News Column

Review: Classical: Steven Osborne Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham 32/40

July 4, 2014

Andrew Clements

At any time, let alone in a morning concert, Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata Op 106 is a daunting prospect, for the audience as well as for the pianist. But it was the main work in the recital by Steven Osborne that launched this year's Cheltenham festival, and his performance certainly made no concessions to the time of day: it was a jolting, explosive experience.

Some pianists attempt to cushion the impact of the Hammerklavier, to civilise it, to put some distance between their performance and the white heat of its invention. Osborne didn't. The way he plunged into the opening movement could have been reckless: things did seem a bit precarious when the music suddenly veered into a harmonic world that not even Beethoven would have contemplated, but the resulting edge-of-the-seat excitement was worth all the risks. Nothing was to be sensationalised, as Osborne's searching performance of the slow movement showed, and when the sense of pushing to extremes inevitably returned for the final fugue, with its teetering textures, starbursts of trills and cataclysmic chords, the whole sonata came together in an uncompromisingly radical way.

The rest of the recital was made up of works composed immediately before the Hammerklavier, in 1816 and 1817. Beethoven's A major Sonata Op 101 was treated with unfussy good sense and a complete absence of ponderous point-making. There were also two pieces by Schubert: the A minor Klavierstucke D604, which is an Andante movement surely intended for a piano sonata that never materialised, and the Huttenbrenner Variations D576, which, in 15 minutes, seems to encapsulate every facet of Schubert's piano writing, each one of which was registered by Osborne.

Andrew Clements

Cheltenham Music festival continues until 13 July.

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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