In Concert – Steven Osborne plays Debussy Études @ Wigmore Hall

Steven Osborne (piano)

Debussy
Études Book 1 (1915)
Berceuse héroïque (1914)
Étude retrouvée (1915)
Études Book 2 (1915)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 6 December 2022 (BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photo (c) Ben Ealovega

Steven Osborne is in a ‘Debussy phase’. The renowned pianist has recently released an album of Early and late piano pieces for Hyperion, and commendably this concert added a further string to his bow with a collection of late works, principally the two books of Études. These substantial collections represented the end of a year of compositional famine for Debussy, his creativity reignited for the piano and as he began his late trio of published sonatas. Blighted by illness, he nonetheless found the focus to write increasingly economical but outwardly expressive music.

Typically Debussy did not write these pieces as downtrodden exercises for the classroom. Instead, as a recent biography by Stephen Walsh point out, he wrote ‘tests of the pianist’s ability to climb technical mountains while engaging with the musical scenery’. Osborne certainly achieved both objectives in this BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert. His technical control was well-nigh flawless but at times daring, pushing these pieces to the limit while remaining sensitive to the natural phrasing of the cells of melody with which Debussy works.

He executed each piece with a compelling characterisation, allowing us to admire Debussy’s craft and texture but also creating remarkable images in spite of the discipline required within each study. Each of the two books of Études contains six pieces, and Osborne began with Book 1 in its entirety. The restless Pour les ‘cinq doigts’ (d’après Monsieur Czerny) began, immediately showing off the pianist’s control and natural affinity with Debussy’s melodic writing. Ending with a flourish, he moved to a picturesque Pour les tierces, portraying in aural terms the equivalent of focussing in on a particular part of a fast flowing stream. Pour les quartes moves the musical language in an Eastern direction, moving between evocative scenes, while Osborne enjoyed linking the character episodes of Pour les sixtes with fearsome playing. Pour les octaves was notable for its clarity and power, while the final Pour les huit doigts hurried forward, changing shape continuously like the centre of a lava lamp.

Book 2 was similarly impressive. The right hand in Pour les degrés chromatiques was like a strong wind, with room retained for its recurring melody, while the open textures of Pour les agréments reminded us just how forward looking these pieces are, Osborne giving the music plenty of room for expression. The circus was memorably evoked in the chase sequences of Pour les notes répétées, before Pour les sonorités opposes became a compelling study in musical perspective, its happenings near and far giving an exquisite sense of distance. The rippling figures of Pour les arpèges composes contrasted with trippy, playful syncopations, before finally we heard contrasts between the assertive and the deeply mysterious in a fully voiced account of Pour les accords.

Between Books 1 and 2 of the Études, Osborne found time for two more late pieces, beginning with the curious Berceuse héroïque, where a solemn left-hand figure grew into an imposing presence, then following with the Étude retrouvée from a year later. Here the suggestive chromatic intervals were persuasive, complemented by a ticklish figure in the right hand.

Completing this memorable concert was an encore of the early Rêverie, written in 1890. By showing us how far the composer had advanced in his musical style, Osborne also illustrated the seeds that were there at the beginning, in a piece whose sustaining calm cast a spell on audience and pianist alike.

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