Steven Osborne’s jazz improvised encore revealed many of the strengths that made this recital so stimulating, even to an audience giddy with World Cup success. Osborne is a pianist who has the ability to be an introvert while still communicating strongly to his audience. He seems to start in a place of stillness and calm in his performances and everything branches from that. The wonderfully gentle opening of this jazz piece, echoing one of the main themes of Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata, was a demonstration of thoughtfulness and cool.

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne
© Benjamin Ealovega

But the recital itself was a very mixed bag of mostly hot-headed 20th-century masterpieces. Each half was prefaced by a Debussy Prélude, the first being La Cathédrale engloutie from the 1910 first book. Osborne found the most delicious balance between the intense pianissimo chords depicting the depths and the grand widely spaced chords at the climax.

This led without a break into Alban Berg's Piano Sonata Op.1 composed at roughly the same time as the Debussy and possessing some of same post Wagnerian chromatic harmonies. This is a work ripe with possibilities, which meanders through its sonata structure with a mixture of limpid melodies and fraught short lived climaxes. Osborne was equal to its twists and turns, finding poetry in every bar.

The first half rounded off with the most explosive of the trio of late Piano Sonatas Prokofiev composed during the Second World War. The Piano Sonata no. 7 in B flat major, Op.83, is a powerhouse of energy, fury and brooding intensity. In the spiky first movement, Osborne seemed less at home initially with the wit of the first theme and the desolate second felt a little shapeless. However all this improved as he progressed. The slow movement had just the right atmosphere of morose nobility. In the Precipitato finale, a showpiece of anger and aggression in many pianists hands, Osborne’s reading was an organic progression to the devastating final bars. It was perhaps a little disappointing in the early stages but more symphonically effective later.

After the interval our Debussy Prélude was the exquisite Les Sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soirre, also from Book 1, again realised with the utmost sensitivity as to dynamics and colouration.

Another jolt led us directly to Prokoviev’s Piano Sonata no. 6 in A major, Op. 82, the first of the composer’s so called War Sonatas, premiered in 1940 by the composer. This is a more varied and complex work than the Seventh. Its long first movement possesses some of the most hard-hitting harmonies Prokofiev had written since his return to Russia. Osborne found an edge of despair and panic which was spot on. The moments of repose were as unsettled as they should be.

The odd march-like Scherzo, with echoes of the Romeo and Juliet, which had recently received its first Leningrad performance, well captured. The slow movement was wonderfully projected, the heart of the sonata and the climax that emerged from the washes of waltz rhythms had pathos and tragedy in Osborne’s hands. The Finale, despite scuttling infectious energy, was a nervous affair here. The becalmed middle section, recalling the first movement, led to a coruscating coda and a balletic flourish from our soloist.

****1