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Nigel OSBORNE (b.1948)
Sensations of Travel
The Piano Tuner – Three Preludes and five fugues for piano trio version with soundscapes (2018) [16.11]
Espionage: three miniature sonatas Studies in Poussin and happenstance for solo violin [10.11]
Balkan Dances and Laments for violin, viola, cello, oboe and piano (2001) [15.08]
Ecological Studies for piano (2014) [7.08]
Zone for string trio, oboe and clarinet (1989) [9.21]
My Beloved, where are you going/Adagio for Vedran Smailović, for solo cello [4.52]
Preludio y cancion for violin, viola, cello, clarinet and piano (2017) [7.32]
ZoŽ Beyers (violin)
Catherine Marwood (viola)
William Conway (cello)
Rachel Clegg (oboe)
Maximiliano Martin (clarinet)
Philip Moore (piano)
rec. 2018, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh
DELPHIAN DCD34198 [70.28]

The music of Nigel Osborne is not as I remember it or first knew it. That was back in the early 80s when I heard a work at the Proms (I think it was Remembering Esenin) and an LP of his music on Unicorn, which contained that piece and others, including the beautiful Concerto for flute and chamber orchestra. This rather new language, eliciting changes of texture and complexity, has, in part at least, been created by his extensive travels and indeed experiences in the early 90s – a time when he worked in war-torn Bosnia, teaching and helping those without hope to find it through music.

I had occasionally wondered what had happened to him since those heady days of Proms performances and Radio 3 broadcasts. Now I know. This CD is partly a result of Osborne’s experiences having been recorded to coincide with his seventieth birthday. The Unicorn LP has now been transferred to CD but I am not aware of much else that is commercially available. Yet again, a composer is much honoured when young and then overlooked once he/she has hit middle age.

This generously filled CD is the third in a series of music by Scottish composers on the Delphian label. The first two were James MacMillan and Peter Maxwell Davies. Osborne comes from Edinburgh. Early on, he found himself a reliable publisher in Universal Edition; his opera The Electrification of the Soviet Union was received with excitement in 1987.

The miniatures that form the Ecological Studies include a movement called Mudskipper Macaque, which is an Asian Crab, and another White bird, which is from America. These pieces simply attempt to capture something of the nature of the exotic creature that Osborne spotted on his travels.

The title of the disc, Sensations of Travel, is actually a movement of the Piano Trio entitled The Piano Tuner. To explain this multi-layered work would take up too many words but suffice to say that its inspiration is a 2002 novel by Daniel Mason, set in 1886, about a piano tuner who is asked to tune an instrument in Burma and which Osborne turned into an opera in 2004. The music takes us on an imaginary journey to Asia with the help of a variety of musical styles and the addition of natural sounds, recorded by the composer on his own travels, as for example, cicadas, monkeys and various birdcalls plus a tabla player. Even more extraordinary is the form of the work Three Preludes and five fugues whereby each is given a title. So, Sensations of Travel is the second prelude; the third fugue is Dragonfly and the beautiful, calm, third prelude is Song of Loss and so on. This is an eccentric but unique and witty piece well worth spending time with. You can even briefly hear the composer singing The Road to Mandalay!

The key to this entire CD lies in its shortest work – the Adagio for solo cello, which is preceded by another song My beloved, where are you going, featuring the voice of the composer. This Adagio was written for Vedran Smailović, the so-called “Cellist of Sarajevo” who played alongside the travelling Osborne in the snow, surrounded by snipers and sometimes playing in the city’s graveyards at the height of the war. The Adagio is very quiet, very moving and it was out of the above experience that both men moved into helping traumatised children.

For me the most impressive and the work I shall most often return to, is the Balkan Dances and Laments, composed in quiet reflection six years after the end of the Bosnian war. It is clear that both in the melodic shapes and the rhythms, the strong inspiration of Balkan traditional music informs almost the entire piece. It is dramatic, especially at its busy and pugnacious climax half way, and then in the beautiful, keening oboe solo at c. 10’25’’ that enables the piece to achieve some kind of reconciliation.

Espionage, described as Studies in Poussin and happenstance, has a very complex background. Sufficient to say the title is connected with the spy Anthony Blunt who it seems wrote a book on the baroque French artist Nicolas Poussin (d. 1665). Osborne has also been working on a film-opera on the subject of the Cambridge spies. The first movement of this work for solo violin is et in Arcadia ego, reflecting the famous painting of the shepherds overlooking a mysterious tomb. The third movement is a dance to the music of time, alluding to the novels of Anthony Powell. The middle movement is an angry presto fuoco, entitled Shakespeare at the Kremlin. There is more I could go into but I have to say that this work failed to connect with me and I feel its inspiration to be too disparate to make a coherent whole.

Something of an outlier, having been written before his visit to Bosnia, is Zone delicately scored for oboe, clarinet and string trio. It was inspired by the film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky where there is a zone removed from the outside world in which anything might happen and dreams can be fulfilled. Osborne even quotes fragments from the film score, composed by his friend, another Russian, Eduard Artemyev. At this time Osborne was composing The Electrification of the Soviet Union. The piece begins in a scratchy, searching atmosphere and blossoms into lyricism that is all too soon cut off.

Although every piece on this CD is superbly and passionately played, Laments and Dances is given as fine a performance as any composer could wish. But perhaps I should belatedly say that there are more Laments than Dances and I’m not sure if they could ever be danced to. Perhaps some choreographer might prove me wrong.

The final journey on the CD is to South America via a still unfinished opera. Preludio y cancion is from Naciketa, which is being written in collaboration with American-Chilean author Ariel Dorfman. At the end of the opera the hero, Naciketa, arrives in South America having experienced a series of traumatic scenes. However, the music is full of reconciliation and beauty, being lyrical and even romantic in quite a different form to the rest of the CD. It was especially written for the Hebrides Ensemble and makes an amiable end to the disc.

There is an excellent and helpful essay by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. The recording, made in quite a large church in the middle of busy Edinburgh, is beautifully balanced, quiet and focused.

Gary Higginson



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