DEBUSSY Piano Music - Steven Osborne
French music is indispensable to any pianist’s training. Nearly all professionals maintain, at the very least, a few ‘speciality’ pieces in their active repertories, and appropriately so. Since the 16th century, the French have contributed decisively to the history of keyboard music – as composers, performers and, no less significantly, instrument makers (think Blanchet, Érard, Cavaillé-Coll). Yet at any given moment, pianists born outside France who are convincingly identified with this very specific repertory are relatively few. Steven Osborne, from the outset of his career, has been among them.
The latest demonstration of Osborne’s way with the French is this splendid new Hyperion release, presenting a bouquet of mature Debussy works. A viscerally exciting Masques combines with a subtly understated … d’un cahier d’esquisses to create an overture to L’isle joyeuse, in a performance that is both bracingly original and scrupulously adherent to Debussy’s score. Protean, fleet, sparse of pedal and drawing on a seemingly infinite arsenal of touch and dynamics, it conjures an isle where irresistible pleasures border on delirium.
The classical restraint and chaste proportions of the two books of Images come as an almost startling contrast. Whether in the gentle chimes and gongs of ‘Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut’ or the spinning kinetic exuberance of ‘Mouvement’, the darting about of ‘Poissons d’or’ observed by a scientific eye or the oracular reverence of ‘Hommage à Rameau’, each piece is strikingly apt and fairly bursts with evocative detail. Osborne shapes the six Images, composed over several years, into a cohesive entity that satisfies both emotionally and intellectually.
No less remarkable are the three Estampes. At the outset of their centrepiece, ‘La soirée dans Grenade’, an ancient muezzin’s call to prayer is heard before disparate rhythmic and harmonic elements coalesce into the throbbing habanera. It is typical of the ease and clarity with which Osborne teases musical allusion from Debussy’s richly layered textures. Even the forthright simplicity of Children’s Corner cannot disguise its vivid imagery. An exquisitely magical atmosphere is created by ‘Snow is Dancing’, while in ‘Golliwogg’s Cakewalk’ we counter some real high steppin’ when the white folks aren’t around.
Osborne traverses this well-known repertory with obvious relish, relying on immense musical and technical resources to reveal fresh, unexpected perspectives on music we all thought we knew. Intimacies of disarming candour are whispered into the ear by conjuring dozens of pianissimos from the instrument that leave you marvelling at their quality and variety, and admiring the Hyperion engineers who captured them so adroitly. This is music-making of great subtlety and finesse which neither lovers of Debussy and French music nor those who value piano-playing on the highest artistic level will want to miss.