Steven Osborne Hits Half Century
Scots pianist Steven Osborne turns 50 this week. KEN WALTON caught up with him en route to his Wigmore birthday bash
It should surprise no-one to learn that Steven Osborne has chosen to celebrate his 50th birthday this week with a celebratory concert at London’s Wigmore Hall that also features his very closest musical friends and collaborators.
It’s typical of the award-winning Scots pianist not to be grabbing the sole limelight. Osborne, while utterly consummate as a world-renowned soloist, is thoroughly disarming and unassuming as an individual.
Meet him on an Edinburgh street and, like any normal guy, he’ll chat about the weather. Watch him in the concert hall and his persona is an intoxicating fusion of intellectual intensity and unpretentious charm.
As we speak, he’s in the company of his wife, the clarinettist Jean Johnson, and they’re hurtling south on the M6 towards the London concert. “Having my best friends and people I really enjoy playing with there is very important to me,” he says. “Jean comes under both categories.”
In a programme of music by Ravel and Schubert, other participants include soprano Ailish Tynan, violinist Alina Ibragimova, cellist Bjørg Lewis and fellow pianist Paul Lewis. “Sadly, due to travel restrictions, [German cellist] Alban Gerhardt couldn’t come. But it’s a great line up,” Osborne promises.
Another great friend is the Wigmore Hall itself. It’s 40 years since Osborne first played there. Yes, he was only 10 at the time, and the occasion was a pressurised one – competing for a scholarship – but the exhilaration of that moment has remained firmly in his memory. “It was the first time I’d played a great piano in a great hall and was absolutely dumbfounded. At the sound of that very first note I thought ‘what, where have you been all my life?’ I’ve enjoyed every appearance there since. They always have wonderful pianos.”
Also at the age of 10, Osborne transferred from his local Linlithgow primary school to St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh. “That was like coming home,” he recalls. “I had friends at Linlithgow, but not ones I could really talk to about music. At St Mary’s the atmosphere was wonderful, a feeling that everyone was on the same wavelength.” Richard Beauchamp was assigned as his piano teacher. “ He was very opened minded, generous with his time, so focussed and never superficial. He sent me in a good direction.”
Not that any prescribed direction was ever been foremost in Osborne’s thoughts. He was in no doubt from an early age that playing the piano was as natural as learning to speak. He started lessons at the age of 4. “My parents listened to classical music, but I was more fascinated by the piano we had in the house. As soon as I woke up I went to play it. The trouble was I slept really badly as a kid and was up at 4.30am. My dad would come and put me back to bed. Eventually he stuck a note on the piano saying not to play it before 7.30. It was like torture!”
So yes, the young Osborne was obsessed, but even at college – the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester – future aspirations were not for him. “It might sound dumb, but I really didn’t have any,” he confesses. “I was lucky to have a teacher [Renna Kellaway] whose focus was on the repertoire, then a manager who was always thinking ahead for me in planning terms. They were never part of my thoughts.” He describes his musical journey as “a series of repertoire moments”.
Proof of that lies in a career structured on monumental composer encounters, captured in a discography – now edging to over 30 albums on the Hyperion label – that has journeyed from Messiaen and Tippett (a comprehensive survey that proved as personally exhausting as it was exhaustive) to Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy and Rachmaninov with snatches of Schubert, Prokofiev, Crumb and others to boot. Most are solo releases; others include the very friends he’s teamed up with for the 50th birthday concert.
But like any genuine musician, Osborne lives for the live moment, which is where the true persona, the modestly probing genius, shines through. Few capture the deep-rooted humanity in Beethoven’s last three sonatas the way he does; few can make the piano repertoire’s most finger-twisting challenges appear so effortless. “I’m generally attracted to music that is very difficult,” he says. “I’m not sure why. Tippett, Ravel and Rachmaninov are all extremely hard.”
Does anything technically tax Osborne? “Rachmaninov has its problems, mainly because I am left handed,” he admits. “My left hand is much stronger than my right, and in Rachmaninov the right hand is always doing so much. All that filigree stuff is not natural to me, so I have to work really hard at it.”
Such determination and the pursuit of perfection have had their rich rewards. Early in his career Osborne won first prize in the prestigious Clara Haskil International Piano Competition (1991), followed by a similar triumph in the 1997 Naumburg International Competition, and featured among the first ever BBC New Generation Artists. The Royal Philharmonic Society bestowed its Instrumentalist of the Year award on him in 2013. These days, he’s as frequent a presence in Scotland, where he was recently the RSNO’s artist in residence, as in the world’s top concert halls. When lockdown started last March he was about to perform Beethoven’s final sonatas at New York’s Lincoln Center.
“That was disappointing,” he says. Like every other performer during Covid, many engagements have disappeared, though he has busied himself learning repertoire for the two remaining CDs that will complete his Debussy series. But the pandemic has not been his main concern.
“Brexit on top of that has been infuriating, especially with [Boris] Johnson saying musicians would have free access to Europe. He was either lying or didn’t know what he was talking about.” Osborne has already experienced the lengthy process involved in applying for a visa. “I spent more than a week getting one for Spain, morning till night, trying to work it out. Nobody knew what you had to do.
“My fear is we won’t be able to do things at short notice, as is often required. I got a last-minute call to go to Belgium recently. I won’t be able to do that now, and all this while European musicians can come over visa-free to the UK? We gave up this right for what? No wonder Paul Lewis is moving to Norway.”
Lewis, of course, is part of the Wigmore birthday line-up. He and Osborne recently regrouped to issue their latest duo album on Hyperion, French Duets. It’s a match made in heaven, their performances of Debussy, Fauré (the affectionate Dolly Suite), Poulenc, Stravinsky and Ravel’s delicious Mother Goose Suite characterised by irresistible spontaneity, infectious wit and sparkling bonhomie.
They have known each other for over 20 years. “I first met Paul when we were BBC New Generation Artists,” Osborne explains. “We’re very like-minded.” They also share an indebtedness to the legendary Alfred Brendel. Lewis is well-known for having studied with him, but Osborne also acknowledges the influence Brendel had on his own development.
“I learnt more about characterisation from him than any one; how you make something sound like it’s completely natural. He does it quite a lot by distorting what’s written. It’s so specific; he pulls the rhythm around just to make a particular point. It doesn’t sound self conscious, it just sounds alive. He taught me a lot in that sense: that you can’t just set the metronome going and play in time; that to make music alive you need a lot of ebb and flow. I’ve never heard anyone who does that better.
“I only had one lesson from him,” Osborne recalls. “I think about it quite often, especially in terms of his physical approach to the keyboard. It’s funny, from a distance there’s this very penetrating, singing sound. What he’s doing sounds so crude from very close up, like he’s banging away, yet what he’s doing is going right to the very, very bottom of the keys. I really got a lot from that and it really changed how I played: how you really have to project what you’re saying. It’s easy to underestimate how you need to do that in a concert hall.”
Now at 50, Osborne is every bit his own man, driven by singularity of purpose and confidence in his own immense capabilities. But what are his ambitions for the future? “My immediate concern is just how long it will take people to get back into halls. I’m confident it will happen, but I reckon it may take a year or more. I don’t expect Covid to change the landscape much. Brexit is more likely to do that.
He’s typically circumspect about this musical future. “Honestly, I don’t have a plan,” he insists. “I’ll finish the Debussy project and I’m learning Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles, which is a pretty massive thing. Beyond that you’ll just have to ask my manager!”
Watch Steven Osborne’s 50th Birthday Concert, available from Friday 12 March 7.30pm for 30 days, on www.wigmore-hall.org.uk