The Miami International Piano Festival’s Master Series concluded Tuesday night with the welcome return of Scottish pianist Steven Osborne. A small audience at the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater heard Osborne’s uniquely personal take on works by Beethoven, Ravel, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff.
Osborne is a poet of the piano. While capable of the kind of keyboard thunder that wins competitions, Osborne is an introspective, thoughtful musician. Acclaimed for his many recordings on the Hyperion label, Osborne eschews interpretive orthodoxy, bringing a fresh approach to the most familiar repertoire. Musically intelligent and intuitive, Osborne’s performances avoid eccentricity or exaggeration.
Few scores are more familiar or overplayed than Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata; yet Osborne offered a refreshingly original traversal that avoided cliché. The softness and singing line of the Adagio sostenuto glowed with the romance of a Chopin nocturne. Osborne’s clipped phrasing and detailed inner voicing made the Allegretto sound freshly minted. Attacking the Presto agitato at breakneck speed with bold dynamic contrasts, Osborne imbued the finale with incendiary energy. There was a formal, granite-like rigor in Osborne’s interpretation.
Ravel’s luminous Gaspard de la nuit showcased Osborne’s vast color palette and controlled dynamics. The soft, caressing opening of Ondine presaged a performance of sweeping power, romance and impressionistic mist given equal prominence. Osborne vividly realized the ominous tolling of the bells in Le gibet. With each repetition, new timbres and undertones emerged in a miniature tone poem. Scarbo is considered one of the most technically difficult works ever penned for the keyboard. Osborne tossed off the hand-crossings and pyrotechnics with zest and flair. The speed, delicacy and spontaneity of Osborne’s performance imbued Ravel’s portrait of the mischievous dwarf with charm as well as flashy finger work. There was an almost improvisatory, in-the-moment quality to Osborne’s traversal.
The complete cycle of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives is rarely played but Osborne offered all 20 vignettes. Unlike many pianists who approach Prokofiev’s music in an aggressive manner, Osborne emphasized, the lightness and playful naiveté of the miniatures. The whimsical march of the third piece was conveyed with a deft touch. In the final Lento, Osborne’s ruminative version sustained the moody depth beneath the surface glow of Prokofiev’s writing. As a demonstration of rock-solid pianistic technique, Osborne’s reading of the entire cycle was outstanding, a textbook demonstration of precision and musicality.
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 is an unabashedly romantic showpiece. Offering his own version of Vladimir Horowitz’s conflation of the original 1913 score and Rachmaninoff’s 1931 revision, Osborne drew an almost symphonic richness from the keyboard, the bold bursts of color and huge sonority always perfectly controlled. The opening Allegro agitato was spun with grandeur, the musical pulse inexorable from first note to last. While the romantic melody and cinematic glamour of the second movement sang in rhapsodic strophes, Osborne also conveyed the sadness of the music’s dark undertones. The fierce power of the Allegro molto finale swept all before it, Osborne’s hands flying across the piano in a blur of notes. The quiet beauty of the contrasting central episode was achingly beautiful, Osborne splendidly synthesizing the dual facets of Rachmaninoff’s musical persona.