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S & H Concert Review

Prokofiev, Mozart, Mahler Steven Osborne (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi, RFH, April 6th, 2004 (CC)


Steven Osborne has made quite a name for himself via his Hyperion recordings of diverse repertoire, including Alkan, Liszt and Messiaen. His solo recital at the Wigmore Hall last year revealed his strengths in the latter two composers. He is less well known for his Mozart, so it was interesting to hear him in the delightful, evergreen ‘little’ A major concerto (No. 12, K414).

And a little disappointing, too. Dohnányi set the scene well, with a delicate orchestral exposition (with, admittedly, the impression that the Philharmonia was treading on egg-shells). Very soon after Osborne’s entrance, though, the thought popped up that Osborne is still too young for Mozart. His was a very arid Mozartean landscape and scales had more than a whiff of the ordinary about them (what magic Uchida can make of the most mundane major scale, for example!). True, there is a nice legato basis for Osborne’s playing and nothing he ever does is unmusical or unstylish, but we never really got to meet Mozart here. An elegant orchestral introduction to the second movement seemed to be setting up a pattern, as Osborne was significantly more pedestrian than his colleagues (almost clunky in the chordal passages, in fact). The second cadenza found him in better form (for the first time one wondered what he would be like in other Mozart – specifically the late sonatas), and following this trend the finale showed a little more imagination (even including hints of cheekiness!). Taken as a whole, though, this was far from an impressive achievement.

A Prokofiev ‘Classical’ Symphony had begun the evening well, however. Dohnányi, never a conductor one associates with wit (sophisticated or otherwise) brought a fair amount of humour to, especially, the scampering finale. Accuracy here married spirit, a trait that characterised the majority of this performance (with the exception of some rather anonymous wind contributions in the first movement). Antiphonal violin placement worked well. Tight ensemble was a consistent delight – this was no mere token opener.

Most people though, must surely have come for Mahler’s First Symphony, that great big splodge of youthful exuberance and excess. Here Dohnányi came into his own in an interpretation that gained in strength as the work progressed. Despite the superbly controlled high string harmonics of the opening and some preternaturally accurate horn-playing, the emergence of the ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’ motif on ‘cellos was over-literal, an indication of a slightly studied approach to some detail. Yet there was evidence of gradual and organic growth, with Mahler’s sometimes outrageous orchestration given full weight (some amazing rasping muted trumpets).

All the more surprising then that the hand-stopping on horns in the second movement (a truly grotesque effect) was played down; less of a surprise that the Trio did not relax and contrast to the required degree. A slightly hesitant opening to the movement as a whole detracted from the Lederhosen-laden festivities, too.

It was individual contributions to the third movement that carried it through, not least from the solo double bass at the start (the best I have ever heard). Yet the middle section, while nicely characterised, hardly held the authentic lilt of a Bernstein (DG). It was left to the finale to crown the performance. Here, right from the initial orchestral scream, Dohnányi was in full control. Not only were the brass truly resplendent (complete with standing horns for the final peroration), Dohnányi galvanised his players into creating moments of magic as the contrastive music approached stasis. It was a memorable account, acting as a reaffirmation of the Philharmonia’s standing.

Colin Clarke





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