The comfortable, even cosy atmosphere of six friends (including two couples) gathering in a musical celebration on the intimate stage of London’s Wigmore Hall was unmistakeable. They met here to mark Steven Osborne’s 50th birthday. In a well-balanced programme, four works written by two composers, representing four different musical genres, were performed in front of a live audience of exactly two people – and viewed within a couple of hours by three thousand more. There were smiles but there was no clapping. Intimacy on a global scale!

Steven Osborne
© Wigmore Hall

Hausmusik is the German term for friends getting together and playing music for their own enjoyment. Though not as common as it used to be a century or two ago, it is still a common source of joy in many parts of the world. Such an informal gathering was also known as a Schubertiade in Vienna in the 1810-1820s, featuring mostly (but not exclusively) Franz Schubert’s songs and chamber music compositions.

Jean Johnson, Steven Osborne and Ailish Tynan
© Wigmore Hall

In the spirit of that tradition, the concert began with two compositions by Schubert, both written in the last year of his tragically short life. Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock), is a Lied (or song) for the unusual instrumentation of soprano, clarinet and piano. Ailish Tynan’s vocal line for the most part of the composition was in gentle dialogue with the clarinet, played by Jean Johnson, Osborne’s wife (as we found out from the introduction to the concert), and it was only, almost as if coincidentally, in the final Allegretto section when the two parts became a duet in Schubert’s brilliant writing. Osborne’s piano playing provided a delicate harmonic cushion, unfailingly supporting and reacting to the contours of the vocal and clarinet melodies. He used just the right amount of agogics (accents expressed with time, rather than volume) of the most appropriate Viennese dialect; a proof that he considered his role much more than supplying ‘accompaniment’.

Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne
© Wigmore Hall

Paul Lewis has been Osborne’s two-piano chamber music partner for some time. It made perfect sense then that he should contribute to Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor D.940, written for piano four hands (on one instrument), but performed here for reasons of distancing on two pianos. (The only noticeable musical difference with this safe set-up to the original version was the use of pedal, here used individually on both instruments.)

Lewis, in mask and reading from an iPad, played the first part next to the back wall, while Osborne, performing the second part, sat at the piano in the front, using his well-worn paper copy of the music. Their playing styles differed. Lewis’ touch on the keyboard was firmer; the notes under his fingers were cleanly etched out with precise incision. The tone that Osborne preferred, and mastered to a superb level, was more of a velvety one. Each note in his playing appeared to be considered in relation to the harmony and the melodic line that it was part of and then touched with elegant effect. The two artistic personalities blended in their splendid pianism, while never losing their individual characters.

Steven Osborne, Alina Ibragimova and Bjørg Lewis
© Wigmore Hall

The one solo piece in the concert was La Vallée des cloches (The Valley of Bells), the last movement of Maurice Ravel’s five-movement Miroirs; a highly atmospheric composition, pensive and inward looking, and a perfect bridge to the final item, Ravel’s Piano Trio, performed here with another pair of friends/colleagues of Osborne, violinist Alina Ibragimova and cellist Bjørg Lewis (wife of Paul Lewis).

This work offers a wide range of emotions, from the light-hearted fresh air of asymmetrical rhythmic patterns of the first movement (based on a Basque melody) to the dark, pondering Passacaille in the third movement. In terms of technical complexity, it made the greatest demands on the performers by a considerable margin within the programme. While this seldom disturbed the flow, the excitement of the Pantoum, the wild Scherzo movement, or the apotheosis of the glorious finale did not always offer the comfort of friendly, carefree music making, so characteristic of the rest of the programme.

This performance was reviewed from the Wigmore Hall live video stream