Steven Osborne and Murray Perahia, piano - Chan Centre and Orpheum, March 4 and 8, 2012.

Murray Perahia, piano

Murray Perahia, piano

The Vancouver Recital Society gave Vancouver audiences a wonderful present by sponsoring concerts by pianists Murray Perahia and Steven Osborne in the same week.  The former is arguably the greatest pianist now before us while the latter Scotsman is currently one of the most enterprising and versatile, recording on the esteemed Hyperion label. 

Steven Osborne, piano

Steven Osborne, piano

The career of Murray Perahia spans almost 40 years; he won the Leeds Piano Competition in 1972.  Originally a specialist in the Mozart concertos and Schumann, he has consistently broadened his repertoire to include Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and, most stunningly, Bach.  What used to be beautifully articulated but somewhat small-scale playing has, over the years, become more decisive and commanding, with greater intellectual and physical weight overall.  But all the basic ingredients of his art remain: the total keyboard control, the rounded tone, the remarkable evenness of his runs, the delightful shaping and flexibility of his phrases, and his ability to see each work as an integrated whole.

His playing of the opening Bach French Suite No. 5 was indeed ‘life giving’.  The articulation and tonal weight were perfectly judged, and there was passion as well.   It was as if the whole work was painted with the sense of fresh discovery, fusing romantic and baroque elements perfectly.  The first movement of the Beethoven Sonata No. 27 was equally interesting, pushing out its dramatic chords strongly and contrasting these with its lighter development at a relatively slow speed.  The flowing second movement then released the intensity in a most satisfying way.   In Schubert’s A major Sonata, D. 664, the touching themes of the first two movements were perhaps given a lighter treatment than usual, but there was a clear gain in the integration between these and the more dramatic material.  The sonata seemed richer and more complex overall.  And to hear the life and variety in the phrasing at the beginning of the last movement – equally so in the Impromtu he gave as an encore – was simply something to marvel at.  Both the Brahms Op. 119 works and the closing Chopin pieces were given tight, clearly structured and often powerful readings.  In fact, the Chopin might have been a little too headlong and virtuoso at times.  Perhaps the pianist sensed that some ‘display’ was needed at the end.

Steven Osborne gave us a quite different, yet no less remarkable, experience.  While Murray Perahia seemingly seeks to take ‘conventional’ interpretations of works to a new level of insight and execution, Osborne is in a sense more radical, often pushing interpretative boundaries.

Interesting performances of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit abound, but Osborne’s was very special indeed.  As the pianist sees it, the work takes us into a suspended neurotic state with visions of torment and death, punctuated fitfully by violent attempts to restore stability.  And so it was in the first two movements: his beautifully quiet, distilled playing at the opening conveyed an icy calm full of anxiety and foreboding.  Little nudges in phrasing and texture drove the changing tensions, leading to vehement dramatic punctuations, only to fall back to the same suspended state.  At a very slow speed, the repeated pedal note of ‘Le gibet’ kept us in a similar, almost motionless state, its endless sounding much like a tolling bell ringing to eternity.  Everything broke loose in the final ‘Scarbo’, and the full range of crazed and neurotic outpourings were realized; paranoia, desperation, protestation, and so on.  Extreme perhaps, and not really a French performance, but one executed so cleanly and with so much insight and mastery. 

The same cleanness of articulation informed the pianist’s Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata No. 2, which really ended up freshly-minted.  Superb judgment here in balancing its bravura with its quiet thoughtfulness: the work flowed from beginning to end with complete concentration and not a trace of heaviness.  This was as enjoyable as the Ravel.  Coming close was the Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, where the pianist’s sculpted phrasing and dramatic punctuations brought out the sheer technical and emotional variety in these 20 little pieces.  The only experiment that didn’t work that well was the pianist’s Moonlight Sonata.  Here Beethoven’s famous opening movement was treated like the Ravel; exceptionally quiet and controlled, but faster than normal.  Interesting to hear this as an intimate ‘serenade’, but I thought it under-expressed.  The final movements emphasized Beethoven’s jagged rhythmic energy but ended up light on lyrical flow. 

In any event, two great pianists in four days certainly left us with a great deal to think about – and cherish for many years!

© Geoffrey Newman 2012