WORKS: Piano Concerto; Fantasia on a theme of Handel; Piano Sonatas Nos 1-4
PERFORMER: Steven Osborne (piano); BBC Scottish SO/Martyn Brabbins
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67461-2
This splendid double album handily assembles all Tippett’s music for piano whether solo or with orchestra, in performances that impressively set new standards in these often challenging works.
Notwithstanding Phyllis Sellick’s pioneering recording of the First Sonata (now on NMC), the benchmarks in the Piano Concerto and Sonatas 1-2 were created back in the 1960s by John Ogdon’s mighty readings for EMI, while despite the best efforts of Paul Crossley (Philips) and Peter Donohoe (Naxos) the last two sonatas have remained elusive.
But Steven Osborne seems to have the measure of them all. His account of the Concerto, ably supported by Martyn Brabbins’s command of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, has all the ecstatic power that Ogdon brought to the first movement, and a like rhythmic ebullience in the finale, but negotiates the contrapuntal thickets of the slow movement with greater delicacy and feeling.
He’s helped by Hyperion’s detailed recording, which clarifies the polyphony of muted horns in first movement and finale much better than previous releases. The rarely-recorded Handel Fantasia needs less subtlety, yet Osborne manages to invest each detail with meaning and character while articulating a large design.
Likewise he welds the mosaic-like construction of the Second Sonata into a highly convincing unity, while the long-breathed ornamentation of the Third’s slow movement has seldom sounded more convincing, and necessary to its progress. The Fourth is by far the longest of the sonatas and has previously been the hardest to assimilate.
Even so, Osborne’s wonderfully elegant unwinding of the contrapuntal lines in the first movement, and his powerful, deeply elegiac reading of the finale, illuminate this fascinating work – half-sonata, half (Beethovenian) ‘bagatelle cycle’ – more clearly than any version I’ve previously encountered. This is a very important release. Calum MacDonald