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S & H Recital Review

Liszt, Messiaen Steven Osborne (piano), Wigmore Hall, 1pm, Monday November 3rd, 2003 (CC)


Steven Osborne is one of the UK’s brightest pianistic stars. He has impressed before at the Wigmore and it was a privilege to hear this daring programme. ‘Daring’ because it comprised highly-charged spiritual utterances, unremitting in their intensity, by two great ‘mystical’ composers: Liszt and Messiaen.

Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses is a remarkable feat of compositional concentration. Osborne chose a selection of three: Invocation (1847-52); Ave Maria (1846-52); Pensée des morts (1834-52). Surprisingly casually attired for a programme of such deep intent, Osborne began the ‘Invocation’ with a warm, almost glowing tone. He seemed to enjoy projecting the composer’s dark side, emphasising the lower registers and making his fortes round and sonorous. The most telling facet of his interpretation was to impart an almost ecstatic feel, taking the sound close to Messiaen. The bitter-sweet and tender ‘Ave Maria’ (originally for chorus and organ) brought forth magical pianissimi, while the dark, fragmentary ruminations of ‘Pensées des morts’ were almost frightening. Block chords, fortissimo and beautifully together gave the impression of an enormous black-on-black canvas (almost Rothko-like in image). Clearly, Osborne displays a maturity well ahead of his earth years. Things boded well for the Messiaen.

And he did not disappoint. Osbrorne’s recording of the complete Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Hyperion CDA67351/2) has been almost universally lauded and from this live performance of four of them, one could see why. The seventh (the first to be played), ‘Regard de la Croix’, emerged as a mystic processional, its almost hyper-beautiful harmonies balanced by the shock value of its bare, awe-inspiring close. Noël, No. 13 was vital and jubilant. There was a palpable sense of slow but unstoppable expansion here, Osborne judging his acoustic perfectly.

If any compositional evocation of silence is by nature tricky, Messiaen’s solution (No. 17, ‘Regard du silence’) is one of the most affecting of all. Delicate traceries, intricate as a spider’s web, created an atmosphere that made one hold one’s breath. Musical hypnosis at its most compelling.

Finally, No. 6, ‘Par lui tout a été fait’ (‘By Him everything was made’) was a carnival of syncopations and engrossing, infectious dance rhythms. The climax seemed to make a distinct reference over its shoulder, back to the world of Liszt we had heard earlier. Virtuoso gestures were delivered with great élan by Osborne, yet they remained an organic part of the tapestry. Osborne, along with Paul Lewis, remains at the top the tree of young piano talent in the UK. A pity the audience was only half full, therefore. Does the name of Messiaen still keep people away? It is only to be hoped that the radio audience was larger.

Colin Clarke



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