Friday 3 September 2010

EIF 2010 - Steven Osborne, or, I had no idea Rachmaninov wrote Jazz

Edinburgh audiences have a slight tendency to be a bit po-faced.  I recall well the criticism levelled at Jonathan Mills when he opened his first festival with a concert performance of Bernstein's Candide.  It was pleasing therefore to see a full house at the Queen's Hall for Steven Osborne's jazz laced program on Tuesday morning.

Osborne has been a regular performer at the Festival as long as I have been going, and many of those performances have been unforgettable.  I recall a mesmerising Vingt Regard sur l'enfant Jesus in the same venue, and a glorious Bartok Third Piano Concerto with a Keith Jarrett encore in the Usher Hall.  However, this year's recital programme was especially intriguing, beginning with a mixed bag first half including pieces by Ives, Gershwin, Scott Joplin and Oscar Peterson, before turning to Ravel and Rachmaninov in the second.

The whole was a delight.  I was initially slightly distracted by the sight of Jonathan Mills tapping away to the Maple Leaf Rag, but the music quickly took precedence.  Osborne's playing has two major characteristics.  First, his sheer virtuosity.  In a big tour de force piece like Oscar Peterson's (Back Home Again in) Indiana which brought the house down at the end of the first half, he simply dazzles the ear.  Osborne's technique is impeccable and the piece certainly kept me on the edge of my seat.  Elsewhere, though, he is capable of the softest, lightest touch to conjure introspective, wistful moods, particularly evident in George Crumb's Processional and the Kapustin Jazz Preludes.  One of the things which has been exciting about this festival (though arriving in Edinburgh late on in the Festival I have not been able to enjoy as much of it as I should have liked) is the much wider range of music being presented, particularly from the twentieth century, and Osborne certainly contributed to that here.  Perhaps hearing Kapustin's complete preludes they might overstay their welcome but the ones played here were beautiful miniatures.

The interval afforded time to catch one's breath and then it was back for what appeared on paper to be the more serious end of the recital, but in fact what it proved was the thought which Osborne had clearly put into it.  His Ravel did not quite erase the memory of Christian Zacharias performing the Valses nobles et sentimentales in the same venue a couple of years ago, but at the same time it was an intriguingly different beast.  Zacharias seemed to me to bring out a Parisian flavour in the music, I felt as if I was wandering the boulevards in various moods.  Osborne, by contrast, seemed to be in a night club, drawing out resonances with Le Jazz Hot.  Similarly with the Rachmaninov which was another showcase of Osborne's talents.  Again, he moved effortlessly from the wistful, as the opening theme snaked out through the audience, to the staggeringly virtuousic.  Again too, there seemed odd resonances between both the Rachmaninov and the Ravel, and between Rachmaninov and the jazz and jazz-influenced worlds of the first half.

Once again it was a privilege to attend an Osborne performance.  I do have a suggestion though for his next project.  I have recently begun to get into Liszt's piano music, and regret that it seems to be comparatively infrequently performed live (perhaps because of the technical demands, and the variety of expression required).  Maybe Steven Osborne could be persuaded to turn his talents there for next year.

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