Steven Osborne
RSNO Centre, Glasgow
Keith Bruce
five stars
WHEN Scotland’s star pianist opens a solo recital with the words “If I had to give only one concert for the rest of my life, it would be this one”, that is quite something. Linlithgow’s Steven Osborne has scaled many of the most demanding pinnacles of the piano repertoire, including the great Russian works, all the French repertoire up to and especially Olivier Messiaen, and rarer 20th century challenges like Michael Tippett. Yet his number one gig is to play the last three sonatas composed by this year’s 250th anniversary celebrant, Beethoven.
With his customary lucid spoken introductions, and more especially through performances of precision, power, heart-stopping delicacy and palpable passion, Osborne then proceeded to prove his point. How many in this very full auditorium thought at the end, “If I only had to listen to one concert for the rest of my life, it would be this one”?
Sonatas 30, 31, and 32 are the most personal statements the composer made. Begun, somewhat incredibly, as an exercise for a keyboard tutor book, they go on to explore the development of music from Bach to to Beethoven’s own time and — beyond argument — beyond it. The debt to Bach in the final movement variations of No 30 was, in Osborne’s performance clearly implied in the gentler music of the preceding one.
In No 31, as Osborne showed, we hear Beethoven expressing his own fears about his failing health, as well as his frustration with his deafness. The pianist punched out those chords with a Steinway-splintering ferocity, only to caress the keys in heart-felt lament a bar later. The execution of those changes of gear across all three works are like the silkiest automatic transmission in Osborne’s hands.
The final work is the most remarkable, as the composer presumably recognised by going no further with the form. Although he begins by quoting baroque music in a composition that moves sequentially from ancient to modern, in the third variation of the second Arietta movement, Beethoven invents jazz, a century before the commonly accepted date. Other pianists have recognised the pre-echoes of ragtime and stride piano in the piece, but none expresses it as eloquently as Osborne, who still finds the anguish in the dying cadences of the music a few minutes later.