Whenever I see an unattended pre-recital piano centre-stage, I think of David Hayman's 1995 film 'The Near Room', whose title references the psychological goings-on of boxers moments before entering the ring. As soon as a performer begins playing with authority all such associations vanish – even quiet authority such as the opening bars of Schubert's Moment Musical No. 6 in A flat major, D780. So delicate were Steven Osborne's phrase endings that relaxing into one's chair felt natural. When increased volume came our way, its cause in the music's narrative was very clear, for example, more troubled harmonies. And not all dynamic changes were gradual; shortly after some impressively light, right-hand pinkie pedal notes, there was a startling 'subito forte' (suddenly loud) as Osborne lent his full body weight into much more dense textures. Use of colour was impressive in highlighting the remoteness of the keys of the work's two themes (A flat major and F sharp minor).
Seeing Schubert's 1827 Impromptus, D935 on the programme, one could be forgiven for expecting short, throwaway pieces but nothing could be further form the truth. Osborne's dramatic touch in the opening of No.1 in F minor was impressive, as was handling of its ornamentation. The turn in mood into the tenderly optimistic second subject was nicely handled. There were some nice pianistic touches in this movement such the right hand's ornamentation of the left's melody, and some effortless looking hand crossing.
The opening theme of No.2 in A flat major has something of the quietly nostalgic anthem about it – here beautifully phrased. The tune soon gathers resolve and dynamic control was impressive. I could see Osborne's right thumb articulate the Trio section's lovely tune and the legato in this single-digit singing of the melody was quite magical.
For the opening theme of No.3 in B flat major, lightness of touch is essential and Osborne's delivery was very elegant. Energy and more urgent expression were saved for the varying moods of the following five variations. I was struck by the sense of fun in the third variation which seems to fall somewhere between European salon music and American silent movie score. There were some impressive left hand heroics here.
The energy of No.4 in F minor was invigorating, especially in the many rhythmic surprises where notes grouped in twos interrupt the movement's triple-time metre. There were some impressive technical moments in this piece, particularly a central passage of octaves and the fiery ending, which brought the first half to a thrilling conclusion.
Looking at the list of Rachmaninov's Etudes Tableaux, anyone unfamiliar with the works might have wondered at Osborne's fascination with minor keys. In fact, his selection, drawn from both the Op.33 and Op.39 sets reduced minor key dominance from the original 15/18 to 6/9 by including all three major key works. However, as the musically curious know, minor does not ensure sadness and I have to say I found the opening Op.33 No.1 in F minor quite funny. It's thunderously descending left hand marching figures seemed to satirise blustering pomposity, especially when they interrupt a much more vulnerable theme higher up the keyboard.
When the suspenseful opening harmonies of Op.33 No.3 in C minor subsided, I delighted in watching Osborne's right pinkie tease out yearning melody from the rippling harmonies below.
Following a lovely inner melody and some beautiful harmonies, Op.33 No.8 in G minor featured something quite startling: the evening's first rests which resulted in complete silence; these were soon contrasted with such massive volume that it seemed like Osborne might leave the piano stool for a moment.
Just as minor doesn't guarantee sadness, Rachmaninov's major key territory is rarely a longing-free zone and such is the case with Op.33 No.2 in C major which Osborne played expressed.
A skilful sculptor of programmes, Osborne loaded the evening's later moments with some pianistically breath-taking, concerto-like moments, such as the restless Op.39 No.9 in D major, where the left hand was particularly dynamic. This work was all the more dynamic for being preceded by Op.39 No.2 in A minor, a searching movement, afloat with cross-rhythms, whose mix of quiet Dies Irae theme intimations and jazz harmony was haunting.
Osborne acknowledged warm response with Debussy's Canope from his second book of Preludes. The expression of its remote harmonies suggested not only foreign climes but the otherworldliness suggested in the sepulchral title.
Find Concerts now