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Classical review: Steven Osborne, Queen Elizabeth Hall/ Richard Goode, Wigmore hall, London


For Olivier Messiaen, birds were ‘the most outstanding musicians on our planet’, and it was typical of his serene imperviousness to brute reality that, while Paris burned around him in 1944, he should garland the themes of his supreme piano work with birdsong.

His claim that Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus represented ‘a little revolution in piano writing’ was initially disputed by critics, but it’s now recognised as erring on the modest side: one doesn’t need to sign up to Messiaen’s Catholic faith, as expressed in his devotional commentary, to appreciate the exhilaration, ecstasy, and awe of this crazy masterpiece.

Two pianists are now regarded as the keepers of this flame: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who studied it with Messaien, and the Scottish pianist Steven Osborne, who studied it with Messiaen’s widow Yvonne Loriod for whom this work was written. It was indicative of Osborne’s growing fame that the hall should have been packed for his interval-less performance of Vingt regards, but no one seemed prepared for the stupendousness of his 130-minute performance.

Messiaen’s regard translates as something between ‘gaze’ and ‘view’, with the chordal motif which he called the ‘God theme’ recurring like a signpost on the journey: Osborne’s silky introduction of it unfurled as though out of a perfumed silence. Following the ‘Gaze of the Father’, the ‘Gaze of the Star’ hit us like a thunderbolt, after which we set out on the wings of his virtuosity, brilliantly interweaving everything from birdsong to Gershwin echoes, from fugal intricacy to massive subterranean eruptions. After his final downward cascade Osborne seemed as if turned to stone, then slowly faced us with a bemused grin. We rose in unanimous tribute; the queue to recapture the magic through his Hyperion recording was long.

No less oracular was Richard Goode’s performance of Beethoven’s late piano music at an equally packed Wigmore Hall. This American pianist had to wait until he was fifty before he conquered his nerves sufficiently to embark on a solo career, but the Beethoven sonata cycle he recorded for Nonesuch in 1993 almost immediately won landmark status. Since then he has deepened and refined his interpretations to a point where they feel definitive. The wild card in this recital was a group of Opus 119 Bagatelles which he invested with a remarkably concentrated intensity; his account of the final sonata trilogy purveyed both exhilarating earthiness and visions of the sublime.