Steven Osborne’s catalogue for Hyperion embraces Classical and Romantic works, while extending the boundaries of the repertoire with 20th-century experimentalists such as George Crumb and Morton Feldman. His discs of Messiaen have received accolades galore, and he’s a master improviser with a penchant for jazz (his 2000 Kapustin album is rarely far from my CD player).
It comes as no surprise, then, that Osborne is at home with Debussy’s whole-tone language and ambiguous harmonies. This album has everything I could wish for in performances of Debussy’s piano music: a wide tonal palette, clear outline of structure, sensitive touch, good pedalling, flair, clarity and rhythmic control. Where others limp along and indulge themselves, often with excessive rubato, Osborne beguiles us with refinement and unfailing taste.
In ‘Pagodes’, which opens with the five notes of the pentatonic system, he immediately takes hold of the expanding harmony. His dynamic range is perfectly judged, and when the melody returns, further decorated with harmonic colour, Osborne—never a pianist for over-indulgence—remains calm, allowing the harmonies and fingers to do the work.
’Jardins sous la pluie’ is played with Classical elegance and clarity, keeping us on tenterhooks with an underlying forward momentum—but listen to how the sun finally emerges in a blazing E major. His rhythmic precision is a distinguishing feature of Children’s Corner, with an unfussy approach to ‘The snow is dancing’ which emphasizes its wintry mood. L’isle joyeuse is a marvel of finesse, and from the Images , ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ floats through a wide spectrum of colour, and the ‘Poissons d’or’ swim effortlessly through continual shifts of harmony.