There’s a line in the booklet where the pianist Steven Osborne dedicates his latest release to nine people. One of them is himself. That perhaps is unusual, but it’s not the mark of a giant ego: if Osborne didn’t enjoy and cherish his art, he wouldn’t be the essential and riveting musician that he is.
And the works that he’s playing—Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas—surely demand heroic acts of artistic endeavour, here fully achieved. With his thoughtfulness, razor-sharp attack, rhythmic dash and vast expressive range, Osborne manages to x-ray these complex, mysterious and volatile scores, bringing out their inner workings, yet without making them bony or dry. The power and flexibility of his Steinway and the crystalline recording in Perth Concert Hall play their part in making these performances exceptional. Another factor is Osborne’s skill in performing music of different eras. This may be music from the 1820s, but it’s being fingered by someone well used to the tumultuous rhythms of Stravinsky or Tippett, Messiaen’s ecstasy, or the infinitely quiet colours of Morton Feldman and George Crumb.
The most gripping music-making of all arrives in the variation finales to Op 109 and Op 111, where Beethoven outdoes himself in abrupt mood swings, transforming affectingly gentle themes with mounting layers of figurations, while also lowering the temperature so that our heartbeats and sense of time seem to stop. Beethoven in storm mode is special too; take those stabbing chords in Op 110’s second movement, or the almost brutal force of Op 111’s opening allegro. Osborne may have dedicated this album partly to himself, but his ultimate and selfless achievement has been to make the listener newly appreciate what an extraordinary, uplifting and contemporary composer Beethoven is.