Dan Morgan reviewed this as a download and declared that it would be “hard to imagine this… being more sensitively and authoritatively executed. The music’s micrometer-like changes of colour, dynamics and duration are just extraordinary”. With this I concur entirely. Such music demands close-up and detailed recording, and this Hyperion disc captures all of the subtleties of Steven Osborne’s performances.
The earlier Morton Feldman pieces are miniatures by comparison with many of his later works, which seem to inhabit infinity. Exploration of sonority and a highly individual approach are all present however, and there are sounds in Intermission 5 that open a window onto these possibilities, as well as making use of harder-hitting expressionist percussiveness. Piano Piece 1952 ranges over the keyboard in single notes, negating rhythm but creating an abstract design very much of its period. Extensions 3 is more of a sketch on infinite horizons, with few high notes examined like diamonds in a series of repetitive but deeply controlled gestures. Feldman concludes this programme with the much later Palais de Mari, which is part of his reflection in music of a fascination with exotic rug design, each returning sonority changed slightly in a similar way to these handmade artifacts. This was indeed his final piano work, and it has all of the refined poise of those fascinatingly landscape-like late pieces such as Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello.
George Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 in its celebration of Christ’s nativity and Messiaen-like expressiveness has to be the best known and most frequently recorded work in this collection. There’s Jeffrey Jacob on the Centaur label and Philip Mead’s complete Crumb piano edition on Métier (review). The Bridge label has to be considered for its continuing and excellent series of Crumb’s complete oeuvre, this particular work is on Bridge 9028. There are many others and no duds that I know of, though I haven’t heard them all. Steven Osborne performs with supreme musicality, effortless technique and pinpoint sensitivity to dynamics and colour, the recording picking up every resonance in a work that often works on the quietest of effects. If you need to be convinced, have a listen to the magical atmosphere of the Canticle of the Holy Night, in which the ‘Coventry Carol’ appears, gently strummed on the strings of the piano, while Crumb’s own notes sparkle above like stars in a clear nocturnal sky.
Processional is another reasonably familiar Crumb work, in which pulsing chords form “an experiment in harmonic chemistry”, the close-knit tonalities decorated with little complementary melodic cells. Comparing Osborne to the more heavy-handed Mead here shows where the former’s subtlety creates a more winning colour and atmosphere, starting from a bewitching quietness, and working towards climaxes that have plenty of power while keeping something in reserve, never stamping on the piano keys, and creating a landscape in which delicacy is the default character of the work—a threatened delicacy it has to be said, though the weight of each threat always quickly disperses and is overtaken by affection and luminosity of tone.
I’m always banging on about the accessibility of much contemporary music, and would use several tracks from this recording to demonstrate the case if asked to deliver a lecture on the subject. Exploring George Crumb’s remarkable music is always a treat, and I would suggest forays into the Bridge label’s catalogue to seek out further discoveries. As it is, this is one of the finest piano recordings I’ve encountered this year.