STEVEN OSBORNE reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Music Toronto Presents
Jane Mallett Theatre, Front Street, Toronto

Steven Osborne is a poet at the piano. His Liszt selections convey a sense of having “looked on beauty bare.” Osborne’s touch can be so soft and tender, one thinks of e.e. cummings’ line “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”

Many of the pieces on his programme move between extremes of feather-light pianissimo and thunder, which brings details of the music into sharp definition like” marble men and maidens” that remain “forever warm” on a Grecian urn.

“Haar”– Scottish for ‘sea-mist’–by Osborne’s schoolmate, James Clapperton, is made of fine trilling lines and single notes that fall and ripple bringing a sense of desire, muted but self-satisfied, like Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” that “comes/on little cat feet. /…sits looking/over harbor and city/on silent haunches/and then moves on.

Osborne takes the B Minor “Rhapsody” by Brahms, made of tender triadic melodies enclosed by thick, crashing chords, through its rhythmic variations with broad dynamic shadings and fadings, like a turbulent mountain brook that trickles out of a spring, develops violent force down falls and over rapids, broadens and pools in the alluvial plain before merging with the ocean’s booming surf. Though the piece as Osborne plays it feeds the imagination, oddly the overall feeling is the luminous beauty of music abstract as the light in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare.”

Osborne is the second pianist to favour Toronto with “Pictures at an Exhibition” as Mussorgsky wrote it, for solo piano. Vladimir Feltsman at a recent Amici concert demonstrated the raw power of the piece. The way Osborne played it, though no one hits the keys harder than he does, realizes the idea of ‘tone poem’: you get to see what he plays. The capricious ‘Gnome’ scurries. On the walls of the ‘Old Castle’, threadbare tapestries flap in the light breeze releasing a fine dust into the beams of sunlight. Children at play in the ‘Tuilleries’ quarrel in Osborne’s right-hand trills. Oxen plod in the hypnotic chord progression of his left hand. Chicks scatter and cheep in onomatopoeic trills shaded by hard repetitive chords. Two Jews, thin and heavy as Laurel and Hardy, harangue each other. Traffic in the ‘Limoges Market’ moves like a keystone cops sequence. The deep, slow drama of the ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Cum mortuis’ extends itself like a shadow falling in long, slow, soft, chords. ‘Baba Yaga’ dissonant and crazy as a boogie woogie staggers around comically on ‘fowl’s legs.’ ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ depicted ponderous in sonorous chords also swings its lyric melody until it is pounded shut.

Tonight’s recital is Osborne’s Toronto debut. Encore.

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