Czerny was the master of the study designed to stretch, strengthen and enliven a pianist’s fingers, while Chopin breathed fiery inspiration into the form. And if the echo of a teaching exercise lingers, deliberately and amusingly, in the opening of Debussy’s first Étude, it’s to the memory of Chopin that the French composer dedicated his own set of 12. These late works, written in the summer of 1915, during a summer on the coast at Pourville, France, are dazzling short essays exploring abstract musical intervals, and the timbres and sonorities of the piano. They need a pianist of vast technical capability, an incredible sensitivity to the layering, colour and quality of sound, seamless rubato and, in Debussy’s own words, ‘remarkable hands’.
In Steven Osborne, we have such a musician—and this album of Debussy’s Études is full of superlatives. Marvel at the meltingly even thirds in ‘Pour les tierces’, the delicious range of articulation, and the almost Rachmaninov-like outpouring at the end. Linger in the timeless mood of ‘Pour les Quartes’, all cool fourths, and the way in which Osborne oscillates between flurries and stillness. Or admire the muscular playing in the outbursts of ‘Pour les Octaves’. Then there’s the shimmer and scamper Osborne conjures for ‘Pour les huit doigts’, and the dancing energy he channels in ‘Pour les notes répétées’. The list could go on. Technique and artistry are perfectly allied—and the beautiful recorded sound has a lovely balance of clarity, space and resonance. Pour le piano, La plus que lente and the Berceuse héroïque complete the programme in style.