YOU have to have been a follower of Scotland’s national orchestra for a great many years to recall the RSNO’s last run of concerts at the City Halls, the current return there necessitated by Glasgow City Council’s rather unexpected finding of funds for the refurbishment of the Royal Concert Hall.
Had the RSNO management known that was coming, the season’s programme may have been shaped differently. However, it transpired that the last concert conducted by Hong Kong’s diminutive and much-loved Elim Chan as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor was transplanted to the Merchant City, while the same programme – a big colourful opener by Anna Clyne, a Mozart concerto with pianist Steven Osborne, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony – would surely have sold out the larger hall.
A quart in a pint pot it may have been, but Chan’s last hurrah was an evening crammed with delights. Clyne’s This Midnight Hour has nothing to do with either Thelonious Monk or Wilson Pickett but rather the imagery of Jiménez and Baudelaire in their musical poetry, and the specific character of the strings in a contemporary French orchestra. The RSNO strings, especially the violas, had some tricky stuff to play, but the conductor clearly relished the huge palette of colours that Clyne, characteristically, calls for. The composer is an orchestrator par excellence, and the details in the percussion parts and specific deployment of the trumpets make for a terrific fun piece.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 12 is the middle one of three he wrote for the Viennese market when the newly-wed composer settled there in the 1780s. There is a tribute to the recently-deceased Johann Christian Bach, the “London” Bach, whom Mozart had met as a child, in the central slow movement and that was the focus of Osborne’s reading of the work, which was quite firm and precise in its outer sections, and intensely emotional, and a long way from languid, in the middle.
There was a much smaller RSNO on stage, but the pianist’s spare approach to the music might have been reflected in further reduction in the string numbers, particularly in a hall of this size and for a work its composer undoubtedly saw as chamber music.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5, on the other hand, was intended to be a work of scale, even if Tchaikovsky was plagued by self-doubt at the time. Although it ends with a huge resounding rebuttal of its “Fate” motif – first heard in first clarinet Timothy Orpen’s lower register statement at the start – most modern listeners have found that bold finish unconvincing, a judgement perhaps coloured by the “Pathetique” Sixth Symphony that followed. Chan seemed to take the work more at face value, and the orchestra players – not excepting the guest principals in key positions – gave her big, generous performances in return.
There was a small presentation to the conductor by leader Maya Iwabuchi at the start of the concert, and Chan had dressed very stylishly for the occasion. As popular with audiences as she clearly was with the musicians, she will be much missed as her career focuses increasingly on the US as well as continental Europe.
It may say something or nothing about wider changes in society, but it is a paradox that music written by Brahms for the intimacy of the domestic salon now needs the well-funded platform of an international festival to be heard.
For most of us, the EIF’s morning Queen’s Hall concert series is as close as we can be to the atmosphere the composer and Clara Schumann would create for the first performances of his two sets of Liebeslieder-Walzer.
At the piano here were two of Scotland’s finest players, Malcolm Martineau and Steven Osborne, their presence the main attraction for a pretty full house. The four singers were from south of the border and, in the case of soprano Madison Nonoa, New Zealand.
For reasons that were unclear, we heard the later “Neue” Liebeslieder-Walzer first, apart from the closing Goethe setting, saved for an encore. That meant the soprano had the prominent solo voice for the first half of the concert – and a very fine one it is too. Her other engagements this season include Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Maria in West Side Story and that gives a good indication of the tone and precision she brought to Brahms. She also combined beautifully in duet with alto Jess Dandy, whose rich instrument is known and loved by Scots audiences and who was in excellent voice here.
Tenor Magnus Walker was to the fore in the earlier songs (performed second), but we had already heard him to advantage in the fickle Ich kose suss mit der und der. Bass William Thomas had an early solo moment with Ich swarzen Augen, but was more often in a supporting role. It was as an ensemble, for which they had presumably had little rehearsal, that the young singers really impressed, their balance consistent even with some brisk tempi set by their accompanists.
On either side of the interval Osborne and Martineau added two classics for four hands, some of the best known piano music in the canon. Ravel’s fairytale settings, Ma Mere l’Oye, went on to orchestrated life, but are exquisitely colourful and technically precise in their original form. The pianists in the hall are perhaps more likely to keep a lasting memory of Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor, surely the most famous work for four hands and given an utterly spell-binding reading. The way the work unfolded, with its recurring anguished melody and climactic fugue, was absolutely masterly.
The home team of musicians were out in force at the Usher Hall later, with a large edition of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra that included a sprinkling of players from the RSNO as well as well-known freelances in prominent roles.
Continuing a relationship with EIF after last year’s A Grand Night for Singing, Wayne Marshall was on the podium and, initially, at the keyboard for a programme of American music that began with Rhapsody in Blue and ended with the “Symphonic Picture” arrangement of Porgy and Bess by Robert Russell Bennett. I don’t much like the latter, and Marshall’s approach to Rhapsody was idiosyncratic – good and pacey but with long, meandering cadenzas by himself.
A well-filled auditorium loved it though, and especially enjoyed his encore variations on I Got Rhythm on the Usher Hall organ. In between were early works by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland: Fancy Free and El Salon Mexico set both composers on their paths to popular success in the USA and are important to hear, but I missed the crisp beat and dynamic control a conductor like John Wilson would have brought to the task.
When co-leader Sharon Roffman has directed a conductor-less RSNO in recent seasons, revelatory things have happened, with Beethoven her usual co-conspirator. That was once again the case in Glasgow on Saturday night, and the hall itself was one of the beneficiaries.
The acoustic of Lally’s Palais, as it was christened when the city’s then Provost drove its completion to crown Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, has always been contentious. Rarely have I heard it sound so well for what was a chamber music approach by symphony orchestra musicians – and that was despite some intrusive hearing-aid noise from an audience member in the seats upstairs.
When Steven Osborne sat down at the piano to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 it was apparent from his sotto voce beginning that he and Roffman were on the same page. That intimacy of approach took a little while to develop and it was Osborne’s beguiling playing that drove it – in the Andante second movement, the soloist as relaxed as if he was in the front room of his own home.
By the time we came to the exquisite structure of the Finale – absolutely quintessential Beethoven – the sonic clarity of this shared approach was extraordinary, and quite revelatory for the venue.
That sound-world, produced by players who were all – cellos excepted – on their feet, was replicated after the interval in Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Not everyone would concur with Roffman’s introductory assessment of it as “funny”, but the Fourth is certainly “fun”, which is not a word you would think to use to describe either the symphony that preceded it or the one that followed.
In its slow movement there was the occasional moment of ragged timing, but the ensemble quickly pulled itself back into shape, and there was some particularly lovely playing from the winds in the scherzo, with fine solo work from guest principal clarinet Lewis Graham.
The fun came to a head in the Finale, taken at impressive speed and with some very demanding phrases dispatched with elegant poise.
That quality had been evident at the start of the evening as well, in David Fennessy’s Hirta Rounds. Written for 16 string players in four groups, and much more complex than it first appears, it is as haunting as it is technically demanding. Heard out of context, pinpointing its composition within the last half-century would be tricky (it was premiered in 2015) and that only adds to the work’s charm. For most of its 12 minutes, it is difficult to guess at its shape, and yet it arrives at an irresistible conclusion.
On many levels, it was an extraordinarily bold way to begin the RSNO’s new series of concerts, but that was true of the entire programme – one that demonstrated the high calibre of the musicianship in the current membership of Scotland’s national orchestra.
When a couple of ace pianists get together and sound indistinguishably as one, the outcome is pure magic. Not that we needed Saturday’s keynote recital at James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst Festival by Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis to discover that. Their recent Hyperion recording, French Duets, is already a testament to their unique symbiosis as duettists. Hearing the same music in the flesh, however, took us to another level.
Osborne and Lewis are serious-minded musicians, Lewis especially, whose brooding stage persona generally conveys an intellectual intensity void of whimsy or idle chit-chat. It fell to Osborne – more comfortable perhaps with audience repartee – to sweeten the load through introductory thoughts and anecdotes, and the odd jokey interchange with the unexpectedly mischievous Lewis.
All of which set a suitably relaxed context for music that variously sang sweetly, touched on the sensuous and exotic, bristled with biting irony, even evoked the subtlest perfumes. Both took it in turns to handle the upper part, not that it made much difference to the outcome. When it comes to music, Osborne and Lewis share the same intuitive sensitivity of touch, melodic shaping and rhythmic nuance.
Applying it to Fauré’s tuneful Dolly Suite they turned this favourite of fumbling amateurs into a masterclass in lyrical ingenuity. Simple on the surface, there are treasures within, melodies that defy expectation, inner thoughts that deserve to be heard just enough to make their presence felt. What a joy to hear these so effortlessly revealed and yet so meaningfully contained within the broadest frameworks.
Poulenc’s belligerent Sonata for Piano Duet signalled a sudden change in delivery, the emphasis now on terse detachment and pounding dissonance, yet mindful of the bittersweet charm that pervades its calmer moments, and balanced neatly by a later performance of Stravinsky’s Trois Pièces faciles, just as edgy and acerbic, but with leaner, sharper textures.
It would hardly have been a representative French programme without Debussy and Ravel, and it was here that Osborne and Lewis really took our breaths away. The sense of mystery and potency of colour conveyed in Debussy’s Six Epigraphes antiques was spellbinding, the contrasting piquancy of the Petite Suite illuminating and jewel-like. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite seemed the perfect finale, its fairy-tale imagery captured magnificently in a performance that summed up in one the previous triumphs of a great evening.
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
It is not a strategy any sane person would recommend, of course, but the long period without performances at full strength has surely produced an audibly re-energised Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Or perhaps that is to do an injustice to oboist and conductor Douglas Boyd, whose direction of this concert shows that every section of the band is within reach of his eloquent arms.
Nonetheless, it is the wind section that shines brightest in the opening performance of Mendelssohn’s Overture: The Fair Melusine, and in particular the flute of Bronte Hudnott and the clarinet of Maximiliano Martin. With natural trumpets and horns, there is a robust period-band approach from Boyd and an appreciation that the narrative of the daft mermaid story is still a tragic one.
This reviewer is not much given to tears, but the performance by pianist Steven Osborne and the orchestra of the Adagio slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G brought a lump to the throat. That this achingly melody should have been the last thing Maurice Ravel wrote for these forces is poignant, but the emotional power of the unfolding line – a real challenge for the soloist to express as beautifully as Osborne does here – is all in the notes themselves.
The muscularity that was apparent in the Mendelssohn continues into the first movement’s percussive opening, from orchestra and then piano. This is the richest of early-20th century compositions, full of echoes of dance, jazz and ethnic music, the movement ending as boldly and expressively as it begins. The closing Presto movement goes at full pelt from the off, with Osborne’s lightning work at the keyboard matched by piccolo, E-flat clarinet and impressively zippy bassoon playing. Especially memorable in the online incarnation is the piano’s partnership with the cor anglais of Imogen Davies, given a lovely retro realisation in the vision-mix by film partner Stagecast and director Phil Glenny.
The programme ends with Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony, No 31, and the SCO knows playing Mozart’s symphonies in the way that Rick Stein is worth listening to on cooking fish. This was the composer’s first “full-strength” symphony, new-fangled clarinets and all, even if the instrument is strangely undeployed in the flowing dynamics of the Andantino. The outer Allegro movements were as Boyd’s Mendelssohn predicted, with the timpani-driven march at the start of the finale emblematic of commitment evident across the programme as a whole.
The story goes, told in a radio broadcast by Aaron Copland himself, that the spelling of his family name resulted from the edgy twang of the Glaswegian patois. A Clydeside border official mistakenly took Kaplan – the family name his migrating Lithuanian parents gave when alighting in Glasgow en route to a new life in New York – to be Copland, which it can so easily be when expressed in the Glaswegian tongue.
Copland’s musical accent, in such evocative works as Appalachian Spring and Quiet City, could hardly be more different. There’s no harshness in these contrasting evocations of wide open landscape and urban isolation, just a quietly intense optimism expressed through lucid, transparent colours and purified, fresh air harmonies.
These represented the softer side of this Radio 3 broadcast by the BBC SSO, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, against which the subversive Soviet wit of Shostakovich offered the perfect counterbalance. Two of the latter’s works – the ebullient Piano Concerto No 2, with Steven Osborne as soloist, and the pithy concert suite compiled from his music for Shakespeare’s Hamlet – were the acid content.
If it took a moment or two for the atmospheric layers of Appalachian Spring to bed in, what followed was the very stuff of sentimentalised American pastoralism. But Brabbins never allowed sentiment to over-dominate. The emerging wind solos remained suffused with charm but laced with intent. There was sparkle as well as glow in the vivid folksy references, innocent passion in Copland’s human characterisations, and honest magic in the signature appearance of the famous Shaker melody, Simple Gifts.
The shift to the Shostakovich concerto was all the more incendiary as a result. Short and snappy – it lasts just over 20 minutes – its outer movements are like delirious fairground rides to the sumptuous lyrical calm of the central Andante. Osborne played cautiously with his tempi, relying on disciplined, needle-sharp articulation and feverish insistence to create the thrills. His slow movement, so moodily Rachmaninov, was meltingly luxurious, the SSO equally aglow.
After the interval, in which presenter Jamie MacDougall added a track from Osborne’s superb new CD duetting with fellow pianist Paul Lewis, it was back to Copland and the sublime reflective tranquility of Quiet City, the dreamlike solos of Mark O’Keefe (trumpet) and James Horan (cor anglais) raptly interwoven within Brabbins’ seamless reading.
Shostakovich had the final word, and how bizarre was that for those of us used to the British view of Hamlet? Having written the original incidental music for a 1932 Moscow production by the avant-garde director-designer Nikolai Akimov, whose intent was to turn a tragedy into an absurdist satire, the eventual concert suite retains every ounce of that anarchy.
Ophelia is given the cabaret treatment, the Requiem – complete with Dies Irae theme – reeks of the macabre, as if Brecht’s Berlin of the 1920s has been transported to 1930s Russia. This performance got the translation, and accent, spot on. Ken Walton
Music at Paxton is confident that this year’s summer festival (16-25 July) will play to a live audience. Outlining the 10-day 2021 programme of chamber music centred in the famous Picture Gallery at Paxton House, artistic director Angus Smith said: “We anticipate that visiting Paxton for great music in the stunningly beautiful setting of the Scottish Borders will once again be a relaxing and joyous experience.”
Included in the international line-up of artists are pianists Steven Osborne (who opens the festival with an all-Debussy solo programme) and Imogen Cooper, tenor James Gilchrist, soprano Elizabeth Watts, the Gould Piano Trio, Maxwell Quartet, Concerto Caledonia and Paxton’s ongoing partnership with Live Music Now Scotland, which presents a series of concerts by young Scottish classical and folk musicians.
Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook perform Schubert’s Winterreise (17 July). Schubert also features in a solo recital by Imogen Cooper (22 July), who teams up the following day with the Maxwell Quartet to perform Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A. Watts is accompanied by Sholto Kynoch in a programme ranging from Richard Strauss to some of Britten’s fetching folksong arrangements.
Baroque specialists, The Brook Street Band, follow the European trail of Patrick Home (the 18th century commissioner of Paxton House) with music by Frederick theGreat, Bach, Handel and Telemann (18 July). They also present “Mr Handel’s Pleasure Gardens”, the first of the Festival’s family concerts (17 July).
Also for the family, Tracey Renton presents Boogie Beat, an interactive combination of songs, dancing, classical fairy tales and stories for young children, with opportunities after to explore Paxton’s riverside grounds (20 & 22 July).
Among the classical and traditional concerts presented by Live Music Now Scotland before and during the festival are a folk-inspired programme by Sally Simpson (fiddle) and Catrional Hawksworth (17 July), and Northumbrian traditional music performed by Eddie Seaman and Luc McNally (24 July).
Other concerts with local historical resonance include lutenist Alex McCartney’s The Flodden Flag (the original flag, dating from 1513, can now be seen at Paxton House) on 25 July; and Concerto Caledonia’s tribute to the famous Union Chain Bridge that connects Scotland to England across the River Tweed, built just over 200 years ago in 1820.
New for 2021 are a series of online pre-festival talks and four ‘as live’ broadcast concerts available online. General manager Elizabeth Macdonald said: “Whilst the Music at Paxton team is working hard to ensure that we can reopen safely to live audiences in the Scottish Borders this summer, the addition of an online component to the programme is an excellent opportunity for us to connect with a wider audience, both nationally and globally.”
PERTH EASTER FESTIVAL: QUARTET FOR THE END OF TIME Perth Concert Hall
While it’s tempting to compare the enforced incarceration Olivier Messiaen would have experienced as a French prisoner of war in 1940-41, when he wrote the incredible Quartet for the End of Time, to the “imprisoned experience” we’ve all been facing in recent months combatting Covid, it’s also perhaps too convenient.
We’ve at least maintained our basic home comforts; Messiaen and his fellow prisoner-musicians, who premiered the work in 1941, did so on salvaged instruments in the bitter January cold of an overcrowded spartan Stalag VIIIA in what is now southern Poland. Yet the music arising from such adversity is gloriously ecstatic, fuelled by inspiration from the seven angels and trumpets of the Book of Revelation, full of infinite hope and lustrous conviction.
It was a fitting choice of repertoire, then, with which to start this week’s daily series of chamber concerts from Perth Concert Hall, featuring musicians based in Scotland and available to watch on Vimeo via the hall’s own website, or to listen to daily at 1pm on BBC Radio 3. In this single-work opener, pianist Steven Osborne is joined by members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: violinist Maria Włoszczowska, clarinetist Maximiliano Martin and cellist Philip Higham.
The visual experience is simple but effective, warmed by a blue-wash backdrop, highly appropriate for a composer who envisaged colour as intrinsic to the textures he invokes. The sound recording is rich and penetrating. Above all, the quality of performance is unerringly virtuosic and expressively profound.
From the calm awakening of Liturgie de cristal to the transcendent acceptance of Louange à l”Immortalité de Jésus, this is a paradoxical 8-movement journey of introspective outpouring. Even the infinite timelessness of Abîme des oiseaux (Martin’s soliloquising breathtakingly magical) and Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus (the unending elasticity of Higham’s cello melody cushioned by Osborne’s gently pulsating chords) bears a mystical effusiveness.
There is, nonetheless, unbridled drama where Messiaen prescribes it: the abrupt violent outpourings that embrace the otherwise mesmerising lyricism of Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps; the biting unisons, like plainsong on steroids, of Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes; or the sugary ecstasy that defines the work’s ripest climax in Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps, where the richest textures unfold before being quelled ultimately by Włoszczowska’s sublime interpretation of the final Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus.
Only momentarily – the final bars of the sixth movement – does a slight unhinging of the tight ensemble occur. Otherwise, there’s very little to complain about in a truly gripping performance of a thoroughly awesome piece.
STEVEN OSBORNE / 50th Birthday Concert Wigmore Hall, London
Current circumstances prevent friends gathering for a major birthday bash; but there’s a way round it if you happen to be a highly-respected solo pianist and your close friends also warrant a place among today’s classical music elite.
Thus Steven Osborne and friends were the starry concert party last Friday in an audience-less 50th birthday bash for the Scots pianist, forming part of the Wigmore Hall’s excellent live-streamed concert series, and featuring music chosen by Osborne himself. The outcome was a warm-hearted feast of Schubert and Ravel.
The friends – if you’ve followed Osborne in the many brilliant collaborations he has enjoyed over and above his international solo career – were personally chosen and predictably so: pianist Paul Lewis, the other half of a recently-released duo album with Osborne, the soprano Ailish Tynan, violinist Alina Ibragimova, Lewis’ cellist wife Bjørg Lewis, and Osborne’s own wife, clarinettist Jean Johnson. Their socially-distanced presence was a sequence of duo and trio combinations.
Osborne’s single solo contribution came in the magically impressionistic sonorities of La Vallée des Cloches from Ravel’s 1904-5 suite Miroirs, which he introduced as “an aperitif” to the same composer’s Piano Trio in A minor – a typically modest touch; a typically breathtaking performance.
As for the Piano Trio – the personally chosen favourite around which Osborne planned the rest of his programme – its homogenous warmth summed up the extraordinary musical symbiosis that had thus far distinguished an evening beginning with the intimate salon charm of Schubert’s The Death and the Maiden (Osborne, Johnson and Tynan relishing – as we all are at the moment – the ultimate anticipation of Spring), and the Fantasie in F Minor for piano duo.
In the latter, Osborne and a masked Paul Lewis went for the Covid-safe option of two separate pianos rather than the one-piano-four-hands Schubert intended, but the outcome was one of singular entrancement, an interaction of instant and instinctive ideas, and never once a suggestion that either pianist was going it alone.
But it was that final Ravel which summed up the true nature of this celebration. It was not about noisy prima donna voices showing off among themselves, but rather a cosy respect for the music that defines their lives. The Trio featured the lustrously tasteful violin playing of Ibragimova alongside the equally amenable Bjørg Lewis and Osborne, all with personal flavourings to offer, but always with the common goal of respecting Ravel’s unmatchable ear for instrumental colour.
The story goes that Ravel picked up the opening theme of the Piano Trio from watching ice cream vendors dancing a fandango on the Basque coast. That’s as riotous as this exquisitely tasteful birthday celebration got. No encore, no histrionics, just a quiet recognition by some fine musicians that they were able to share a good friend’s special moment together. Ken Walton
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, onwww.wigmore-hall.org.uk
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has announced that its annual weekend of new and experimental music, curated by principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov and events promoter Alasdair Campbell, will go ahead this year on May 8 and 9.
Only weeks after last year’s programme had been announced, the 2020 event was one of the early casualties of the pandemic, with an immediate promise that it would return in 2021.
While audiences will still be unable to fill the many spaces of Glasgow’s City Halls and Old Fruitmarket complex for what has become a hugely popular event, a full programme of pre-recorded online performances and late-night broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 is promised this year.
The orchestra has three broadcast concerts before then, two of them also available to view on the BBC iPlayer. The second of those is a 50th birthday concert by Steven Osborne, who is celebrating that same anniversary with a recital at London’s Wigmore Hall on Friday March 12. The Glasgow concert is on Thursday, April 22 and is conducted by Martyn Brabbins. In a programme of music by Copland and Shostakovich, Osborne plays the Russian’s Piano Concerto No.2, which was written a birthday present for the composer’s son, Maxim. It is bracketed by Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite and Quiet City, and the concert concludes with the suite Shostakovich made from his music for an avant-garde 1930s production of Hamlet.
Earlier in April, violin and piano duo Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, whose kaleidoscopic home music sessions were one of the online hits of lockdown, join the orchestra to co-direct a programme entitled “Dreamscapes”. The title work, for violin and chamber orchestra is by Brazilian composer Clarice Assad, and is based on the composer’s researches into Rapid Eye Movement sleep. It is preceded by Arvo Part’s atmospheric and haunting Spiegel im Spiegel and Gerard Finzi’s Eclogue for Piano and Strings, and followed by Mendelssohn’s D Minor Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Orchestra, 54 years after the orchestra broadcast the UK premiere of the work.
The SSO is also in action next week, again under Brabbins and again available to view on the BBC i-Player. Sheku Kanneh-Mason is the soloist for the Dvorak Cello Concerto, performed on Thursday March 11 in George Morton’s reduced orchestration. The concert begins with contemporary American composer Augusta Read Thomas’s Plea for Peace and concludes with Sir James MacMillan’s signature 1989 work, Tryst.