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S & H Recital Review

Debussy, Schubert, Messiaen Steven Osborne, Paul Lewis, Martin Roscoe (pianos). Wigmore Hall, Tuesday, June 17th, 2003 (CC).



A change from the original plan, here, hence the three pianists playing works for piano duet and two pianos. The line-up was originally scheduled for just Osborne and Lewis, but because of illness Paul Lewis was unable to prepare the entire programme, and so Martin Roscoe stepped in for Messiaen’s almighty (if you’ll pardon the pun) Visions de l’Amen. From adversity comes triumph, and so it was here, but there was the first half to negotiate before that.

Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques of 1913, arranged from the composer’s stage music for Chansons de Bilitis of 1900, are true masterpieces. Each one of the six movements has its own character. The first movement, ‘Pour invoquer Pan’, in general boded well with its rich yet well-defined sonorities, except for Lewis’ tendency to be sloppy with chording. Again, in the second movement, ‘Pour un tombeau sans nom’ it was Osborne who was the subtler of the two artists (and on occasion it really did seem as if this was two separate characters who happened to be sitting next to each other at a keyboard). Debussy is a fiendishly difficult composer to present well, and it was difficult to escape the impression that this was a warm-up. Indeed, while the two dances (for a girl with crotales and an Egyptian girl) moved closer to a Debussian ideal, it was only in the concluding ‘Pour remercier la pluie au matin’ that the two players were able to relax more and (in Lewis’ case) show more character. Here all was delight.

Paul Lewis has made his name in Schubert, and accordingly he took the primo part for Schubert’s lovely F minor Fantasy, D940 (1828). His credentials implied this was a wise move, and so it was to be; he was much more sensitive to the music’s ebb and flow than in the Debussy. Unfortunately, a rather brisk view of the first section (marked ‘Allegro molto moderato’; here we got just the ‘Allegro’ bit) meant that the special qualities of the key of F minor were glossed over. Rather than enter into Schubert’s interior world, we sat at its edge. Similarly, the Largo sagged. But the greatest caveat to this account was the playing down of the significance of the harmonic arrivals at major-key areas. Here there was no gentle bending of the basic pulse, rather a steamrollering through in the hope that merely the mere depression the keys would usher in some Schubertian sunshine. The best part of the performance was the F sharp minor Allegro vivace, which emerged as playful, but it seemed perhaps a little out of place, sounding as if perhaps the players had at last found a plateau where they felt comfortable.

The staggeringly underrated, ultra-musical pianist Martin Roscoe joined Steven Osborne for a momentous performance of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen (1943) after the interval. Osborne, of course, is no stranger to this composer (he has made an excellent recording of the Vingt régards on Hyperion CDA67351/2). Both pianists, indeed, exuded an aura of confidence.

Messiaen’s seven ‘Amens’ are a tour de force of two-piano sonority and compositional virtuosity. They represent a spiritual journey from the ‘Amen de la Création’ to the final ‘Amen de la Consommation’ (complete with ffff climax). At the very beginning, Messiaen sets up a vast acoustic space between the second piano (Roscoe) with its deep, earnest low chords and Osborne’s decorations. As the dynamic increased, so did the tone; time began to slow as the composer’s meditations set in. The third Amen, ‘Amen de l’agonie de Jésus’, was particularly interesting in that the scrunchy harmonies, close to ecstasy, reminded us how closely related agony and ecstasy can be. The aching, sweetly-scented harmonies of the ‘Amen du Désir’ were truly sensual. Bird-song makes an early appearance in Messiaen’s oeuvre in the fifth Amen, ‘Amen des Anges, des Saints, du chant des oiseaux’ (also in this movement, Roscoe provided us with a lovingly presented variant of the creation theme).

Not all is sweetness and light in this particular universe, however, and the ‘Amen du Jugement ‘revealed just how brutal Roscoe can be (not a description usually applied to his playing), while the second Amen (‘Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau’ was fully rhythmically alive. The final ‘Amen de la Consommation’ was appropriately and satisfyingly climactic, exuding ecstasy (Osborne’s carillon was particularly effective). There were very few caveats to this account: perhaps the fifth movement could have been even more ‘joyeux,’ but there was no doubting the conviction of the two protagonists.

The Messiaen, indeed, acted as the first half’s redeemer, providing not only a visceral experience but also plenty of food for the spirit.

Colin Clarke



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