Osborne at war and peace – a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

August 7, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Distinguished Scottish pianist, Steven Osborne, unexpectedly interleaved major piano works by Debussy and Prokofiev to present contrasting musical landscapes, not only in composition but playing style as well.

Fraser Beath McEwing

All four compositions called for a highly developed technique and powers of interpretation. Osborne delivered on both counts in spades.

Of Prokofiev’s ten sonatas for piano, (No.10 was unfinished) three have been nicknamed the ‘war sonatas’ – largely because they were composed between 1939 and 1944. Another link is that they were born as a litter of 10 movements during those years, before they were assembled as autonomous sonatas. Osborne chose numbers one and three from the war group or, in Prokofiev’s sonata chronology, No. 6 and 8. The ‘war’ reference may also be applied to the engagement between pianist and composer. In addition to composition, Prokofiev was an outstanding pianist and wrote for those on his technical level. Like going to war, bravely is required when a pianist walks on stage to go into sonata battle. In this context, Osborne was a highly trained and decorated combatant armed with a fully loaded Steinway Model D.

He came first in peace, however, with Debussy’s Estampes. The three movements, which recall, in the manner of Japanese stamp prints, Pagodes (Pagodas) La Soirée dans Grenade (Evening in Granada) Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the rain) are often played as stand-alone pieces. They are all highly evocative of their subjects. Pagodas conjures up oriental buildings, with curved roofs and religious mystery; Spanish dance is unmistakable in Granada, while Gardens in the Rain takes every listener to a remembered garden.

Stephen Osborne   Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

While Debussy can present technical challenges almost as daunting as Prokofiev, the destination is evocation rather than blazing sequences of notes. The aim is to sublimate technique in favour of impression. In this, Osborne’s playing was sublime. He was able to reduce his audience to pin-drop silence as he liquefied Debussy in a way I’d not heard before. For me, his Debussy is a benchmark in control, voicing and interpretation.

The rain over, it was time for war, with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82. Legendary Ukrainian pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, described the sonata when he first heard it as ‘barbaric audacity’ and ‘broke with the ideals of romanticism’ and ‘conveyed the terrifying pulse of the 20th century’. These were actually words of approval, as it turned out, because Richter immediately included it in his concert programs.

The 6thSonata gets down business immediately with a jagged, repeated motif, which sets up the battles that are to follow. While all four movements were brilliantly played with Osborne’s flawless technique carrying him shoulder-high, he often went soft on the anger that is the essence of this sonata. It was not until well into he final movement that he figuratively lost his temper – and the effect was electrifying.

Osborne returned after intermission in mellow mood to play Images, Book 2 comprising three more impressionistic pieces: Cloches à traverse les feuilles (Bells through the leaves)Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (And the moon descends on the temple that was) Poissons d’or (Goldfish). We were again presented with floating pictures that seemed to transcend the limitations of a piano.

The recital finished with the guns of war blazing again in Prokofiev’s sonata No.8 in B flat major, Op.84 in three movements. It begins, oddly, sounding a little like Debussy. Apparently the opening passages expressed Prokofiev’s feelings for the woman who later became his wife. But having made his point, he then lights up the score with rhythm and outrage, pausing for a brief, unremarkable middle movement before going on to a long thunderous final movement. Osborne lapped up the quiet opening, sparked along with the rest of the first movement, meandered happily through the middle movement (Andante sognando) and nearly blew up the piano as he finished the third.

I must admit I was not familiar with the playing of Steven Osborne until last night and so my expectations were not high. That must have gone for Sydney piano recital concertgoers too, because they barely filled half the City Recital Hall. I hope there’s a next time, because Osborne is one out of the box.

Sydney Recital Hall Piano Series – 6 August 2018

Fraser Beath McEwing is a pianist, commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation which assists talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of five novels and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home. A body of his work can be found on www.frasersblography.com 

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