Steven Osborne’s recording of Ravel’s complete piano music was one of last year’s outstanding keyboard releases. To mark the 75th anniversary of the composer’s death this year, Osborne is touring the country with a series of recitals.
His second visit to the Wigmore Hall featured three of Ravel’s more substantial works and an earlier miniature. The Menuet antique of 1895 already shows Ravel rethinking earlier dance rhythms in a modern context. It is partly an affectionate pastiche, enclosed by stridently irregular sections in which Osborne first showed his teeth.
Mirroirs (1904-5) is one of the composer’s most accomplished pieces, combining impressionistic subtlety with harmonic experimentation. Osborne leaned more towards the intriguing possibilities of the latter rather than dreamy sentimentality, conjuring up a particularly disturbing Oiseaux tristes and an appropriately downbeat Vallée des cloches. The straightforward choppiness of Une barque sur l’océan (which predated Debussy’s La Mer by a year) and the spiky angularity of Alborada del gracioso were refreshing alternatives to the usual mannered picture painting.
After the interval, Osborne presented the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (1911) — a set of affectionate, if tongue-in-cheek, variations on the European waltz. Although lighter than Ravel’s post-World War I La Valse, there was enough biting sarcasm and percussive dissonance in Osborne’s interpretation to indicate what was to come in Ravel’s personal and musical life just a few years after its composition.
The outwardly elegant Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) is one of Ravel’s most deeply affecting works, both in its piano and orchestral versions. Written as a tribute to French music of a bygone era, and to friends killed in the war, the six movements are suffused with a restrained sense of melancholy. Not that Osborne indulged in the sort of self-pity that Ravel himself would have eschewed. Rather, he followed the composer’s peculiar take on Baroque forms and patterns. Hence, the formal glitter of the prelude, fugue, minuet and toccata movements; but also the pained dissonance and self-controlled discipline of the forlane and rigaudon sections. It was fitting, then, for Osborne to end his recital with a pertinent encore: the little-boy-lost pathos of Petit Poucet from Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye suite.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org