To paraphrase W.S.Gilbert, Steven Osborne is the very model of a modern major pianist, in that he has a prodigious technique, but eschews anything that might frighten the horses, so how does he fare in one of the supremely great composers, Franz Schubert?
The F minor Impromptu's exposition flows gracefully by, Osborne sings the line and creates a true sense of conversation between the hands in the contrasting second section. He also takes his time in the second piece, with beautifully plush tone and a lot of sustaining pedal. In the more agitated second section, the tempo change is minimal, the tolling bass line superbly articulated, the right hand crisp but still warm and there is no abrupt gear change at the return of the first theme. Osborne eloquently sings the Rosamunde theme that forms the basis of the third’s variations, each of which is characterised with a wealth of dynamic and rhythmic shading and he makes the concluding F minor scherzando sound—at a fast tempo—delightfully Mendelssohnian, with a decidedly patrician ending.
As you would expect throughout the rest of the recital Osborne adopts a similar approach, where differing sections are effortlessly integrated into the whole and nothing impedes the music’s natural flow; he is immensely civilised and refined and yet something is missing. Turn to a truly great pianist, Radu Lupu, in D935 and you enter a world that is altogether darker and emotionally charged, with exquisite rubato, tonal and tempo variation, intense concentration and profundity, which makes Osborne occasionally sound rather superficial. Nevertheless taken on its own terms, this is very distinguished piano playing.
When Hyperion use the Wyastone Concert Hall they usually produce excellent sound and this release is no exception. The overall balance is close but not aggressively so, there is a sense of space around the instrument—indeed the reverberation time and acoustic clearly demonstrate that the hall is empty—and real presence; the instrument and venue are in front of you. As mentioned above Osborne often creates very beautiful sounds and the Steinway has clearly been exceptionally well-prepared (the pianist should give the technician explicit instructions as to how they want the instrument to sound) by Kait Farbon. You do also wonder how old the piano is, in that many modern Steinways are unacceptably bland, whereas this one does at least seem to have some character.
Despite the richness of Osborne’s tonal palette, clarity and definition are excellent, which means you can clearly delineate the degree of pedal pressure, variety and strength of touch (not the same as loudness) and no register dominates. The only real criticism is that the recording doesn’t feature any true triple forte or piano dynamics, which Steven Osborne certainly creates in concert.
It is also worth noting that Misha Donat provides eloquent programme notes and the Hyperion download manager puts the efforts of most other manufacturers to shame.