Charity concert27 November 2015
On Sunday the 12th December I’m playing in a charity concert in Edinburgh in aid of Syrian refugees (UNHCR): Mozart piano concerto K414 with some wonderful local musicians, conducted by Lionel Friend (the concert is the brainchild of his daughter, Clea). Also on the programme is Ryan Quigley, jazz trumpeter extraordinaire, playing Clifford Brown’s album ‘With Strings’. There will also be a silent auction, for which bidding is already open - there are two paintings to bid on and a house concert by myself (at your house, anywhere in central Scotland, piano quality no object; just not electric!). Hope to see you there! Entry by donation.
Concert details here: http://heyevent.uk/event/pivo2euysm3e4a/concert-for-syrian-refugees
Auction details here: https://www.facebook.com/artandmusicforsyrianrefugees/?pnref=story
Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time14 August 2014
Here's an article I wrote for the Guardian on this amazing piece: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/aug/07/olivier-messiaen-steven-osborne-beyond-time-and-space
My interest in Olivier Messiaen's music started in my teens, when I heard a couple of his Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus. I was intrigued, but by no means bowled over. Still, I liked it enough to ask my mum to buy me the score, and thereafter found myself increasingly captivated by its remarkable musical language. In particular, I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of deep calm and great complexity. I have always been drawn to music with large contrasts. When I play, my default position is to reach for the extremes, to seek the greatest possible emotional range. It is rare that I find a piano I can play both as loud and as soft as I want. It feels slightly juvenile, to be honest: the desire to go from a tiny whisper to banging the drum as loud as I possibly can. But there we are – those are my raw instincts, and Messiaen lets me give full rein to them.
The Quartet for the End of Time is perhaps the first of Messiaen's works in which the contrast between movements becomes truly extreme: there is a new level of violence in the music. It is not hard to imagine why this might be, given the work's famous origins, written while Messiaen was a prisoner of war at the Nazis' Stalag VIII-A camp. The struggle to not only endure the terrible conditions, but also to incorporate the experience into his Catholic faith, must have been profound. (Henri Akoka, the clarinettist for the premiere of the quartet, asked Messiaen to join him in attempting to escape; Messiaen answered: "No, it's God's will I am here.") The result is a work more emotionally engaged than any Messiaen had written previously. To me, it is the most open and vulnerable of all his compositions, its religious certainties balanced with a palpable sense of longing.
The piece is so deeply involving to hear that one can miss how odd it is. The unusual combination of piano, clarinet, violin and cello, reflecting the players he had available to him at the camp, is only a part of it. Of its eight movements, only half involve all four players: one is a solo, two are duets, and one is a trio. Even stranger, the clarinet and cello are silent for the last 10 minutes of the piece. In fact, each musician has to sit still for this long once or twice, which can make the experience of performance feel rather disjointed. This reflects a curious and disparate genesis: the duo movements are reworkings of previous compositions; the solo clarinet movement was written as a gift for Akoka as they travelled together under German guard; the trio was written for friends in captivity before the concept of writing a quartet had even entered Messiaen's mind. Only the remaining four movements were written with the quartet in mind.
So how does Messiaen hold all this together? Personally, I think the lack of a unifying inspiration has left its traces; in particular, the trio movement has always struck me as sounding slightly out of place, a bit too jocular for what surrounds it without having a clear emotional function in the broader structure (do we really need light relief in this piece? I don't think so). But that is a small point compared to the majestic shape of the whole, which rests on the interplay between complexity and simplicity.
In the four movements that involve all the players, Messiaen experiments with subverting the idea of linear time – using palindromic rhythms, disturbing the sense of regular metre by adding or subtracting small note values, overlaying different-lengthed ostinati thereby creating in a few bars a process that would take several days to return to its starting point, and quoting birdsong, which seems to exist in its own realm without need of cause or effect. Contrastingly, the emotional heart of the work comes in the two duet movements for violin and cello with piano accompaniment, the cello movement occurring at roughly the midpoint, the violin at the end.
They are clearly intended to be heard as related – in fact, the original title of the final movement was Sécond Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus, referring back to the cello's Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus. These movements play with time in a different way – they are broad melodies in E major gradually unfolding within an exceptionally slow pulse. This comes to the core of Messiaen's work: the faith that motivated him to write music of such humble, heartfelt sincerity as to risk seeming naive. A fool for God, perhaps. As a metaphor for eternity, extreme slowness might seem suspect. Why should eternity be slow any more than fast? The mind recoils. And yet these melodies, so far outside of normal musical time, can truly sound otherworldly.
To play as slowly as written, performers need a great deal of trust in the music: it is easy to doubt it can sustain itself over such a vast span. One has to fundamentally alter one's sense of pulse, to pass over the individual notes and follow a broader beat that is so slow as to feel almost unbearable. It is a bit like walking in super-slow motion. In fact, it is so slow that it can be a challenge just to count to eight. But the rewards for engaging with this radical rhythmic space are profound: the music seems to touch the far edges of human experience, and yet its core too, like the gaze between a baby and its mother.
There are few pieces that offer the possibility of such transfiguration, and that it should have emerged from such horrific beginnings seems little short of miraculous. It offers a stark juxtaposition between the destructive and creative potentials of humanity, a struggle we all embody to some degree. Do we seek to transform whatever forms of violence we experience into something creative and relational, or do we spit them out and perpetuate the cycle? Perhaps Messiaen's solution was an attempt to avoid the reality of his situation, an escape into his artistic and religious worlds, but it has left us an enduring and improbable masterpiece.
A change of pace - charity abseil27 May 2014
I've always been rather scared of heights and when I saw an advert for abseiling off the Forth Road Bridge in aid of Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland, something clicked in my mind and I realised I was sorely tempted. I kept trying to put it out of my mind, but finally I signed up and immediately felt sick! My wife Jeannie is going to do it with me, and we went for a 'trial run' at a local outdoor climbing centre which helped calm the nerves. If you want to sponsor either of us (in which case, thanks a lot!) here are the links.
NEWS: STEVEN OSBORNE INDUCTED INTO THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF EDINBURGH20 May 2014
The power of dreams27 November 2013
Last night I dreamed that I was furiously improvising with tone clusters, up and down the piano, a great wall of sound going on and on. When I woke up this morning my fingers were sore! I had to plaster up three of them...
NEWS: STEVEN OSBORNE WINS GRAMOPHONE INSTRUMENTAL AWARD FOR MUSSORGSKY/PROKOFIEV DISC31 August 2013
Messiaen-Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus30 May 2013
Very unusually for me, I'm struggling to sleep after a concert, Messiaen's 'Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. After 2 hours in the dark with my thoughts I decided writing this might be a better use of the time, and maybe a better way of getting to sleep too. Strangely enough, the last time this happened (many years ago after a Wigmore Hall recital), the music which provoked it was also religious in nature - a selection of Liszt's 'Harmonies poétiques et religieuses', ending with 'Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude'. I remember a feeling of the deepest calm as that piece ended which in a way I don't understand left me with a profound alertness which lasted far into the night.
Today was the last in a short tour of the Messiaen, and what an experience it has been. I've loved this work ever since I first learned a few of the pieces as a student, but as I return to it over the years I find myself increasingly amazed. It takes over two hours to play (I prefer no interval, which I find greatly deepens the audience's concentration), and yet it has a tremendously satisfying sense of structure. It comprises 20 pieces which are contemplations of the child Jesus from various perspectives, including the Father, the spirit of joy, the virgin, the cross, silence, time…. The abstraction of these last two immediately give a hint of Messiaen's unusual theological bent, but his faith was deeply felt and a prime motivating force for his music. One thing very important in the piece is a certain naivety: very few composers in 1944 would have risked writing music as simple as the theme of God, an extremely slow chorale in F# major which opens the work and returns every few movements to act as a binding agent. Yet alongside this is music of staggering physical and intellectual complexity. As an example, Messiaen depicts the creation of the world (Par lui tout a été fait) by means of all kinds of fugal construction techniques. After the movement reaches a certain point, it starts running back on itself, like time reversing; it's a stimulating though ambiguous metaphor. When the palindrome is complete, the music moves into a passage which develops incrementally from the gentlest beginning to a blazing statement of the theme of God. It's an amazing shape.
I sometimes think it may be a bit juvenile, but I've always loved extremes in music - playing as loud and as quiet as possible - and the Vingt Regards is perhaps as extreme as piano music gets. It may be that it is again the contemplative moments which have left me wide awake. There are several movements of profound calm in the work, but one particularly stands out to me for its beauty and audacity: the penultimate movement, Je dors mais mon coeur veille (I sleep but my heart keeps watch). Here the theme of God is distilled into literally the chord of F# major, slowly elaborated in the upper registers of the piano. When I first looked at this movement, I couldn't imagine how it could possibly work in performance - there seemed to be far too little substance there (it takes almost 2 minutes to leave that F# major chord!). And yet, it turns out to be one of the most remarkable inspirations in the entire work; music of the most transcendental beauty.
For Messiaen, the greatest music in the world was birdsong, a symbol of divine joy. So maybe it's fitting, as I finish writing this now, that the birds are starting to sing.
NEWS: STEVEN OSBORNE WINS THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC SOCIETY INSTRUMENTAL AWARD19 May 2013
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