OSBORNE Sensations of Travel (Hebrides Ensemble)
This new Delphian release is a welcome tribute to the far-reaching musicianship of Nigel Osborne, who turned 70 last year and is as concerned as ever to turn away from comfortable, complacent ideas about music’s place in the world and the composer’s place in society. A university professor who has risked life and limb in Sarajevo; a composer who has been commissioned by Glyndebourne but also works with traumatised children around the world: what kind of music can possibly do justice to such variety of experience and diversity of commitment?
The Hebrides Ensemble’s answer to that question is appropriately well varied; but two particularly substantial instrumental works demonstrate the core qualities of rhythmic energy and expressive directness, combined to create a connected rather than fractured discourse, that have been Osborne’s hallmarks down the years. Zone (1989) and Balkan Dances and Laments (2001) show how his early contacts with Polish expressionism helped him to refine his personal engagement with the time-honoured genres of Western art music while working in vividly ethnic aspects in ways that have nothing to do with picture-postcard charm. Travel, not tourism, in fact.
Osborne remains fascinated by the unique challenges of opera, and by the possibilities of using popular and folk-like idioms to give further definition to appropriate formal principles. Thus 2018’s Preludio y canción (not unlike Osborne’s famous 1993 cello piece Adagio for Vedran Smailovic´) keeps ways of cadencing modernistically fluid, while the various sets of short pieces relating to the opera The Piano Tuner, and to a project about the Cambridge spies (Espionage: Studies in Poussin and Happenstance), manage the difficult task of achieving expressive immediacy without lapsing, ironically or accidentally, into mere cliché. For the moment, I prefer Espionage’s three short movements for solo violin to the ‘soundscapes’ attached to The Piano Tuner’s ‘preludes and fugues’. But Osborne’s travels have become a kind of pilgrimage in search of relevance and responsibility that deserves serious attention, and these well-crafted recordings offer many different facets of an arrestingly contemporary musical voice.