There is absolutely no contest in the choice of topic for this week’s column. It’s self-selecting. It’s imperative. And it’s Steven Osborne. Yesterday the pianist’s latest CD, and his 25th recording for the Hyperion record label, hit the streets. Anything that man does is news on the Scottish and international arts scenes. His repertoire on recordings and in concerts, is vast, embracing music from Rachmaninov to Debussy, from Schubert to George Crumb and (legendarily) from Olivier Messiaen to Modest Mussorgsky. But there has always been a core strand to which he has returned: the music of Beethoven. It runs through Osborne’s musical DNA, has done for years and has done so from the day and hour I first heard him play, as a teenager, decades ago, at the St Magnus Festival.
Osborne is already well-established as one of the leading Beethoven pianists of the era, both on record and in concert, whether as recitalist or concerto soloist. He has already recorded Beethoven’s music on Hyperion, including the famous "name" sonatas, the Moonlight, Pathetique and Waldstein Sonatas. But on this new disc, with all the commitment that a recording brings as the pianist enshrines his views and his philosophy into an interpretation, Osborne moves into different territory and, frankly, into a different league. The territory is that of late Beethoven Piano Sonatas; and the league? Well, I hope this is neither exaggeration nor embarrassment to the pianist, but I hear greatness in the performances on this CD. That’s a personal perspective, so I’ll explain later exactly what it means to me.
First things first: what is he playing? There are three sonatas on the new disc. I’ll outline them chronologically, which is how you will read them on the front cover of the CD, and how they are discussed in the edifying programme booklet written by Beethoven authority Barry Cooper, but is not the order in which they are played by Osborne. The set begins with the little two-movement miracle, the opus 90 Sonata in E minor. That piece featured in its own right some years ago in this space. It’s magical, with, in its second movement, one of the most memorable tunes Beethoven ever came up with. And boy, did he know it: it’s so gorgeous that Beethoven never lets it go. The next in line is the opus 101 Sonata in A major. It’s equally magical. It’s the sonata where, at the outset, it can appear that Beethoven is already in the middle of saying something. And it has, in the central development section of its joyous finale, one of the most exquisitely precise and perfect little fugues the composer ever wrote, which culminates in the exhilarating return of the main theme. I note from Barry Cooper’s analysis that I should be calling that wee fugue a “fugato”; point taken.
The sequence of sonatas concludes with the terrifying Hammerklavier Sonata, opus 106. Terrifying? It’s a colossal sonata, which opens with a majestic, or imperious, command to attention, then proceeds to beguile and bewilder with some of the most demanding and compelling contrapuntal writing in classical music. I always feel the boundaries of music crumbling as this extraordinary piece batters its way into the future, especially in the finale, and into the transcendence of eternity at the very heart of the huge slow movement, where time itself bends to Beethoven’s will. But for all of these qualities, however a listener might perceive or be moved by them, the entire composition is built, armour-plated, on the unshakeable structures of Sonata form, the foundation stone of all music of that period.
And that, for me, is the rock on which these mind-blowing performances by Steven Osborne are constructed. As never before, I hear the pianist as a master-structuralist. That does not mean cold or passionless playing. Quite the opposite in Osborne’s bold, audacious set of performances, pristine in their technical precision, but volcanic with the spirit of the music. Beethoven was a supreme intellectual in crafting his music, and you can hear that in every contrapuntal strand of the sonatas. But he was driven by compulsion and passion, and every heartbeat in this music pulses with that emotion. Osborne opens, explosively, with the Hammerklavier Sonata, proceeds to the most compelling opus 101 I have heard, and, at the end of the wee opus 90, just lets it go softly into a silence where, fancifully, I imagine Beethoven looking over his shoulder with a wee wink, saying: “I have another three sonatas coming for you: a final three.” What makes Osborne’s performances great, for me, is simply the fact that, for the first time, my favourite, desert-island, “late-Beethoven” pianist, the late Charles Rosen, will have to budge along the shelf to make room for Steven Osborne.