Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International
February 2020

Ever since that memorable Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, recorded in 2001, a new Steven Osborne release has been a cause for celebration. Most recently, his Beethoven sonatas and Rachmaninov Études-tableaux have been warmly received on these pages. And I was most impressed with his Debussy (2016), although even that pales into insignificance next to his masterly accounts of music by Morton Feldman and George Crumb (2014). As ever, one can’t overlook Hyperion’s superlative engineering, which has helped the label establish itself as one of the best in the business (especially where solo-piano recordings are concerned). That technical prowess, clearly audible in their CDs, is even more evident in their high-res downloads. Indeed, they’ve upped the sonic ante, with new Studio Masters now offered at 24/192, rather than the usual 24/96.

Panegyrics apart, this new release of Prokofiev’s so-called ‘War Sonatas’ is a logical step for a pianist who’s demonstrated how versatile he is, not least when it comes to highly virtuosic repertoire. I think it would be fair to categorise Prokofiev’s Opp 82-84 as such, given their formidable range and impact. There are classic versions from the likes of Sviatoslav Richter—eccentric, even outrageous, but rarely dull—which may command many listeners’ unswerving loyalty. As a reviewer and inveterate music collector I know that only too well, but there are living artists ready to offer new and compelling perspectives on old favourites.

That’s certainly the case with my comparatives here: Denis Kozhukhin (Onyx, 2012) and Vol 3 of Peter Donohoe’s ongoing cycle for SOMM, recorded in 2014. (It’s worth noting he made an earlier recording of these pieces for EMI-Warner.) I was so taken with Vol 1 in the SOMM series—which contains the first five sonatas—that I made it a Recording of the Month. I’ve lived with Kozhukhin’s War Sonatas for quite a while, so I’m very familiar with their virtues, not least plenty of imagination and insight. But for an unexpected recommendation from a friend—‘Koz… who?’ I blustered—this album would probably have passed me by. Happily, the gamble paid off; in fact, this soon became my preferred recording of these mad, mercurial and, yes, deeply introspective masterpieces.

In her informative liner-notes to the Hyperion release, Christina Guillaumier points out that Prokofiev tackled these three sonatas simultaneously, only working on them as separate entities later in the compositional process. She also reminds us that the collective title ‘War Sonatas’ was not coined by the composer, so these pieces aren’t ‘about’ anything in a programmatic sense. That said, there are references to his opera, War and Peace, which he would only complete in 1942. In short, don’t seek allusions to conflict here, just relish the unmistakable timbres and temperament of these splendid scores.

Those familiar with the first movement of Op 82 will have a pretty good idea of what to expect. What they won’t be prepared for is the weighty, seat-pinning power of Osborne’s opener. I daresay they’ll also be staggered, as I was, by his control of colour, dynamics and rhythm, all of which combine to project a sense of unassailable authority. It’s not just about the big, barnstorming gestures, for the smaller ones—such as the jaunty follow-up, with its borrowings from the composer’s 1936 ballet, Romeo and Juliet—are similarly engaging and assured. Make no mistake, Osborne’s firm grip isn’t a worrying sign of control-freakery—as it might be with a lesser pianist—for his phenomenal technique serves the music and nothing else. And, bowled over by the wide-ranging sound, I was delighted—if not surprised—to discover this album was engineered by David Hinitt, who did such a splendid job on Paul Wee’s recent ‘Recommended’ pairing of Alkan’s concerto and symphony for solo piano (BIS).

The rest of Osborne’s Op 82 is full of pleasing touches, the quieter, gentler parts of the Tempo di valzer persuasively shaped and shaded. Osborne also manages a convincing blend of finesse and feeling here. And how well the concluding Vivace is articulated, its smile-inducing skittishness and subversive wit, not to mention its improvisatory feel, very well caught. Time and again, the word ‘forensic’ sprang to mind, although I hasten to add this pianist’s playing isn’t about cool, clinical dissections; no, as with those early anatomists he uses his scalpel to reveal—and marvel at—what lies beneath the skin. And while the recording itself is keenly focused, there’s no hint of fatigue; indeed, I was able to listen to the entire album twice in quick succession without ill effect, which, given the programme’s pace and punch, is really quite remarkable.

Osborne’s account of the comparatively short seventh—it usually lasts for 17-18 minutes—is equally accomplished. Crammed with exhilarating incident, and—as so often in these sonatas—interspersed with extended periods of quite haunting inwardness; there’s so much to discover here. Osborne modulates between opposing states with a disarming ease, especially in the central movement, before going for broke in the whirligig finale. Goodness, I’ve never heard Prokofiev’s clashes and coruscations this fearlessly executed, the music’s dynamic swings effortlessly caught. So, if you’re looking for a demonstration track to show off your much-prized audio system—or cruelly expose its every flaw—then this is it. You have been warned!

After such a bravura display, the expansive start to the eighth sonata comes as a balm to battered ears. Again, Osborne really brings out the improvisatory feel of Prokofiev’s writing, his wonderful sense of touch a reminder of why his Feldman and Crumb work so well. As I suggested earlier, this is truly penetrating pianism, the finale a perfect distillation of this pianist's panoply of talents. Any quibbles? Nothing important, although it’s entirely possible some listeners may find Osborne’s muscular performances and Hinitt’s explicit recording a little daunting. I hope they’re in a minority, as this is an exceptional album that demands the attention of Prokofiev fans and piano-lovers alike. (Audiophiles, too.)

A few hours later, I fired up Donohoe’s SOMM recording. I’ve admired this artist since I first encountered his unrivalled live recording of the Busoni concerto, nearly forty years ago (EMI-Warner). Alas, his recent selection of Shostakovich sonatas and concertos was only a qualified success; then again, he didn’t always get the musical and technical support he needed (Signum). That said, Donohoe’s War Sonatas are very distinguished indeed. He’s more expansive than Osborne, and this allows a degree of fluidity and eloquence that the latter, with his proselytising zeal, is apt to underplay. Not only that, SOMM’s traditional concert-hall balances—like Onyx’s—encourage a certain intimacy, which will have wide appeal. Donohoe signs off with a highly expressive and very affectionate Op 84. That, coupled with winning accounts of Opp. 82 and 83, makes for a most rewarding release.

Even in such august company, there’s still much to enjoy in Kozhukhin’s considered approach to this music. He’s never mannered, though, so shape is preserved and dynamics are nicely judged. And while he’s not quite as intuitive a pianist as the veteran Donohoe, he’s no stranger to charm and nuance. That’s particularly true of the second movement of Op 82, which is deftly done. (How orchestral he makes that music sound.) There and elsewhere Kozhukhin has a witty way of surreptitiously ushering important themes back into play. Also, he brings a brooding quality to some of Prokofiev’s more reflective writing, which I like very much indeed. A tad self-effacing? Perhaps, especially when compared with Osborne’s unashamed chutzpah, yet both Kozhukhin and Donohoe can really turn up the wick when required (the Op 83 finale, for instance).

Now for the difficult bit, choosing a ‘winner’ from among this talented triumvirate. Actually, I’m loath to do so, for all the pianists here deliver fine performances that, in their different ways, bring out different facets of these challenging scores. That said, Osborne’s War Sonatas are a spectacular achievement, and will surely pick up a fistful of awards; indeed, this could be my first Recording of the Year.

White-hot performances, straight from the forge; superlative sound, even by Hyperion’s stellar standards.