to offer very specific challenges to the performer in order to develop and refine technical mastery. These studies are much more than dry academic exercises, as Steven demonstrated throughout his playing. He showed that they are not so much finger-training exercises as adventures in compositional techniques, exploring harmonic structures and revealing the piano’s rainbow of sonic colour. Perhaps the highlight of the set was Pour les accords, Steven thrillingly demonstrating its force, majesty and panache. It’s tough, demanding music – and sounds impossible to play, but in Osborne’s hands it’s music which nourishes the heart as well as the head.
There may have been no wrestling match with Rachmaninov in the recital’s second half, but I doubt that there were any complaints about the replacement Schubert. Steven Osborne played his A major Sonata, written just a few months before the composer died at the tragically young age of 31. It captures the full range and scope of Schubert’s artistry, a work full of drama, lyricism, introspection and violent despair. Its second movement must be one of the most extraordinary things Schubert ever wrote. It features extreme contrasts of mood: meditative calm at one moment, volcanic turbulence at another, as a deeply moving, other-worldly barcarolle is overwhelmed by a manic eruption that violently shatters the music’s coherence. The outburst seemed particularly shocking in Steven’s highly physical performance. Throughout his clarity of tone, sensitivity and crisp articulation were a constant joy – in music that was emotionally complex, intellectually trenchant and achingly beautiful.
As an encore Steven played his own improvisation on a theme by one of his piano heroes, the jazz/classical pianist Keith Jarrett. It was a calm, serene ending to an outstanding concert.
Steven Osborne, piano