Steven Osborne (b. 1971) recorded the music of Ravel several years ago—2011—to considerable acclaim. Here (rec. 25-26 May 2016) with the able assistance of conductor Ludovic Morlot, Osborne delivers a sparkling rendition of the 1930 G Major Concerto that assimilates as much Gershwin into the heady mix as it does the occasional Basque motif that speaks to Ravel’s heritage. Years ago, another British pianist, John Ogden, revealed a similar affinity for this jazzy, brilliant score—with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra—and then literally dissolved from public view. Osborne embraces the frisky and alternately lyrical aspects of the work without its flair and flamboyant bravura having become ostentatious. The second movement Adagio assai moves with grace and facile clarity that testifies to the composer’s mutual admiration of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. Whatever Liszt influences permeate the score appear in the wild last movement, Presto, rendered in breath-taking leaps and swirls by pianist and conductor. The individual colors from trumpet, English horn, E-flat clarinet, combined with the gnarly battery produce a graduated arch to a kaleidoscopic coda that ends with a decisive thump.
Having been raised on the Robert Casadesus vision—especially with Mitropoulos at the helm of the New York Philharmonic—of Falla’s 1916 Nights in the Gardens of Spain, I seek a redolent atmosphere in this music—aural and olfactory—not so easily achieved. The opening movement, Allegretto tranquillo e misterioso, provides a kind of sensuous nocturne, rife with guitar effects and modal harmonies. The music pulsates with an unquiet energy, moody and expectant. Osborne’s keyboard adds an obbligato color instrument, in the manner of a suave Iberian symphonic poem.
The second movement—Distant Dance—evokes “distance” in time as well as space, a suggestion of the pagan, erotic, initiation ritual from which John the Savage laments having been excluded in Huxley’s Brave New World. The clean articulation of the keyboard part, as well as its ardently light passion, invites comparison with another keyboard master of this idiom, Artur Rubinstein. The Allegretto giusto takes us, attacca, to the exotic declamations and modal runs of the Gardens of the Sierra at Cordoba, whose strumming and sweeping guitars imply fertility on several levels. In the this festival sensibility, Osborne injects the requisite sense of lyrical melancholy that endears Falla’s music to us all.
The more ambitious of Ravel’s two 1930 concertos—written simultaneously—the Left-hand Concerto in D also found a rich advocate in Robert Casadesus, who never favored the G Major Concerto. The Left-Hand work, conceived for an ill-suited Paul Wittgenstein, seems to grow, de profundis, out of the depths of the low contrabassoon and work itself upward into a one-movement etude-rhapsody. Osborne, in the best ‘Casadesus’ tradition, well convinces us that the natural flow of melodic tissue in the one hand imitates the conventional sonority achieved by both hands. The infusion of jazz elements only increases the nervous agitation of the piece, even after the early solo cadenza promises reassurance.
The exquisitely delicate coloring emanates from gossamer piano writing, as well as contributions from English horn, clarinet, and low strings. The momentum increases until a sudden burst of 6/8 in the manner of an American blues band. The deft agility of the ensuing dialogues and antiphons quite compels our awe, whenever this concerto has done well, whether by Casadesus, Francois, or Haas. The martial ostinato tune in wind and battery several times conjures effects we recall from Stravinsky and the composer’s own Bolero. The BBC Scottish Symphony flute, trombone and snare drum make their own musical points. After a brilliant, colossally apocalyptic climax, Osborne has his far-ranging, color fantasy in the form of a cadenza, in which his own ‘harp’ sounds as alluringly as his carillon tones. The brief, resolute coda puts the period on an entire disc that has been thoroughly resonant, courtesy of Recording Engineer Ben Connellan.