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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 (1820-21) [18:15]
Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110 (1821) [19:36]
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 (1822) [25:45]
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. 2018, Concert Hall, Perth, UK
HYPERION CDA68219 [63:39]

“Osborne’s readings will, beyond doubt, move you.” To begin with the last words of my learned colleague Colin Clarke’s review of this disc, and to get straight to the heart of the matter; I can only concur. And then some.

I have made no secret of my admiration for Steven Osborne’s Hyperion recordings in the past, and during a period in which listeners have been fortunate to be bombarded with a glut of superb recordings of Beethoven’s final sonatas (sometimes within whole cycles - Lewis, Bavouzet, Sudbin, Levit, Biss and Roscoe are half a dozen recent examples), to my ears at any rate, Osborne trumps them all. I completely accept the view that individual pianists sometimes just ‘click’ with particular listeners; after all Osborne has enlightened me in the past and certainly does so again here.

Indeed I find it somewhat ironic that during my younger years I found these three works elusive and frankly incomprehensible. All that changed in my early thirties with a chance visit to HMV in Leeds and exposure to one of Sviatoslav Richter’s recordings of Op 111. (To be more specific, that particular account appeared on a long deleted five disc Philips compilation ‘The Essential Richter’ –it was recorded in Stuttgart in 1991 – Philips 454 166-2 nla) It shook me up; and I ended up being converted to Richter’s approach to late Beethoven via a variety of both live and studio accounts, some of dubious provenance and poor sound quality – it was the Russian’s consistent projection of this odd music’s transcendental qualities that got under my skin - the letter of the score seemed to matter less (not least to Richter himself!). Steven Osborne is at the other extreme; his fastidious attention to detail will astonish – although in his case it is neither showy, nor empty virtuosity. It merely serves to magnify the soul at the core of this enigmatic, essential music. Moreover, he manages to pull off the mean trick of projecting the minutiae of these scores with playing that sounds remarkably spontaneous and at times almost improvisatory rather than coldly forensic.

It was Igor Levit’s superb 2013 debut recording of Beethoven’s last five sonatas on Sony that moved me on from Richter – a remarkable combination of artistic integrity, technical accomplishment and sonic perfection. I well recall reading Dominy Clements’ probing and insightful review after I’d acquired the discs and recognising my colleague’s uncanny ability to articulate the mysteries of this music (and the peculiar qualities of Levit’s accounts) in novel and persuasive terms. Three years later Steven Osborne released a disc which included equally riveting performances of Opp 101 and 106 as well as a gloriously coloured account of the E minor sonata Op 90 which revealed previously unimagined profundity in that much briefer work (Hyperion CDA 68073).

As with that issue, it’s the extraordinary clarity of Osborne’s voicing that most immediately strikes home; it was a highlight of his formidable account of the Hammerklavier and it’s here in spades too – an almost freakish elasticity of articulation combined with an unfailing ability to wring every tiny detail out of Beethoven’s extraordinary inner parts. Osborne’s sincerity as an artist is never in doubt – I am pleased (and rather envious) that Colin Clarke was able to hear his live performances (and especially his generous, lightly -worn introductions to the works) in London, and the vernal freshness of these readings somehow transports the listener back to the early 1820s albeit via some time-travelling modern Steinway – how utterly weird these sonatas must have sounded to nineteenth century ears! (In fact it seems unlikely that they were performed in public at all before Liszt began to programme them in recitals during the 1830s, some time after Beethoven’s demise.)

It would be superfluous simply to reiterate my colleague’s detailed and insightful considerations in this review and so I will content myself with merely sharing a few personal, supplementary thoughts. In Beethoven’s faster music, for example the two brief introductory movements of Op 109, and the central Allegro of Op 110, Osborne’s crisp precision and unparalleled ability to keep brain and individual fingers in sync ensure maximum clarity and yield unusually ravishing colours – the descending octaves in the Presto of Op 109 epitomise this thrillingly. Furthermore, while Osborne projects drama, even ferocity, say in the fortississimi in Op 110’s middle panel, its argument is never less than convincingly shaped, and this is underpinned by the Scot’s gymnastic feats of control. On the other hand, almost more impressive is Osborne’s ruminative and revelatory quiet playing, such as at the opening of Op 110.

And it’s this immaculate restraint which has left the most permanent impression on these ears. For me this pianist is peerless in his projection of the larger form – his Hammerklavier (both live and on disc) bore ample testimony to that – and it is present on the new disc in the long final movements of all three of these works, in the ‘theme and variations’ forms of Opp 109 and 111, as well as the magnificent fugue of Op 110. The songful appearance of the tune in the fourth variation towards the end of Op 109 here evokes welcome and bright sunlight, or some unforeseen rapture; a reward for the most meticulous and dedicated soul-searching and struggle – in my view it emerges here more naturally, perfectly and emphatically than in any other account, including Levit’s. Colin Clarke alludes to the ‘jazz’ section of Op 111 (Osborne’s Kapustin recital for Hyperion, released almost twenty years ago, was clearly a useful preparation); one occasionally finds its ‘resolution’ in performance jarring and unwieldy, or at the other extreme the ‘shock’ barely registers, but here Osborne swings with the best, and blends his groove into what follows with disarming conviction, naturalness and profound intelligence. Each of these three large structures are built with consummate taste and supreme judgement; I found I needed an extended break at the end of each sonata to take it all in.

Barry Cooper’s notes are succinct and rich in useful detail, as one has come to expect from one of the doyens of Beethoven scholarship. I must also mention the terrific recording, superlative even by Hyperion’s demanding standards. I notice that the disc was recorded in the concert hall in Perth (Scotland as opposed to Australia). Producer Stephen Johns and engineer David Hinitt have performed wonders with what sounds like an outstanding Steinway instrument in this generous acoustic. It’s a relatively new building, only opened in 2005, and I certainly hope Steven Osborne gets to record there again – I suspect it’s pretty local for him. The sonics seal the deal on a uniquely edifying and moving Beethoven disc. Steven Osborne has here captured what Beethoven’s biographer Maynard Solomon pithily characterised as the “…etherealised improvisatory tone…” of the trilogy arguably more convincingly than anyone to date.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Colin Clarke (Recording of the Month)



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