It is a mark of the popularity of the BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall and the high calibre of the performers that these hour-long recitals are regularly sold out. Indeed, when I arrived at the Wigmore to hear Steven Osborne in a programme of music by Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky, there was a long queue of people waiting for returns. I relinquished my spare ticket (concert companion was indisposed) so that someone else could enjoy Osborne’s superb pianistic mastery and sensitive musicality. The theme of the concert was pictures: Mussorgsky’s popular and evergreen Pictures at an Exhibition preceded by a selection of Rachmaninov’s Etudes- Tableaux from the lesser-known Op.33.

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne
© Benjamin Ealovega

Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux were intended as “picture studies”, evocations in music of visual stimuli, though Rachmaninov was never specific about what inspired each piece; he preferred to leave such interpretations to performer and audience, suggesting they should “paint for themselves what it most suggests”. Rachmaninov also used these pieces to explore and exploit a wide variety of themes, textures and sonorities, the possibilities of the modern piano, and how music for it should be written. They are also related to Chopin’s Études Opp. 10 and 25, for they make technical demands on the pianist, while also offering varied, characterful, beautiful and highly virtuosic writing for the instrument.

Steven Osborne selected four works from Op.33, opening with the precise martial tread of the F minor Étude-Tableau (no. 1). The C minor (no. 3) was delicate and supple, while the E flat (no. 7), described by the composer in a letter to Respighi as “a scene at the fair” was all exuberant fanfares and galloping passagework, clarity never lost despite the very lively tempo. The final work of the set, no. 7 in G minor, was a moody nocturne, expansive and expressive, and the perfect vehicle for Osborne’s intense concentration, control and musical eloquence.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, composed in 1874, come from a generation earlier than Rachmaninov, and together with Balakirev’s Islamey, brought the piano to centre stage at the end of 19th century. Unlike Rachmaninov’s pieces which are intended to conjure up images in the mind of performer and listener, Mussorgsky’s suite was inspired by an actual exhibition, a memorial retrospective for the painter and designer Viktor Hartmann who was a good friend of the composer. The sense of walking – or “promenading” – around the exhibition is cleverly suggested through the ‘Promenade’ movement which introduces the suite and reappears in different versions between the other movements. This is Mussorgsky himself, depicted in music, slightly ungainly of gait (by his own admission), enjoying the exhibition.

Individual movements are well known, (“Gnomus”, “Tuileries”, “The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells”, “Baba-Yaga” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” perhaps being the most popular), and the piece remains a regular in concert programmes, both in its piano solo and orchestral arrangements. Playing a very well known piece adds an additional challenge for the performer, yet Osborne brought a distinctive personal voice to the music. Power and richness in the more weighty movements (“Bydlo” was sonorous and ponderous, as if the pianist himself were bearing the ox’s yoke and heavily-laden cart, while “The Great Gate” was plangent and sensitively nuanced, even in the loudest passages) contrasted with delicacy and grace, hushed pianissimos in “Catacombs” and “Con mortuis in lingua morta”, and an almost “fluffy”, witty lightness of touch in “The Ballet of the Chicks”. In Osborne’s hands the work was reinstated to the position of a “proper” piece of music, with a clear narrative, characterful depictions and a full orchestral sound.

More Rachmaninov for the encore: the Prelude in D major, Op 23 No 4. Sweeping and romantic, it was the perfect after-thought to Mussorgsky’s colourful pictures.