Thursday, 28 August 2008

Edinburgh International Festival: Steven Osborne piano recital, 28 August 2008

The Queen’s Hall

Debussy – Children’s Corner
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.21 in C major, op.53, ‘Waldstein’
Messiaen – Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus: excerpts

Steven Osborne (piano)

This was originally to have been a recital by Ivan Moravec, with an entirely different programme. The great Czech pianist, however, was indisposed and Steven Osborne took his place at very short notice.

His Children’s Corner suite steered a middle way between modernist clarity and (post-) impressionist haze, not that there was anything of a compromise about this. The performance sounded truly as if performed an instrument ‘without hammers’, a fine touch aided by skilful, atmospheric, but never indiscriminate pedalling. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum had an apt quality of the curtain-raiser to it, both in terms of the suite and the recital as a whole. Each piece was subtly characterised yet made to serve its place in a greater whole. Tempi were judiciously chosen, and the deployment of rubato was exemplary. Jimbo was treated to a charming lullaby; the snow truly danced, yet remained snowlike. Golliwogg’s Cakewalk was taken with a nice swing, never at the cost of rhythmic precision, and the Tristan joke was all the better for not being laboured.

I found the Waldstein sonata less successful, which is not to say wholly unsuccessful. The first movement fared best, exhibiting a strong sense of forward momentum, although it could be a little unyielding. This did not apply to statements of the second subject, whose melting chords Osborne voiced with clarity and with feeling. The modulation to E major had a sense of magic not so evident in the rest of the sonata. The Introduzione is marked molto adagio, and I am usually the last person to take a musician to task for slow tempi. However, this was not only molto adagio but also rather plodding. Phrases were not always sustained as they might be, leading to an unduly ‘broken’ impression. Part of the problem was an apparent inability or neglect to listen through the rests. The Rondo likewise sounded somewhat laboured to start with, although it improved as time went on. A greater shortcoming was the increased tendency, present to some extent in the first movement too, to treat Beethoven as if he – of all composers! – were thinking, like Debussy, of an instrument without hammers. The harmonic shifts of the changing trills were thus undersold, although the effect was beautiful in itself. One needs to guard against the prospect of harmonic monotony, given the preponderance of tonic and dominant in much of this movement. Details need to tell more than they did, both in themselves and for their structural import. Still, the coda brought matters to an exciting conclusion, although I entertained the impression that it was not so hard-won as it might have been.

When it came to the five excerpts from Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, I had no reservations whatsoever. This was superlative pianism and, more to the point, superlative musicianship. Osborne performed no.1, Regard du Père; no.8, Regard des hauteurs; No.14, Regard des anges; No.19, Je dors, mais mon coeur veille; and no.10, Regard de l’esprit de joie. I have not heard his Hyperion recording, but I can certainly now understand why it is so highly regarded. The whole gamut of pianistic expression, from the chordal serenity of the opening regard to the post-Lisztian pyrotechnics of no.10 was covered here. Especially striking was Osborne’s response to Messiaen’s utterly characteristic harmonic language. His understanding of where the music was to lead through its harmonic implications could hardly have been bettered. Nor could his technique. In no.19, we seemed to have all the time in the world, without the slightest danger of boredom; nothing could have been more apt for the evocation of one’s heart watching during sleep. My only complaint was that we could not have heard more; a complete performance would clearly be an occasion of great note. Osborne followed this triumph with a Gershwin transcription. He savoured the idiom, although he could not convince me that this was anything more than café music. Still, this was a recital to treasure for the Messiaen.