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Hyperion Records

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The Chariot of Apollo (c1909) by Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Sotheby’s Picture Library
Track(s) taken from CDA67625
Recording details: September 2007
Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: September 2008
Total duration: 32 minutes 15 seconds

'Steven Osborne yields nothing to the great Sviatoslav Richter in the punchiness and fine-tuned filigree of his playing. No skating over the surface here, with Ilan Volkov and the BBC SSO adept at teasing out the music's symphonic subtext, as well as its piquant orchestral effects … Steven Osborne combines fireworks with wit and subtlety, and Ilan Volkov relishes Britten's unerring ear for orchestral sonorities. Meanwhile, the BBC SSO players sound as if they're having a whale of a time' (Gramophone)

'Britten's three works for solo piano are relatively neglected and Steven Osborne's brilliant performances, backed by the conductor Ilan Volkov, make one wonder why' (The Sunday Telegraph)

'Steven Osborne and Ilan Volkov launch into the Piano Concerto's opening 'Toccata' at a headlong pace … for all the remarkable velocity, the playing has weight and incisiveness too, and Osborne's way with the two central movements is equally sure … this beautifully devised single-movement set of variations [Diversions] presents Britten's inventiveness at its most elegant, while also finding serious depth in its penultimate Adagio. Osborne and the orchestra do this neglected jewel excellent justice. And there's vivid recorded sound to match' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Osborne takes the opening Toccata of the concerto at quite a lick, but his quick-witted pianism is up to the task, and it is matched throughout by some incisive and perceptive playing from Ilan Volkov's BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. All in all, it is a match for the composer-conducted classic recording by Sviatoslav Richter' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Osborne's account of Britten's 1938 Piano Concerto is full of fire and wit. He dazzles in the long, unrelentingly fast first movement … he plays the sour second movement with breezy nonchalance, the third with a heavy improvisatory tread and the Prokofiev-like March with mock-heroic fanfares and percussive virtuosity' (The Times)

'Osborne exults in Britten's dazzlingly pianistic writing, and we get to hear the original 1938 version of the concerto's third movement, a dazzlingly beautiful Recitative and Aria … a thrilling disc' (The Sunday Times)

'Scottish pianist Steven Osborne is mercurial but never flashy, and eloquent in the moments of repose. The Diversons … are played with equal brilliance' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Osborne's technique puts him ahead of the game: this is no average British pianist' (Fanfare, USA)

'The incomparable Steven Osborne, with the BBC SSO and Ilan Volkov in electrifying form … the music has a bubbling effervescence … and is delivered by Osborne with his characteristic sense of discipline (pristine playing) and buccaneering spirit. There is real depth, too, in the piece, not least in the dark nobility of the finale theme' (The Herald)

'It is hard to imagine more persuasive advocates for the music. Osborne is dazzling in the showier passages (of which there are many) in all three works, and all challenges are met head-on in exemplary performances' (Scotland on Sunday)

'From one recording to the next, Osborne, the Scottish pianist, is a marvel. Here he gleams and geysers through a performance of Benjamin Britten's concerto, with expert help from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ilan Volkov. Pure excellence' (San Jose Mercury News, USA)

'L'interprète rend parfaite justice à cetter page étrange dans son alliage de martial entrain et d'extatique ferveur … ce dernier était, on le sait, autrichien et les profondes affinités de Britten avec Mahler, Berg et leurs émules trouvent ici le terrain idéal pour s'exprimer. Comme Ravel, Britten soumet la main gauche de l'interprète à d'effrayantes épreuves brillamment déjouées par Steven Osborne' (Classica, France)

Piano Concerto in D major, Op 13
composer
begun February 1938; 1st performed by Britten & the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood on 13 August 1938; 3rd movement replaced in 1945; new version 1st performed by Noel Mewton-Wood in July 1946; originally titled 'Concerto No 1'

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Britten began his Piano Concerto in D major Op 13 in February 1938, anticipating a premiere, in which he would be the soloist, at that year’s BBC Proms at Queen’s Hall under Sir Henry Wood. It seems that, from the start, Britten planned a work in four movements. This was certainly a break with tradition, although by no means unique (the most famous four-movement piano concerto is Brahms’s second). But the four-movement form had been tried by other twentieth-century composers, notably by Prokofiev in his second and fourth piano concertos (his fifth is in five movements), and by Shostakovich in his Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings, which received its British premiere early in January 1936 at the Queen’s Hall with Eileen Joyce conducted by Sir Henry Wood. There is no mention in Britten’s published diaries of his being at this premiere, which in the normal course of events he would have attended. So although Prokofiev and Shostakovich had written four- and five-movement piano concertos by 1938, it seems that Britten was unaware of them when writing his concerto, the first performance of which took place on 13 August with Sir Henry conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The critical reception was mixed—as one might expect, for this work came as a surprise, even to Britten’s early admirers. In terms of its number of movements, its language and its relationship between solo instrument and orchestra, this concerto was quite different from previous British examples of the genre. During the previous thirty years, only the concertos by Delius (1906) and by Britten’s teacher John Ireland (1930) had shown any likelihood of entering the repertoire. Delius’s Concerto remains the only such work by a British composer to have been played twice during the same Proms season, and Ireland’s had been taken up by a number of eminent international soloists—including Artur Rubinstein and Gina Bachauer. But if the twenty-four-year-old Britten’s work had more in common with Russian or French models, it remains an astoundingly original achievement. The Queen’s Hall audience would have been intrigued—at the very least—by the fact that the work is in four movements, and perhaps more so by the fact that these movement had titles: Toccata, Waltz, Recitative and Aria, and March. Whatever this work might turn out to be, some would have thought, this is going to be a new type of piano concerto for a British composer.

The opening Toccata is dazzling in its brilliance, breathtaking in its unstoppable energy: this is music unquestionably by a young composer unafraid to declare himself, grasping his opportunity literally with both hands. This music can only make its full impact if played throughout at the very fast speed Britten demands; the 74 pages of full orchestral score of the first movement alone fly by, the texture and relationship between soloist and orchestra varying this way and that, as if created by some kind of musical magician. Only in the cadenza, where the composer seemingly delights in the keyboard itself, does the speed relax until the secondary thematic group (it is not possible here to speak of traditional first and second ‘subjects’), now combined, enters with soft strings and harp accompaniment to reveal the material in a completely new light before the coda brings the curtain down with a flourish. The quicksilver nature of this music is part of its originality: does any other piano concerto—even Ravel’s for two hands—start at such a speed, or maintain it for so long? Does any other maintain such an unremitting tempo while also unfolding a full-scale sonata structure that embraces a wealth of contrasted ideas all emanating from a single unifying cell? On another level, given the Concerto is in D major, what is the second subject group in the first movement doing in E major, the supertonic? The mixed critical reception the work received at its premiere can partly be explained by the simple fact that the audience had, quite literally, never heard anything like it before.

If the notion of ‘display’ inherent in the title Toccata may be thought somewhat ‘un-British’, what of the second movement Waltz, which looks forward to the finale of the Spring Symphony of 1948? Constant Lambert, writing a week after the premiere in The Listener, described this movement as ‘a fascinating psychological study’—probably the first time any music by a twenty-four-year-old British composer had been described in such a way. Lambert did not mention the composer whose instrumentation demonstrably hovers over the music at the close of the Waltz—Mahler—but his insight into this movement was correct (interestingly, Lambert himself conducted the premiere of Britten’s next major work, the choral-orchestral Ballad of Heroes Op 14, in April 1939).

In his review Lambert expressed reservations about the Recitative and Aria and the concluding March, reservations that Britten himself came to share (although he was to give three further performances of the original version by the end of 1938), for in 1945 he replaced the Recitative and Aria with a new Impromptu. Fears of a stylistic imbalance in such a juxtaposition are unfounded—despite such masterpieces as the Sinfonia da Requiem, the Serenade, Michelangelo Sonnets and Peter Grimes having appeared in the interim—for the variations which form the Impromptu are based on a theme from incidental music Britten wrote in 1937 for a radio drama on the subject of King Arthur. The essence of the initial musical thought that inspired this new movement is therefore contemporaneous with the original three movements. The revised version was first performed by Noel Mewton-Wood in July 1946 at the Cheltenham Festival with the London Philharmonic conducted by Britten. The original version was not heard again in Britten’s lifetime after he had played it in January 1940 in Chicago conducted by Albert Goldberg—a performance that received rather more critical acclaim than the premiere had done in the United Kingdom.

In both versions the third movement leads directly to the concluding March—an extraordinarily extrovert, even ironic (although not satirical) piece in which the semi-tonal germ of the Toccata’s opening idea is transformed into a descending major seventh. The climax of this finale is a cadenza accompanied throughout by an undeviating pulse on bass drum and cymbals—a most original touch. Further references from the Toccata in the coda of the finale enhance the inherent unity of the work.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2008

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