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Steven Osborne's Magic Lantern Debussy

available at Amazon
Schubert, Impromptus, D. 935 (inter alia), S. Osborne
(Hyperion, 2015)
Since not long after winning Switzerland’s Clara Haskil Competition in 1991, Steven Osborne has been producing recordings that are both shrewdly programmed and beautifully performed. The result was much the same for the Scottish pianist’s second recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, following up on his debut at the museum in 2012.

The high point of the concert was an eclectic combination of Debussy pieces from different collections, played as a set without interruptions. “Masques,” originally planned as part of the “Suite Bergamasque” but later published separately, was forceful and adventurous, followed by a dreamy middle section. In the second book of “Images,” Osborne’s attention to sound brought out hazy details like the meandering whole-tone scales and pinpricks of floating melody in “Bells heard through the leaves.” The somber strains of “And the moon descends” were barely whispered, while the fluttered tremolos of “Goldfish” were playfully mercurial. The hammered finale of “L’Isle Joyeuse,” another movement removed from the “Suite Bergamasque,” was symphonic in scope, forming an ideal climax to the set.

Other Reviews:

David Rohde, Pianist Steven Osborne Plays Rachmaninoff at the Phillips Collection (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, February 29)

Erica Jeal, Steven Osborne review – colour and texture above drama and display (The Guardian, February 4)

Fiona Maddocks, Schubert: Impromptus, Piano Pieces and Variations CD review – radiance and lyricism (The Guardian, October 18, 2015
Osborne’s latest recording, released last year on the Hyperion label, is devoted to the music of Schubert, including two of the D. 935 impromptus heard here. Osborne played them with a combination of Romantic anguish and Schubertian delicacy, finding countless shades of wistful sweetness in the nostalgic dialogue of the left hand in no. 1, as it crossed back and forth over the right hand. An exceptionally fast tempo for no. 4 made the passages in parallel thirds less than precise but drove the piece forward with daring impishness.

Technical prowess was not the problem in a closing set of Rachmaninov “Etudes-Tableaux” either. Osborne’s articulate introduction to the set demonstrated that he understands and cherishes this composer’s music, but the disappointing sameness across all these pieces tarnished the achievement. One has to question why Osborne chose in this concert to omit George Crumb’s 1983 Processional, which he played with this program at St. John's Smith Square in London earlier this month. Concert length seems to have been the issue, as Osborne played only seven of the Rachmaninov pieces in London, rather than the ten he played here. Three fewer Rachmaninov pieces is a price I would surely have been willing to pay. You can still listen to the BBC streaming broadcast of Osborne's London recital to see what we missed.

This coming Sunday's concert at the Phillips Collection, by viola da gambist Jordi Savall (March 6, 4 pm), is an event not to be missed, but it is already sold out.

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