EIF: Steven Osborne

Old College Quad

This year’s Festival music programme, given it’s a semi-outdoor experience, is as much a challenge to the listener as to the performer. So yes, in Wednesday’s lunchtime recital, pianist Steven Osborne no doubt had to acclimatise his own thoughts and actions to a performance space – the gazebo-style tent in Old College Quad – infiltrated by the everyday sounds of midday traffic and screeching birds. But equally, as an audience, we had to assimilate such conflicting stimuli and take what we could from the resulting melange. 

I found it strangely invigorating, the urban soundscape adding a risky unpredictability to the usual hemmed-in security of the concert arena. That’s not to say Osborne’s bold programming was ever intended to be an easy, comforting listen. That is never his style. And how could it be, with Schubert and late Beethoven sandwiching the unconventional experimentalism of American composer George Crumb and the frenetic ecstasy of Tippett’s Second Piano Sonata?

Nor did he present these as a serving up of disparate courses. There was overriding structural continuity that allowed one work to play off the other: sometimes made easy for us, as in the uninterrupted shift from Schubert’s plain-speaking Impromptu in F minor, D935 No 1, to the elusive resonance (conveniently opening on a whispered note F) of Crumb’s 1984 Processional, rather like an instant transportation from the real world to the Twilight Zone; at other times through subliminal connections, as in the rhetorical turmoil common to both the Tippett and opening movement of Beethoven’s ultimately tamed Sonata No 32 in C minor.

Osborne’s delivery was one of tempered intensity, which allowed Schubert’s tunefulness to breathe easy within the confines of a taut interpretational overview, and graced Crumb’s growing agitations with a polarity that made haunting sense of its reflective sound world. It was almost impossible to hear the final hushed notes over the gentle circling breeze, but the gestures alone bore an imagined significance.

Tippett’s music has been both friend and foe to Osborne, but these days he is master of its challenges. There is something slightly unhinged about the Piano Sonata No 2, a surface randomness in the feverish juxtaposition of its jousting ideas, which Osborne tamed without losing its essential clarity. Nor did he attempt to make anything more of the curiously exasperated ending than it is what it is – something of an enigma.

Few can beat Osborne when it comes to Beethoven, which he proved yet again in the composer’s final sonata. At the heart of the opening movement, the powerhouse fugue thundered its confident message, answered sublimely in the final Arietta with its all-encompassing variations, during which a nearby butterfly ceased its fluttering and rested motionlessly on the floor as if enthralled. Art and nature as one.
Ken Walton

Image: Steven Osborne credit Ryan Buchanan