There’s no doubt that Steven Osborne is a thoroughbred among pianists; indeed, he’s one of several from Hyperion’s fine stable. In 2016, I reviewed his superb recital of works by Morton Feldman and George Crumb, which I felt was blessed with ‘epiphanies aplenty’. Then there’s his near-legendary recording of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, a set I would most definitely want on my desert island. Factor in Hyperion’s reputation for field-leading solo-piano sound and this new Debussy album looks like a dead cert.
I must say, Osborne’s Masques disconcerted me, not because of the performance but because of the unusual piano tone. Ditto … D’un cahier d’esquisses, which has a darker cast than I’m used to. That’s just a preference though, a passing remark that in no way challenges or diminishes Osborne’s mastery of the idiom. I simply marvelled at his control of shape, colour and rhythm in L’isle joyeuse, a piece that epitomises both the composer’s painterly skills and this pianist’s exemplary art.
These Images are finely wrought, 'Reflets dans l’eau' infused with a haunting evanescence and the baroquerie of 'Hommage à Rameau' is cleanly and aristocratically done. Osborne is easeful and intuitive throughout, the music flowing from his fingers like a tide responding to the mystic pull of the moon. 'Cloches à travers les feuilles' and 'Et la lune descende sur le temple qui fut', both from Book 2, demonstrate a control of touch and dynamics that’s just extraordinary. Indeed, it’s those qualities that make Osborne’s Feldman and Crumb performances such a rewarding experience.
Can this album get any better? Most certainly. The oriental shimmer of 'Pagodes', from Estampes, is a musical and sonic treat—kudos to engineer David Hinitt for the latter—and those famished flowers respond to heaven-sent succour with such joy in Osborne’s 'Jardins sous la pluie'. As for Children’s Corner, there’s much to enjoy there, too. Dr Gradus emerges with delightful fluency and fluidity, Jimbo’s jazzy little lullaby is great fun, and this 'Golliwogg’s cake-walk' is as witty and insouciant as I’ve ever heard it. Good notes by Roger Nichols complete the package.
Debussy to die for; one for the desert island.