An embarrassment of riches amongst recent releases for piano. I regret I don’t have time to write a detailed review of each one, but I hope this brief overview will pique the interest…..

Denes Varjon – De La Nuit (ECM)

Varjon brings vivid imagination and musical poetry to works by Schumann, Ravel and Bartok whose associations with night-time are the unifying thread in this recording which works well as a “recital disc”. Varjon’s sense of spontaneity and range of colours is particularly suited to Schumann’s ever-shifting moods, while the quality of the production brings a special shimmer and resonance to the Ravel.

Steven Osborne – Rachmaninov: Complete Etudes Tableaux (Hyperion)

Osborne’s clarity, scrupulous attention to detail and musical sense, coupled with his wide-ranging sound palette and imagination, bring these miniature “picture studies”  brilliantly to life, often revealing unexpected inner voices and textures. Despite their brevity, many of these works mirror the idioms, architecture and expansiveness of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos: Osborne really appreciates this and treats them with the respect they deserve.

Vikingur Olafsson: Bach (DG)

I very much enjoyed Olafsson’s Philip Glass recording (2017), in particular for his very personal, romantic approach to Glass’s music, richly expressive playing and beautiful cantabile sound. He imbues Bach’s keyboard music with the same qualities, making a strong case for an individual approach to this music and proving that there is no “right way” to play Bach. The wide range of Bach’s character is also revealed, from playful and witty to sombre and grief-laden, while the transcriptions, including Silotti’s ethereal B minor Prelude, pay hommage to Bach’s own penchant for borrowing or augmenting others’ works while also demonstrating how Bach touches and inspires each generation.

 

Helen Anahita Wilson: Bhooma (Golden Girl Records)

I must admit a personal connection here as Helen is a friend of mine and I have been fortunate to hear selections from her debut disc at several of her concerts over the past year. This album reflects Helen’s ongoing interest in Indian and Persian music and includes her own compositions – intimate miniatures with Sitar-like shimmers of sound, hypnotically pulsing accompaniments, and perfumed chords – alongside works by Peter Feuchtwanger (with whom she studied) and Chick Corea, plus a piece by Stephen Montague, ‘Beguiled’ written especially for her. The piano sound is warm and mellow, perfect for this music.

 

 

 

“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

This quote from Mozart seems particularly apt for Steven Osborne’s concert at Milton Court which featured music by Morton Feldman and George Crumb, two radical American composers with a special interest in exploring the piano’s expressive qualities as much through the spaces between the notes as in the notes themselves. Eschewing melody as the main vehicle for expression in their music, both Feldman and Crumb offer the listener a special soundworld infused with simplicity and stillness. Osborne’s interest in stillness in music combined with his ability to produce magical kaleidoscopic shadings, as evidenced by his very fine performances and recording of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jèsus, make him the perfect performer for this programme.

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(Photo Benjamin Ealovega)

Silence in music, any music, is very important. Pauses and silences provide “punctuation marks” and create ebb and flow, just as in speech. Silences also create drama and set up expectations in the minds of the listener, while stillness and quietness in music allow the listener to be drawn in to create a special, sometimes very intense connection with the performer. In the pre-concert talk, Osborne talked of how, as a child, he liked to experiment at the piano to see how quietly he could play, fascinated by the tactile experience of producing very soft sounds. He described how the simplicity and stillness of Feldman’s music in particular – music which is sometimes merely a handful of notes or a few carefully chosen chords with no clear narrative nor organic development – allows the listener to engage with the music “in the moment”, with a mindfulness akin to meditation without the need to conceptualise nor admire it as an “art-object”.

Read my full review here

Meet the Artist……Steven Osborne

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

Olivier Messiaen’s monumental and profound work Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus) surely ranks amongst the “greats” of the piano repertoire, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with such titans as Bach’s WTC and Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in terms of its scale. It is one of the most extraordinary and ground-breaking works in twentieth-century piano repertoire, a work which has accrued iconic status and deep respect. That such a work was created at a time of great human suffering, and personal privation (it was composed in 1944, when the German occupation of Paris was in its closing stages), and yet expresses such joie de vivre, conviction, love, hope and ecstasy makes it all the more remarkable.

It is, above all else, an expression of Messiaen’s deeply-held Catholic faith – even more so than the Quator pour le fin du temp – a faith which involved sound and silence, beauty and terror, joy, love and an all-embracing sense of awe. It is music that puts listener and performer in touch with something far greater than ourselves, and yet one does not have to have religious faith to appreciate the enormity and emotional breadth of this work. Messiaen has an unerring ability to “ground” the music in a way that makes it more accessible through his use of recurring motifs and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive structure – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards a gripping finale.

The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and chocolate-box cards: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extraordinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles, and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross”, if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.

All twenty movements are constructed around three distinctive themes. The first, the Theme of God, a slow-moving chordal motif, heard first in the opening Regard (Regard du Père/Gaze of the Father). It recurs in V, XI and XV, and is always sonorous, luminous and profound. The second theme, the Theme of the Star and the Cross, first appears in Regard II. Turbulent and fractured, it signifies the beginning and the end of Christ’s life. The final theme, the Theme of Chords, is a sequence of four chords which are used in various ways throughout the entire work, most obviously in Regard XIV. In the final movement, all three themes are brought together.

Silence also plays a significant role in the music, never more so than in the penultimate movement where the sonorities, resonance and sound-decay of the modern piano are utilised with highly arresting effect. In some movements, the silences are like breaths or moments of hushed contemplation. Birdsong plays a meaningful part in many of the movements too (Messiaen was a devoted ornithologist), with chatterings and squawks, trills and shrills in the upper registers, yet always used melodically rather than for pure effect. There are even references to Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’, a joyous, jazzy outpouring in Regard X (Regard de l’Esprit de joie/Gaze of the Spirit of Joy), and later a hint of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.

Another important aspect is Messiaen’s “flashes”, colourful chords and clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”. To me, these are akin to the lines of stigmata found in paintings of artists such as Giotto, as well as the golden halos and symbolic devices found on Greek and Russian Orthodox icons. In the music we also hear tolling bells and carillon chimes, complex rhythmic motifs, and references to devotional texts, numerology, and Hinduism, as well as deeply portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate. These aspects informed much of the composer’s thinking and became recurring elements in his later works. It was the last piece of sacred music Messiaen would write until 1960, and is the only sacred work he wrote for solo piano. It also holds the rather special distinction of being the longest piece of solo sacred piano music ever written (Liszt’s Harmonies poetiques and religieuses is the next longest, at 90 minutes).

The composer gives very clear directions and markings in the score to help the performer understand both the context of the music and the kind of sound he envisaged. For example, the recurring themes are marked each time their appear, and Messiaen indicates particular instruments too: the xylophone Regarde de la Vierge, bells in Noel, and the tam tam (a gong-like instrument) and oboe in Regard des prophetes, des bergers and des Mages.

At two hours in length, it is not for the faint-hearted, and it takes a special kind of performer who has the physical and emotional stamina to undertake such a task for it places immense technical and musical demands on the pianist. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of Regarde de la Vierge (IV) to primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait (VI) and the concentrated stillness of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille (XIV). As a consequence the work is rarely performed in full. It was British pianist Steven Osborne who stepped up to the challenge of performing this amazing work in full as part of the Soutbank Centre’s International Piano Series and year-long Rest Is Noise festival.

It was after hearing Steven Osborne’s account of Messiaen’s Trois Petite Liturgies that the composer’s widow, Yvonne Loriod, invited him to study the larger piano works. Since then, Osborne has performed the epic Vingt Regards in public several times, and has also produced a highly acclaimed recording of it. His performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 29th May 2013 was revelatory, not just in his ability to physically hold all the elements of the work together for two hours, displaying total technical and pianistic command, but also in his articulate and insightful approach to the music. The hushed chords and repeated right-hand octaves of the first Regard were almost whispered, before a clear bell sounded across the hall. Such meditative pianissimos contrasted with glittering effects high in the upper registers, richly-hued Debussyan harmonies, and deep, sonorous bass rumblings redolent of the sombre spirituality of late Liszt. It was a performance imbued with virtuosity, yet never at the expense of the music, nor quality of sound, and Osborne’s physical gestures always had meaning, emphasising a particular effect or intensely-felt emotion. The performance was perfectly paced, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a statement in its own right, while also contributing to the cumulative and architectural effect of the whole. The rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy. Sitting in the back row of the hall, the sense of an audience engaged in an extraordinary shared experience was palpable in the absorption with which we listened. The long silence at the end before the applause, as we meditated on what we had hard, and savoured the fading sounds in the hall, was a mark of our respect for performer, music and composer, further confirmed by a sustained standing ovation.