Steven Osborne has recorded some notable discs for Hyperion: Messiaen and Ravel both spring to mind. This disc establishes his credentials (beyond any shadow of a doubt) in Beethoven; a fact underscored by a recital of these three Sonatas at LSO St Luke’s Jerwood Hall, London on Friday, April 5, 2019 as part of the Leeds Piano Festival (a concert which included spoken introductions to all three sonatas from the stage by Osborne himself). Hyperion’s characteristically superb piano recording, present, full-toned, with just the right amount of space around the sound, reinforces their reputation in this field.
The E Major begins invitingly, its short first movement born of crystal clarity and careful phrasing; the scurrying Prestissimo is perfectly articulated. Through all this is masterly pedalling, enhancing but never blurring. It is in the serenity of the finale’s opening that Osborne achieves transcendence. Later, he allows the bare, staccato textures to create their own effect; most impressive, though, is the progress to the trill-encrusted climax, the ensuing restatement of the theme, unadorned, incredibly potent (Osborne seems to be making a parallel between Beethoven’s procedure and Bach’s bringing back of the theme at the end of the Goldberg Variations).
The A flat opening of Op 110 emerges magically and inevitably out of the end of Op 109. Pure, serene and fluid, there is a distinctly vocal element to the lines. This, coupled with Osborne’s harmonic awareness, enables the music to unfold naturally and unhurriedly, with just the right give and take at structural junctures. The infamous Scherzo finds Osborne negotiating those terrifying leaps with ease—and convincingly, a real achievement (they worked live, also). The repeated single note—speculatively, Osborne suggested this was Beethoven hammering a note, trying to hear it—carries particular poignancy. Osborne’s resonance with late-period Beethoven is remarkable. He finds the tenderness, the sadness, but also the power, the Fuga of the finale being a remarkable, almost phantasmagorical journey. Osborne’s strength is that, via his awareness of structure and harmony, he is able to fully honour the exploratory nature of Beethoven’s writing, without the experience fragmenting. It is probably not too far a stretch to suggest parallels with the great late String Quartet recordings of the Busch Quartet or the Alban Berg Quartet; there is a similar level of understanding from Osborne.
The final C minor sonata explodes on the scene, its opening railing against fate in plunging gestures. One feels Beethoven’s struggles; technical challenges melt, as one repeatedly hears new textures and lines; Osborne’s fingers in the first movement seem to be made of steel. He carries the line of the concluding Arietta beautifully, judging the tempo so as to achieve maximal legato: again, that song-like quality comes to the fore, this time to the extent that it could surely move one to tears. The opening out into that astonishing explosion of pre-emptive 'jazz' is supremely tracked, as it needs to be for the climax to make its mark (if this was just that touch more unbuttoned live, perhaps that’s understandable); when the music moves to the celestial realms, circling around itself in the piano’s upper regions, the effect seems to take us out of time itself; a redemptive trill seems to bring the final solace.
Of modern recordings of the late Beethoven trilogy of sonatas, perhaps the most apt comparison is Paul Lewis’ excellent accounts on Harmonia Mundi; it would be difficult to live without both. Pollini, too, in his early DG performances, is magnificent, in his unbeatable prime, while the likes of Brendel and Arrau bring depth in their various performances. But Osborne brings his own light to these works, a youthful energy coupled with a pianistic and musical understanding beyond his years; or perhaps he is just an Old Soul. Superb notes by Barry Cooper of the University of Manchester complete a stunning release. Osborne’s readings will, beyond doubt, move you.