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Hyperion Records

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Symphony (1915) by Michail Ivanovich Menkov (1885-1926)
Art Museum, Samara, Russia / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67461/2
Recording details: May 2007
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Phil Rowlands
Release date: November 2007
Total duration: 34 minutes 13 seconds

'Osborne's outstanding recording of the Piano Concerto … it's a lyrical piece with magical moments' (The Mail on Sunday)

'The mighty Concerto, starkly and confidently poised between Tippett's still richly potent earlier style and the brave new possibilities explored in its visionary central movement … the eloquence and fantasy of what is undoubtedly one of the major works of the 1950s is superbly projected in a performance which need fear no comparison with the best earlier recordings … as for the sonatas, Steven Osborne is at least the equal of Paul Crossley in interpretative empathy, and has the advantage of superlative modern recording. There's a further advantage: perceptive and lucid booklet-notes by Ian Kemp, Tippett's friend and biographer' (Gramophone)

'This splendid double album … performances that impressively set new standards in these often challenging works … Steven Osborne seems to have the measure of them all. His account of the Concerto, ably supported by Martyn Brabbins's command of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, has all the ecstatic power that Ogdon brought to the first movement, and a like rhythmic ebullience in the finale, but negotiates the contrapuntal thickets of the slow movement with greater delicacy and feeling. He's helped by Hyperion's detailed recording … the Fourth is by far the longest of the sonatas and has previously been the hardest to assimilate. Even so, Osborne's wonderfully elegant unwinding of the contrapuntal lines in the first movement, and his powerful, deeply elegiac reading of the finale, illuminate this fascinating work … more clearly than any version I've previously encountered. This is a very important release' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Released just in time to mark the 10th anniversary of Michael Tippett's death comes this magnificent set of the composer's complete music for piano played by the musician who must surely be regarded as one of his most resourceful interpreters, Steven Osborne. He has just the range of touch to bring out the tonal richness of the Piano Concerto (superbly partnered by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins), the muscularity of the Beethovenian elements in the First Piano Sonata and the almost Messiaenic sense of fantasy required for the Fourth' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Steven Osborne is a young pianist who seems completely at home in this wide-ranging and challenging music … the best case for the music I’ve ever heard' (American Record Guide)

'Osborne's readings on this new recording from Hyperion undoubtedly triumph … Osborne wins through on grounds of spontaneity and bitterness … Hyperion's new release, delightfully crisp and immediate, brings together all of Tippett's piano music under one roof, a feat not hitherto attempted. It succeeds in honouring the music's volatility while salvaging from it the composer's temperate if idiosyncratic sense of Song. Osborne's reflections complement full and illuminating booklet notes by Ian Kemp, who first brought Tippett's piano msuic to the pianist's attention while studying at Manchester University. This is a set that certainly deserves our warmest embrace' (International Record Review)

'Steven Osborne's accounts of the four Tippett sonatas in recitals at the Wigmore Hall were one of the highlights of the Tippett centenary celebrations in 2005, and his recordings of them, together with equally exceptional accounts of the Piano Concerto and the early Fantasia on a theme of Handel have been well worth waiting for … Osborne is superb at delineating the characters of the four sonatas and underlining how, in their very different ways, they relate to the piano tradition … under his fingers the Second Sonata emerges as a gritty and uncompromising masterpiece … his account of the Piano Concerto with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony is similarly charged' (The Guardian)

'The Scottish pianist demonstrates the driving energy behind Tippett's solo piano music. The four sonatas dance nimbly over the keys … nothing beats the hungry Vivace of the Piano Concerto, however, for sheer palpitating excitement' (The Times)

'This double album is a monumental achievement. Tippett's writing for piano is as demanding as it is cliché-resistant. No body of music for the instrument since Messiaen's is as distinctive as his and it is wonderful to have the oeuvre together on disc. The concerto is realised with a precision and vigour, both soloistic and orchestral, that leave one marvelling anew at its inventiveness. The account of the brief, early, concerted Fantasia on a theme of Handel makes me revise my opinion of the work sharply upwards. In Osborne's account of the four sonatas, each a big statement, radiance and virtuosity go hand in hand' (The Sunday Times)

'This double-disc set from Hyperion is a monumental justifcation for his efforts. In all four sonatas, Osborne reveals a sense of composure that reflects his total absorption in the music … the most exciting revelations are his illuminating accounts of the Third and Fourth Sonatas. Osborne hits the button on all levels. In terms of stature, he pours out Tippett's edifices with radiant vision. But within all that there is a galaxy of detail that hits you with intoxicating freshness and dynamism … these are award-winning performances' (The Scotsman)

'I applaud Steven Osborne for his dedication to Tippett's music. He has worked long and hard on it and found his own way; furthermore, he had the opportunity to include the sonatas in recitals before recording them … Steven Osborne brings deep commitment to the music, making it alive, vivid, and communicative through musical and technical virtues of the highest order … he really is inside Tippett's continually fascinating output' (Fanfare, USA)

'Osborne is at the top of his game in his unmistakable mix of liberated pianism and steel-tempered discipline … his playing, never better, is stamped with an immaculate sense of organisation and structure, married to a freewheeling joy at grappling with music he is committed to' (The Herald)

'I cannot imagine a finer recording of the emotionally restrained and stucturally tight Tippett Piano Concerto than from Steven Osborne … any older recording of this very important British piano concerto is safely ousted from the market. Osborne also does justice to Tippett's sontatas here' (Pianist)

'The English composer Michael Tippett left an idiosyncratic body of work shaped by keen intelligence and humanitarian spirit. But given the unorthodox demands and occasional technical shortcomings of his writing, his music has been best served by performers who approach it with sympathy and absolute commitment. The latest to do so is the Scottish pianist Steven Osborne, whose new collection of Tippett’s piano music is a revelatory achievement. The four sonatas span Tippett’s career, providing a concentrated overview of his restless style. The First, completed in 1938 and revised in 1942, responds to Europe’s darkening political climate with virtuoso fireworks and boisterous folk melodies. The Second Sonata, from 1962, shares the brittle, jagged sound Tippett fashioned for his second opera, King Priam, yet passages of gracious lyricism pop up throughout the single-movement span. Tippett’s musical language had become still more abrasive by the time he wrote the Third Sonata in 1973, but the icy stillness of the Lento movement and the explosive vitality of the finale speak clearly and directly. The Fourth, finished in 1984, is stuffed with enough material for a dozen pieces, including a quirky fugue, a gamboling fourth movement and a ghostly finale. Somehow Mr. Osborne makes it all stick. The Piano Concerto, from 1955, occupies the ravishing sound world Tippett created in his first opera, The Midsummer Marriage. The concerto is awkward but endearing, and Mr. Osborne is a compelling soloist. The conductor, Martyn Brabbins, draws a lively performance from the BBC Scottish players here and in the ostentatious Fantasia on a theme of Handel' (The New York Times)

Piano Concerto

Allegro non troppo  [16'42]
Vivace  [8'18]

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The full-scale Piano Concerto Tippett was eventually to write was completed in 1955, though conceived nearly a decade earlier. During most of the intervening time he was preoccupied with The Midsummer Marriage and not surprisingly the music of that opera permeates the concerto—the expansive orchestral lines, the abundance of decoration which makes such lines throb with life, and in particular the use of a celesta to light up a realm of mystery and magic. But these features affected the orchestral as much as the piano style. For that, the surest pointer is the piano part of Tippett’s song cycle The Heart’s Assurance, completed in 1951, and especially in the music to the words ‘the meadows of her breath’ in the third song, which sounds as if it was the direct link to the opening phrases of the concerto. For the rest, while not excluding the received resources of concerto-writing, Tippett focussed on his discovery of a shimmering pianism in which the harmonies emerged from the pedalling of lines of unequal groups of short notes, as in the first song of The Heart’s Assurance. It creates an effect of hovering somewhere between the essential and the decorative. The work is unhurried, reassuring. If a climax seems imminent, it is diverted: spacious paragraphs open out into deep vistas and tiny visions. The remarkable thing is that the concerto was written when the course of European music seemed to be leading to an anxious, fragmented serialism—with the corollary that Tippett’s redefinition of English pastoralism was a quaint irrelevance. The early 1950s was a period of threat and cold austerity; here was another example of Tippett offering an antidote to all that.

The first movement is a conventional sonata-form. The gentle opening (recalling the spirit of Beethoven’s fourth concerto) burgeons into an orchestral passage epitomizing the serenity of the pastoral A flat of the movement; woodwind arabesques then reveal the still centre, a ‘tiny vision’ on muted viola, muted horns and celesta. Tippett had used a similar ensemble in The Midsummer Marriage to evoke the timeless presences that move beyond the surface realities of life. He achieves a comparable effect here, mysterious yet familiar. The spell is broken when the soloist ushers in a group of themes and motives marking the ‘second subject’. The vision unexpectedly returns at the peak of the development just before the recapitulation, and it does so again in the middle of the solo cadenza, unpredictable but reassuring reminders that the vision can never be lost. The cadenza, unusually, is placed before the recapitulation of the ‘second subject’ and after an interpolated second development section. So, despite being conventional, the design of the movement is continually being loosened up.

The slow movement has affinities with Beethoven’s fourth concerto, even if the outcome is new. The serenity of the first movement is replaced by a different vision, dense and disturbing, a kind of tournament between faceless close canons from pairs of wind instruments and manic cascades from the piano, each pursuing dogged courses until the tension eases and is released in a series of exchanges between packed high strings and the now ruminative soloist, who calms things down. It is an extraordinary conception, suggesting some programmatic basis, though Tippett never revealed one.

The finale springs to life with a key change, from B to E flat, implying now the influence of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto. There are indeed other echoes of Beethoven’s finale but the joy and high spirits are Tippett’s own. The movement begins with a long section for orchestra alone (a foil to the almost continuous sound of the piano in the previous movement), shaped in three parts—a wealth of little motives, a central striding theme with a touch of blues harmony at the end, a codetta reintroducing the celesta. The soloist enters dramatically with a theme of his own. This turns out to be the first episode in a scheme in which the orchestral section is the rondo theme, now divided into its three parts with episodes between. The second episode is for piano and orchestra, the third for piano and the last an enchanting duet between piano and celesta. All that remains is a return of the rondo complete and a short coda carrying the music to a jubilant C major.

from notes by Ian Kemp © 2007

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