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Claude DEBUSSY (1862 - 1918)
Masques [4.50]
...D'un Cahier D'Esquisses [4.54]
L'isle Joyeuse [5.59]
Images I, L105 (1905) [14:44]
Images II, L120 (1907) [13:16]
Estampes, L108 (1903) [13:47]
Children’s Corner, L119 (1906/08) [15:47]
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. 2016, Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA68161 [73:21]

Steven Osborne last recording of Debussy was in 2006, when he committed the composer's complete Preludes to disc. This recording confirms that Osborne is a Debussy interpreter to be reckoned with and it stands comparison with the very best Debussy piano recordings to emerge in recent years. Osborne produces a vast array of textures, uses a wide range of dynamics and tone colours and uses the pedal judiciously. This is not the hazy impressionism with which one sometimes associates Debussy's piano music. Osborne keeps the lines relatively clean and he clearly has an excellent feel for Debussy's shifting sonorities.

Roger Nichols makes the interesting point in the programme notes that the first three pieces in this recital, while published individually, can be seen as a triptych. In Masques Osborne keeps the rhythmic figurations tight and vibrant and uses a well-calibrated range of dynamics. He captures the thoughtful intimacy of ...D'un Cahier d'esquisses well and he allows the ideas to develop freely while producing imaginative contrasting sonorities. L'Isle Joyeuse is one of Debussy's most popular pieces and there are many recordings. I like the very early exponents of the work such as Gieseking and Meyer, who adopted relatively fast tempi. Osborne's overall recording time is a little bit slower than both of these, although I really loved this performance. The opening trill and cadenza had a wonderful mercurial quality setting the scene brilliantly and I was immediately struck by Osborne's very close attention to the composer's markings in the ensuing dance. The dynamic contrasts were sometimes startling, but effective and the music was in turn playful, seductive and brilliant. Osborne does a superb job building up a head of steam in the final section before closing the piece with a dazzling virtuoso flourish.

Debussy's two sets of Images were written at the beginning of the 20th Century and, as the name implies, all of the pieces were inspired by visual images. Osborne invests the opening chords of Reflets dans l'eau with a limpid tonal beauty while the swirling phrases and glistening arpeggios are artfully shaped, perfectly evoking the effect of pebbles being thrown into a pond. I enjoyed the dramatic build up in sound in the central section and the crystalline beauty of the final section. Osborne adopts a nice flowing tempo for Hommage à Rameau and captures the monumental and mysterious character of the piece to perfection. Mouvement is crisp and light and the fingerwork excellent, although some of the dynamic contrasts jar a little (sometimes with Debussy less is more). Osborne produces some exquisitely layered textures in Cloches à travers les feuilles and the melancholic atmosphere is punctuated in a magical way by the ringing of the bells for All Saints Day. The timeless quality of the moonlit scene is depicted beautifully in Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut and the gamelan effects are evoked in a poetic and mesmerising way. Osborne's performance of Poissons d'or is dazzling: the darting movements of the goldfish are depicted in a highly imaginative way and the playful and capricious quality of the piece captured brilliantly. It is difficult to make comparisons with other pianists as each of the six pieces are very different and pianists are inevitably better in some than in others. Osborne does not perhaps have the delicacy or refinement of Ogawa, although he uses a wider range of dynamics and some of the tone painting is more startling and original. Michelangeli also uses vivid dynamic contrasts and his technical control is extraordinary, although some of the technical effects are a little too calculated and Osborne sounds more natural and spontaneous.

Estampes was written in the summer of 1903 and the title refers to Japanese prints, although the inspiration for the first two pieces was probably the Paris Exhibition of 1900. Osborne produces gorgeous contrasting layered textures in Pagodes and a rich array of tone colours while the filigree of the ending is played with a cultivated refinement. La soirée dans Grenade is full of strumming guitars and gypsy fire while Osborne produces some highly vivid impressionistic tone painting in Jardins sous la pluie. One of the best recordings I have heard of this piece in recent years was by the Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz. I have a slight preference for Blechacz's account of the first two pieces in the set, given his extraordinary finesse, articulation and rhythmic flexibility. Osborne had the edge in Jardins sous la pluie with his highly imaginative shifts in tone colour conjuring up light showers and thunderous downpours.

Osborne concludes his recital with the perennially popular Children's Corner suite. This is once again a highly cultivated performance with each of the miniatures brilliantly characterised. Dr Gradus moves seamlessly from the opening exercises to dreamy reverie and there is a real sense of exhilaration at the end. The snow is dancing opens with a hypnotic ethereal delicacy and blossoms out into a richly coloured tone poem. I would have liked a little more characterisation in Jimbo's lullaby but the suite closes in style with a brash and witty performance of the Golliwogg's cake-walk.

Overall, this is an outstanding recording by Steven Osborne.

Robert Beattie
Previous review: Michael Cookson



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