Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International
October 2017

Steven Osborne has demonstrated his deeply held admiration and aptitude for French piano music notably with acclaimed Hyperion albums of Ravel’s complete solo piano music, Debussy’s Préludes books 1 and 2, Alkan’s 48 Esquisses and Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus. On his new Hyperion album Osborne once again turns his attention to Debussy with seven scores featuring both books of Images, the triptych Estampes and suite Children’s Corner.

Osborne assuredly commences with Masques from 1904 a work displaying a rather forlorn quality that may reflect the composer’s split from Lilly Texier. Also short in length, the attractive … D'un cahier d'esquisses from 1904 in Osborne’s hands is a discreet, rather elusive piece that deserves to be played more often. From 1903/04, another work of fairly modest proportions, is the delightfully played L'isle joyeuse. It is said that the composer whilst writing the score may have been influenced by his elopement to Jersey with Emma Bardac. On the other hand, another stimulus is said to be Jean-Antoine Watteau’s painting L'Embarquement pour Cythère.

Regarded by many as the pinnacle of Debussy’s piano works, the two books of Images from 1905/07 are strongly impressionist. Aqueous themes and other nature images are significant with Osborne ensuring a sure sense of fluidity and abundant contrasts of light and shadow. The three pieces of Estampes (Prints), completed in 1903, evoke a Javanese gamelan, Spanish habanera dance rhythms and French children’s songs, interact together stunningly. With abundant perception Osborne demonstrates remarkable control of dynamics and produces a wealth of individual tone colour. One of Debussy’s most appealing works, Children’s Corner, the six-movement suite from 1908, is dedicated to the composer’s young daughter Claude-Emma nicknamed Chouchou. Intended to evoke the essence of personal childhood memories Osborne astutely captures the innocence and sheer charm of these delightful pieces with the much-loved 'Golliwogg’s cake-walk' sounding especially captivating.

These are quite stunning interpretations from Osborne that feel entirely instinctive yet are gloriously refined producing an alluring amount of poetic detail. Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London the piano is beautifully caught vividly clear with ideal presence and balance. Roger Nichols has written the interesting and informative booklet essay.

The frequently elusive qualities of Debussy’s alluring musical palette are beautifully revealed by Steven Osborne. This is one of the finest recital albums I have heard for some time.