Steven Osborne at St Luke’s Music Society

Prokofiev – Sarcasms

Ravel – Miroirs

Prokofiev – Visions fugitives Op. 22

Rachmaninov – Piano Sonata No. 2 in Bb minor Op. 36

Steven Osborne, piano

Anyone requiring evidence of a thriving musical life outside of mainstream concert halls should look no further than local music societies, which offer varied concerts and busy seasons and attract top flight artists. St Luke’s Music Society, based at St Luke’s, a beautiful church in south-west London modeled on an Italian basilica and boasting a fine acoustic, was founded in 2003 and offers a popular season of concerts.  Artists this season include Nicola Benedetti and Michael Collins.

Appropriately for a concert held on Burns’ Night (25th January), the soloist was Scottish pianist Steven Osborne. But there the association ended, for the programme featured works by Russian and French composers – Prokofiev, Ravel and Rachmaninov.

The concert opened with Prokofiev’s rarely-performed Sarcasms (which Osborne has recorded for Hyperion). In these provocative miniatures, Prokofiev eschews the trend amongst late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century composers for writing salon pieces based on fairy tales and impressionistic evocations, and instead opts for biting mockery and the grotesque, much in the manner of Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces Op 11 or Bartok’s Burlesques and Allegro Barbaro. Alert to the idiosyncratic character of these brief pieces, Osborne’s imaginative approach gave the works the necessary snap and humour, with terse rhythms and a vivid percussive attack, though never at the expense of clarity and tonal quality.

In contrast, Ravel’s Miroirs are very much about impressionistic evocations, though they share Prokofiev’s desire to break free of formal confines. Steven Osborne has a deep affinity with the music of Ravel, and other French composers such as Debussy and Messiaen (his recording of the Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus has received high praise, and his performance of the complete Vingt Regards at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall last year was one of the most involving and profound musical events I have ever experienced). His unerring ability to fully comprehend the structure and meaning of this music was amply demonstrated in an evocative and colourful performance, from the limpid figures of ‘Noctuelle’ to the foam-flecked swell of ‘Un Barque sur l’ocean’, the sultry rhythms of the ‘Alborada del gracioso’ and the plaintive, distant chimes of ‘La vallée des cloches’. Clarity of sound, tonal shading, deftness of touch and musical understanding brought Ravel’s impressions to life with an atmospheric and shimmering palette of colours and sounds.

More Prokofiev after the interval, and snapshots of his most characteristic moods – grotesque, aggressive, assertive, poetic, mystical, delicate – in the Visions Fugitives, short pieces which shows the composer’s burgeoning talent in their contrasting moods, melodies, textures and rhythms. Osborne acute ability to move between the capricious individual characters of these short pieces – graceful melodies, moments of meditation and repose, violent virtuosity – made for a persuasive and engaging account.

The final work of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, was tautly managed, yet expansive, Osborne giving rein to the full romantic sweep of this work, at times redolent of the Third Piano Concerto. The rich hues and dense textures of the first movement contrasted with a beautifully nuanced second movement before a brilliant and vibrant final movement which had members of the audience on their feet applauding before the last notes had died in the hall. A single encore, one of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, brought to a close a superb evening of music making of the highest order.

Steven Osborne performs the same programme at Wigmore Hall on 14th February.

St Luke’s Music Society