Taking a cursory glance at Steven Osborne’s recordings on Amazon and I am struck by the diverse, adventurous and eclectic range of his repertoire, which includes Stravinsky, Tippett, Kapustin, Alkan and Messiaen. One of my favourites is his recording of Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, the finest in the catalogue. It’s surprising that this is his first Schubert solo piano disc, though he did record some of the composer’s duets with Paul Lewis several years ago. For this latest release the second set of four Impromptus D935 is programmed, not with the D899 set as is more usual, but with the Three piano pieces D946 and the rarely heard 8 Variations on a theme by Anselm Hüttenbrenner D576. I am enchanted by Osborne’s unselfconscious, poised and probing yet poetic approach to the four D935 Impromptus. The arresting opening of the F minor Impromptu, the first of the set, almost literally grabs you by the scruff of the neck. This initial impact sets the scene for what is to follow. Osborne imbues the narrative with both drama and eloquence. The A flat (No 2) provides a pleasing contrast with its refined elegance and simplicity. The triplets of the trio section carry you along in an untrammeled wave of melody. The 3rd Impromptu on the ‘Rosamunde’ theme is a delight, with each variation sensitively sculpted. The cascading runs in the final variation are pearl–like and ravishingly played. No 4 in F minor is dispensed with rhythmic vitality and élan.
1828 was Schubert’s last year; time was running out for him, and he underwent a tremendous burst of creativity. The Three piano pieces D946 are some of the fruits of that miraculous year. In No 1 Osborne underlines the contrast between the passionate and the contemplative. The simplicity of the opening of No 2 is particularly alluring, with the two middle episodes ‘tragic’ and ‘radiant’, expertly crafted. In the third, the syncopated phrases are alert and rhythmically buoyant.
Anselm Hüttenbrenner (1794-1868) and Schubert were students of Salieri and became close friends, Hüttenbrenner outliving Schubert by forty years. The theme, closely resembling the Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, is taken from the slow movement of Hüttenbrenner’s String Quartet in E, Op 12, and to it Schubert added thirteen variations. A delightful work, the attractive variations begin simply, becoming more intricate and inventive as the music progresses. Osborne characterizes each with skill and imaginative flair.
Wyastone Estate’s Concert Hall provides a warm spacious acoustic with just the right amount of resonance and reverberation to add edge and clarity to Osborne’s distinguished playing. The exquisitely voiced Steinway further adds to the success of the mix. This release certainly gets the thumbs up from me.