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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31) [21:37]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Noches en los jardines de España (1911-15) [23:12]
Maurice RAVEL
Piano Concerto for the left hand in D major (1929-30) [18:13]
Steven Osborne (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ludovic Morlot
rec. 25 & 26 May 2016, City Halls, Glasgow. DDD
HYPERION CDA68148 [63:03]

In May 2016 Steven Osborne was the soloist in a concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Ludovic Morlot. I was intending to review that concert for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard, drawn equally by the inclusion on the programme of the UK premiere of Become Ocean by John Luther Adams and the chance to hear Osborne playing both of the Ravel concertos. To my intense regret I was obliged to miss the concert at the last minute due to transportation difficulties. I now have some compensation with the appearance of this disc which was recorded in Glasgow some 10 days after the Birmingham concert.

In the G major concerto Osborne and Morlot make a very good impression from the outset. There’s plenty of fizz at the start of the first movement, Allegramente. The obvious comparison to make is with the classic 1957 recording by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (review). This new Osborne performance has, I think, marginally more of a spring in its step at this point than has Michelangeli’s wonderful performance or, indeed, Marta Argerich's super 1984 DG account with the LSO and Claudio Abbado. Osborne’s playing in the espressivo passages is stylish and seductively phrased; he’s a match for anyone, though Michelangeli’s rubato is so persuasive. In the fast music his playing is full of animation and that quality is echoed in the way the BBCSSO deliver the brittle orchestration under Morlot’s spirited leadership. The wonderfully still episode that’s provided by the harp solo (from 4:28) is marvellous until the calm is rudely shattered by the raucous brass and woodwind. One of my favourite episodes in all Ravel is the passage where the piano plays the espressivo melody in trills (6:11- 6:37). Michelangeli is the master here, his trills absolutely seamless, but Osborne isn’t far behind. In the last couple of minutes I love the way the jazzy syncopations are delivered by soloist and orchestra in the new recording.

The long opening solo of the slow movement is serenely poised in Osborne’s hands. When the orchestra joins him they play with finesse. The overall impression is one of Mozartian grace. The exquisite passage (from 6:13) in which Ravel’s captivating melody is taken up by the cor anglais is hauntingly beautiful and Osborne provides decoration of the utmost delicacy. I think that he and Morlot judge the pacing of the movement perfectly; rightly, they don’t let the marking of Adagio assai tempt them into a speed that’s too slow, which might impede the music’s natural flow. By contrast, in his 1979 EMI recording with Lorin Maazel, Jean-Philippe Collard is just a fraction too deliberate. The difference isn’t great – overall he takes 10:14 for the movement against Osborne’s 9:24 – but it’s sufficient to be telling. Argerich and Michelangeli both adopt a similar speed to Osborne. The short finale is fast and furious from Osborne and Morlot. The deliberate grotesqueries in the orchestral parts register excellently while Osborne’s playing is full of glitter and effervescence. The new recording doesn’t dim my admiration for Argerich, still less for Michelangeli, but it’s fully worthy to stand beside them.

The Left Hand Concerto may be very different in conception and may make very different demands on the performers but it’s just as successfully done here. Between them Ludovic Morlot and the Hyperion recording team ensure that the subdued, dark opening has sufficient clarity that one can discern what exactly is going on in the subterranean depths of the orchestra without compromising the mysterious atmosphere. Morlot builds the introduction skilfully and so paves the way really well for Osborne’s imperious first entry (2:11). Thereafter the pianist’s rhetorical flourishes over the next couple of minutes are very imposing. From 5:43 I love the way that Osborne’s playing muses gently. The martial section (from 8:08) bristles. In that episode there’s plenty of purpose to the music-making and everything is strongly defined: I very much approve of the way Morlot keeps the tension at just the right level. The long cadenza (14:06 – 17:20) is masterfully done by Osborne before the orchestra joins him for the concerto’s short but potent pay-off. I like very much the recordings I have by Collard/Maazel (EMI) and by Michel Beroff with Abbado and the LSO (DG) but this new Osborne/Morlot version can hold its head up high in any company.

In his booklet essay Roger Nichols points out the links between Falla and Ravel – and with Debussy too – so the coupling of Noches en los jardines de España is a very apt one. One point that Nichols makes concerns Debussy’s wish, expressed in 1909 to Varèse, to revise his Fantaisie for piano and orchestra so as to avoid ‘a rather ridiculous battle between these two characters’. Perhaps Falla had a similar aim in mind when he wrote this present work for it is in no sense a concerto. This seems particularly true of the longest movement, which was inspired by the Generalife at the stunning Alhambra. Here the piano acts more as a primus inter pares than as a true concerto soloist, albeit the piano part is as substantial as it is crucial. The music receives a terrific performance here; the music sounds very evocative and the partnership of Osborne and Morlot brings out all the colours in Falla’s writing. The pianist is perhaps more of a soloist in the two remaining movements, both of which come off very well. Much of the concluding En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba is bright and vibrant and the performance is very successful. However, given the performers’ prowess in the more delicate stretches of the Ravel G major Concerto it’s no surprise that they’re just as adept in the more subdued passages of the movement, not least the ending.

I enjoyed this disc from start to finish. The performances of all three works are absolutely excellent. Steven Osborne is superb in all three works while the contributions of the BBCSSO and Ludovic Morlot can’t be faulted. Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Ben Connellan have ensured that the performances have been expertly recorded in pleasing, detailed sound.

This disc is a winner.

John Quinn



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