Notes and Editorial Reviews
Steven Osborne follows up his superb Mussorgsky/Prokofiev Hyperion release with more Russian music, this time by Medtner and Rachmaninov. He begins with Medtner’s two Op. 20 Fairy Tales, and shapes the Allegro con espressione’s right-hand counterpoint with more force and timbral variety than his label mate Hamish Milne. Similarly, Osborne brings more detail, solidity, and dynamic contrast to Campanella, yet here I prefer Milne’s slightly less square, harmonically oriented phrasing. As for Medtner’s B-flat minor Sonata, choosing between Osborne and Marc-André Hamelin’s earlier Hyperion traversal is a matter of apples and oranges.
For example, the first movement is marked “Andantino con moto, ma sempre espressivo”.
Hamelin scales Medtner’s dynamics and observes his phrasings more faithfully, focusing on the music’s “espressivo” qualities. By contrast, Osborne is the “con moto” guy, shaping the music in longer, more animated lines. For all of Hamelin’s suave passage-work and meticulous accentuation in the Scherzo, Osborne’s jazzier handling of the syncopated “ONE two three, One two three, ONE two ONE two ONE two” rhythmic figure points up its similarity to Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story. Hamelin’s control of timbre and touch in the Finale’s non legato and leggiero passage-work is in a class by itself, yet Osborne brings a more playful, improvisatory feeling to the music by way of dynamic inflections and leaning into certain notes.
With many outstanding recordings of Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations in the catalog, Osborne proves more vulnerable to competition. While his suave technique, stylish sensitivity, and masterful transitions between variations command respect, other versions convey more fantasy and verve. Compare, for instance, the bounce in Alexander Melnikov’s Variation 2 staccato to Osborne’s relatively matter-of-fact reading, or notice how Osborne’s perfectly poised rapid chords in Variation 6 yield to Nareh Arghamanyan’s extra spark. Although Osborne judges the tempo fluctuations in Variation 8’s Adagio misterioso pretty much to Rachmaninov’s specifications, I find that the music’s slinky profile comes into clearer focus by virtue of Arghamanyan’s faster basic tempo and more exaggerated ritards. Still, any “golden age” pianist would be happy to claim Osborne’s energetic impetus in the final climactic variation and his ravishing legato throughout the Coda.
Like Horowitz, Osborne creates his own version of Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata, cutting and pasting between the work’s 1913 first edition and the composer’s 1931 revision. The pianist’s steady tempos in the outer movements reflect the piano writing’s orchestral mass, while the weight and density of his fortissimo chords never splinter. Although I miss the leanness and scintillating sweep with which Horowitz, Cliburn, and Weissenberg pin your ears to the wall, Osborne’s integrity and musicianship are never in doubt. Hyperion’s engineering typifies the label’s consistently high sonic standards for solo piano recordings.
-- Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Fairy Tales (2), Op. 20 by Nikolai Medtner
Steven Osborne (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1909; Russia
Venue: Henry Wood Hall, London
Length: 6 Minutes 34 Secs.
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