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Classical review: Steven Osborne: Ravel/Falla: Concertos

23rd June, 2017

When it’s hot enough to spend nights in the gardens of Sidcup, you know it’s time to whack Manuel de Falla’s wonderfully steamy Nights in the Gardens of Spain on the turntable again. Right on cue comes a thrilling new recording of this piano concerto-in-all-but-name from Steven Osborne and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the suave baton of the French conductor Ludovic Morlot.

What I’ve always loved about Falla’s masterpiece is its slightly askew subtlety. Yes, you can imagine the strumming of a thousand guitars under cloudless night skies, or the stamp of distant dances — but the way that Falla suggests that without going into full-blown fiesta-and-siesta mode, and his way of continuously developing the music so it sounds like an improvisation, is what makes the piece so compelling.

Osborne and the orchestra imbue it with fabulous drama, especially in the rambunctious third movement. My one quibble is the recording quality: a little closely miked, when a greater spaciousness might have been more atmospheric.

Falla was a friend of Ravel; both belonged to the early 20th century Paris set intent on liberating music from what they saw as stifling Germanic forms and harmonies. So it makes sense for Falla’s Nights to be sandwiched here between Ravel’s two Piano Concertos, even if the latter date from more than a decade later, after Europe had been shattered by the First World War and Ravel’s own musical language had been much infiltrated by the harmonies of the jazz age.

Broadly speaking, these performers make the great Left Hand Concerto in D seem like a traumatic postlude to the war and the much jollier Piano Concerto in G sound like the purest escapism from it. That makes sense. Ravel wrote the Left Hand Concerto for Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm had been amputated after he was shot in the war, so the shadow of the conflict was woven into the piece from the outset. And these performers certainly turn the ominous central march into something quite terrifying.

The G Major Concerto, however, is far from a straightforward romp. Its outer movements, decorated with all sorts of irony tinged jazz gestures, demand mercurial virtuosity, which Osborne supplies in elegant fistfuls. Yet even more notable is his poised, subtly phrased playing in the slow movement, so easily made to sound slight and simplistic. Some wonderful woodwind solos, too, from the Scottish players.

 

23 June 2017
Richard Morrison / The Times