Steven Osborne

Festival Features Debut of Pianist Steven Osborne

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

The Mostly Mozart Festival featured conductor Andrew Manze leading the orchestra in a performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 “London,” with piano soloist Steven Osborne, who made his Mostly Mozart debut in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major “Emperor.” Coincidentally, these two works were the last compositions in their respective categories for each composer.

“The sketches for the E-flat major concerto are littered with warlike phrases,” writes music critic David Wright, in his printed program notes for the Aug. 1 festival concert. Phrases like “Auf zur schlecht Jubelsang! Angriff! Sieg! (Song of exultation in battle! Attack! Victory!).” Osborne took those notations seriously for his interpretation of the “Emperor” concerto.

Like a young impetuous soldier anxious to vanquish the enemy, Osborne attacked with fire in the belly. His chordal slices and tidal waves of arpeggios called the musical forces to arms in ways that I hadn’t witnessed before. Most pianists, in an effort to be more tonally conservative, refrain from the kind of hard-hitting selections Osborne chose for significant sections of that piece. The score was written as a tribute to the Hapsburg Austrian monarchs who were sadly defeated by the invading French armies in 1809. Wright pointed out that “Beethoven hid from the bombs in his brother’s cellar, holding cushions over his head.” Osborne’s approach seemed to channel the composer’s terror.

Not all was fortissimo, however. His extraordinary dynamic range also telescoped down to a whisper. He mined the muted, haunting minor-mode motifs with as much intensity as the steely grandeur and pomp in the outer two movements, and similarly in the tender, almost defeated mood of the pianissimo second movement. Manze’s directorial approach employed the early-music performance esthetic of a mixture of crystalline clarity, little vibrato, and ardent tempos. The woodwind section excelled in its precision and intonation.

Even though the Austrians fared so poorly in battle, Beethoven nevertheless created a magnificently heroic concerto that lives on to glorify his Viennese compatriots; Manze and Osborne recreated this historic contrast for us that night with a dynamic and luminous performance. And as for Osborne’s debut, perhaps long overdue for this artist who is in the midst of a global career, it was the perfect piece to introduce himself to this audience, who vociferously approved.

Manze and the orchestra followed with Haydn’s “London,” which is a joyous work written in 1795. The 12th of his series of “London” symphonies, No. 104 amuses with dramatic pauses, sudden changes of direction or harmony, rowdy tympani parts, and a zesty folk dance flavor in the fourth movement. Manze took the perfect tempos to highlight all the quirky features of Haydn’s final foray into symphonic writing. By number 104, Franz Josef had quite outdone himself — and everyone else, too.


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