Over the past decade or so Steven Osborne has come up with some touchstone performances – Debussy Préludes, Vingt Regards, Pictures at an Exhibition come to mind – and in this Kings Place recital it was clear that his powers of perception continue to take his audiences with him. His approach is both pragmatic and deeply considered, he is a fearless performer, and he endows even familiar works with a fresh bite, over an impressively broad repertoire – and it was a very familiar work that opened his programme.
In the first movement of his ultimate Piano Sonata, Schubert lays out his material as though on an assembly line – Item one. Pause. Item 2. Pause. Low trill. Repeat, then move on. Osborne honoured this process to the letter, but all the time was applying shape and character in such a way as to fold you into the whole scheme. He played off details of advance, hesitation and retreat against each other to create a slipstream of events so strongly articulated you could almost set them to words – for instance, the low trills rumbling benignly then menacingly on the horizon that also, like points on a railway line, conclusively steer into new harmonic territory; or Schubert’s repeated-note figures that Osborne loaded with an eloquence you’d never suspected.
Every expressive gesture Osborne made heightened our perceptions of the music, a process of analysis, quick wits and imagination so thoroughly assimilated it leaves him free to present Schubert’s discourse with unaffected depth and immediacy. Another example – his handling of the protracted bridge passage back to the first-movement repeat was to experience the near-total loss of direction, music momentarily in free-fall. The slow movement was just as perceptively played, the slow rhythmic tattoo circling round a scrap of melody, getting close to minimalist stasis and only kept afloat by Osborne’s endlessly subtle application of melancholic tone and weightlessness that just about make it to a positive resolution. Pianists tie themselves in knots realising this Sonata’s scope. Osborne did it effortlessly.
It was the sort of performance that sends you out a better, wiser person at the end of a recital, but Osborne elected to give Prokofiev the last word in two of his formidable ‘War Sonatas’ (the other is No.8). The first movement of No.6 was a maelstrom of aimless energy that slumped into pale evocations of shock, with Osborne pounding out the ugly dissonances to bring the movement to a close. The second movement was like ballet with teeth, rhythmically very punchy but full of unease, before Osborne took no prisoners in his ferocious account of the Finale. The Sonata No.7 isn’t quite so confrontational, and Osborne’s account suggested an empty present haunted by ghosts of the past that yielded to a cradle song to a lost world, before he gave us the full muscular force of his playing in the terrifying Finale. He was on stupendous form in both these near-impossible displays of technique and bludgeoning emotional honesty, as near as music gets to organised dysfunction.
In between the two Sonatas, Osborne played Morton Feldman’s Extensions 3, which in this context was like sound in profound trauma. Osborne’s pianissimo was on the cusp of audibility, and he made the five minutes more occupied with silence than with notated music, the respite only to be blown away by more Prokofiev. Osborne’s encore took refuge in a bubble of loveliness, the third of Poulenc’s Novelettes (based on a theme from Falla’s El amor brujo), reminding of his strong affinity with French music.