Steven Osborne is one of a triumvirate of British pianists who have dominated the classical music scene since the Millennium. Along with Paul Lewis and Sir Stephen Hough, he has been garnering awards for his recordings on the prestigious Hyperion label for 30 years, as well as praise for his many concert and festival appearances around the world.
He has toured Australia several times, perhaps most memorably for his searingly beautiful performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus five years ago. He recorded Claude Debussy’s Préludes in 2006. Since then he has released two other Debussy albums, including Early and Late Piano Pieces—a collection of curios mixed in with the Suite Bergamasque—which came out last year.
Now comes another tranche with his survey of the Études, coupled with Pour le piano and three short pieces in La plus que lente, Berceuse héroïque and Étude retrouvée, a discarded version of 'Pour les arpèges composés' from the set of 12, salvaged by pianist and scholar Roy Howat.
Osborne is in magnificent form, offering his characteristic clarity and intelligence, as well as an abundance of artistry. The 'Sarabande' from Pour le piano is beautifully shaped, while the 'Toccata' that follows demonstrates his control and sparkling technique.
It is interesting to compare Osborne’s approach to Debussy with that of Frenchmen Pascal Rogé and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Taking the first of the Études, 'Pour les cinq doigts', Rogé’s handling is warmer and more characterful. He starts it slowly and ponderously like a child learning, giving the piece extra light and shade, while Thibaudet’s take is more elegant and grand. Scottish-born Osborne, on the other hand, is cooler, almost matter-of-fact, but full of nuance, colour and texture nevertheless. This is Debussy in a cold climate.
Written in 1915, the Études came about when Debussy was working on an edition of Chopin’s music since the war meant German copies were unobtainable. Although his 12 pieces follow Chopin’s to an extent, they nevertheless break new ground with his study of the fourths foreshadowing Scriabin and even Schoenberg. Designed 'for strong hands', pianists have to work out their own fingering. This is clearly not a problem for Osborne who manages his way through them with élan.
Pour le piano, written as 'conversations between the piano and oneself', was an earlier set dedicated to the 17-year-old Yvonne Lerolle who was famously portrayed by Renoir sitting at a piano with her sister. In it, Debussy harks back to the music of Rameau and Couperin, but of course with his own unique style. Osborne relishes the deliciousness of the ultra-slow waltz La plus que lente which Debussy wrote after hearing a Hungarian Romany band at the Carlton Hotel in Paris.
Now that Hyperion has joined Universal Music and its recordings are available for streaming, a wider audience will be able to enjoy Osborne’s impressive back catalogue, including this excellent new release.