The power of dreams
27 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...
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31 August 2013

Congratulations. Particularly enjoyed the "Pictures". All the best. Peter
Posted by Peter D Cooper on 11 November 2013

Messiaen-Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus
30 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.
Your Wednesday night concert was one of the very best I have heard in nearly 40 years of concert going. I thought I knew the work well, but I heard it in a completely new way. I was not the only one of my friends who also had difficulty sleeping afterwards, and the music is still ringing in my head more than 2 days later! Thank you!
Posted by Nick Couldry on 01 June 2013
I wish merely to echo the comments of the other 3. A fantastic concert, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Do you have any plans to expand your Alkan repertoire, given the bicentenary of his birth this year ? Thanks again
Posted by St John Brown on 01 June 2013
St John, no more Alkan in the pipeline, I'm afraid.
Posted by Steven Osborne on 03 June 2013
How moving
Posted by Anne Judith on 18 March 2014
Steven it was incredibly enlightening, enriching. Luckily I managed some sleep but will be singing those haunting chords all day.
Posted by Emma Gibbins on 30 May 2013
A remarkable concert and life experience. Utterly spellbinding, transcendent, meaningful. To hear the complete suite of 20 made so much sense of the music, and allowed us (and you!) total immersion in Messiaen's vision and compositional skill. Congratulations on an extraordinary performance.
Posted by Frances Wilson on 30 May 2013

19 May 2013

More details here
The RPS award for Steven is very richly deserved.He has developed over the years in to a first class pianist whether as soloist in a recital,in a chamber ensemble or as soloist with an orchestra.
Posted by David Howitt on 04 June 2013
Congratulations Steven!
Posted by Stewart Gillan on 06 June 2013

Returning to the Tippett piano concerto
24 March 2013

Last Friday I played my first performance of the Tippett piano concerto in many years; it took place at the Barbican with the BBCSO and Alexander Vedernikov. I don't generally comment here on individual concerts but I feel this piece is so greatly neglected that it deserves mention. Ever since I was at university and studied Tippett's music with the marvellous musicologist Ian Kemp, I've felt like something of an evangelist for his music. The quality of feeling that Tippett creates in his best pieces is utterly his own, somehow combining otherworldliness with a Beethovenian earthiness. There are often things one has to forgive in his music; awful librettos in the operas, overreaching ambition (though not a bad fault, this), unidiomatic instrumental writing, passages where he seems to lose the direct emotional connection with what he's writing. And yet, in the midst of this is some of the greatest, most purely felt music of the later 20th century. For me the piano concerto is one of his best works, and I remain perplexed that it is so seldom programmed. The explanation is probably partly economics - it's not possible to prepare this concerto with an orchestra in only one rehearsal because it's very complex. But it's a remarkable work, full of deep feeling, contemplation, struggle, joy and much else besides. The BBCSO and Vedernikov took the piece very seriously, and I was delighted with the result. Vedernikov is something special, I think, a conductor who has been a little under the radar but hopefully is starting to emerge more into the limelight. Certainly his performance of Shostakovich 8 in the same concert was rather astonishing for the coherence he managed to create out of this sprawling hour-long work. He doesn't resort to superficial tricks, but rather trusts the music to unfold in its own time. His ability to adapt to Tippett's very particular idiom was very impressive. And, perhaps the greatest compliment of all, every one of the orchestral musicians I talked to sang his praises.
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The Tarring and Feathering of David Jones
16 February 2013

There was a striking story in the news yesterday: David Jones, the UK Welsh Minister was reported as saying that gay couples "clearly" cannot provide a "warm and safe environment" in which to raise children. The fuller quote from the minister is this: "I regard marriage as an institution that has developed over many centuries, essentially for the provision of a warm and safe environment for the upbringing of children, which is clearly something that two same-sex partners can't do." So, on the face of it, it's a pretty offensive statement. Jones issued a statement of clarification which included this: "I simply sought to point out that, since same-sex partners could not biologically procreate children, the institution of marriage was one that, in my opinion, should be reserved to opposite-sex partners." He also explicitly rejected the notion he was against gay adoption.

So, I'd have thought the debate would be about the meaning of his original statement. Was his clarification a smokescreen to hide offensive views, or did he just express his views poorly? Instead, reports on the matter were a free-for-all with various public figures expressing their disgust for Jones' original words; the articles betrayed no apparent journalistic interest in what he actually meant. His clarification generally came halfway down the articles. At least the Independent noted, "Mr Jones told The Independent that he did believe that gay couples could bring up children in a warm and safe environment and that his remarks had been taken out of context".

I think all this is symptomatic of something rather serious: the constant scapegoating of people by the news media. We're fed a steady stream of figures to be outraged by, to feel better than, disguised as current affairs. But this story gives the lie to it: I've not seen a single article on the subject which starts with the central issue: what did Jones mean by his original words? The reason seems obvious: it's great copy to talk about people's outrage, and you can't really do that if you've shown that their outrage might be misplaced. The articles give the impression of being impartial, but the avoidance of examining what Jones actually meant suggests they are essentially cynical, offering him up for public humiliation over an offence which the journalists well know may be very trivial. The attitude seems to be, "We don't care if we needlessly destroy a politician's career as long as we get two days of good headlines out of it." The casual cruelty of it is surely rather shocking, or would be if it wasn't so commonplace in our media. Is this really how we want our politicians to be treated?

As for David Jones, his original words seem to be very clear, but I doubt he meant what they appear to say, and not just because he explicitly repudiates that meaning. He says marriage is to provide "a warm and safe environment for the upbringing of children, which is clearly something that two same-sex partners can't do". Why "clearly"? Why should it be clear that gay couples can't provide a safe environment for children? It's a non-sequitur. I think it's more likely he meant it's clear gay couples can't biologically have children together, but in the heat of the moment missed out a few crucial words. Let's assume he meant what the words appear to say - he'd be essentially saying, "gay people are evil". How likely is it that a government minister would express such a sentiment?
It is quite daring to wade into this particular debate and yet you do so with considerable thoughtfulness and consideration. You could apply the same question about what was really meant by the speaker, as opposed to what the journalists perceived or wanted to see, to the arguments that have arisen from Hilary Mantel's comments on the Duchess of Cambridge. In this latter case one could be forgiven for thinking that Ms Mantel is too too bright not to have realised she would stir things up. Mr Jones, on the other hand, is a politician and should be aware that what he says may be reported, that whatever is reported will be reduced in quality as well as quantity to suit the medium reporting him and that he should take care how he says something to ensure he says not only what he means and but something he can stand by if challenged. It would also help if those, who make comments on these difficult issues and who are privileged to be in positions where they can be expected to have a ready audience, would try to stick to comments that can be supported by evidence. At least you, Mr Osborne, have tried to discuss the evidence that allows us to dispute what Mr Jones MP seems to have said. Had he considered that before he spoke, he would not have drawn such ire. But perhaps I expect too much from those less used to sifting evidence before they pass comments. Your final question, when applied generally to what government ministers may or may not express, begs an answer: history suggests that they are human and, so, flawed just like the rest of us and some will express fairly dubious thoughts.
Posted by Dr Alan Rodger on 20 February 2013
" the heat of the moment missed out a few crucial words." I can't see that it is a matter of missing out a few crucial words. In any case, people in major public positions have a responsibility to find the words to say what they have in mind.
Posted by Paul Brownsey on 25 May 2013
Paul, I start from the position of thinking what is most likely. His words clearly seem to say one thing, but I think it so unlikely a politician would willingly admit to such a sentiment that I reckon he probably didn't mean it as it came out. My real point is the cynicism of the media.
Posted by Steven Osborne on 25 May 2013
Alan, I'm sorry I missed your comment. I think there's a big difference between a scripted speech and an unscripted interview; depending on one's speaking ability, it can be easy to get in a verbal tangle. Should it be a requirement that a politician be eloquent in expressing themselves? While a great help, I don't think it's the most important quality. As to your past point, yes sometimes people let slip dubious thoughts and while that might be the case here, somehow I doubt it; that he said 'obviously' suggests to me he's thinking of something self-evident. The biology is self-evident; the question of nurturing ability isn't.
Posted by Steven Osborne on 25 May 2013

Charles Rosen 1927-2012
28 December 2012

The news of Charles Rosen's death earlier in the month took me back to my college days, when I was fortunate enough to play for him a number of times. I'll never forget the first time I met him: we were sitting waiting together in an RNCM admin office for some reason, and for twenty minutes I was subject to an unending monologue about music, cookery, architecture and I forget what else. I was almost immediately lost, but fascinated by a mind more agile than any I'd ever encountered. In a later meeting, when I tried to 'join in', my thoughts were immediately refuted by such a stream of erudition that I felt overwhelmed. This was a fairly common experience. One just did one's best to follow the stream of piercing insights. It seemed impossible to have a real dialogue with Charles, but beneath the apparent certainty was real curiosity, and on rare occasions he would return to a comment of mine he had seemingly dismissed, having clearly thought about it.

His teaching style by contrast was undemonstrative and generous. He imposed rather little of himself, and didn't seem to feel the need to get people to play the way he did. His observations were generally to do with the musical text or structure, and often got to the heart of some problem or other. He once told me, with the touch of hyperbole typical of many of his statements, that the only thing a teacher could teach a pupil was how to practise. A bit extreme, perhaps, but the more I teach the truer it seems.

However, the memory which overwhelms all others is a performance he gave in Manchester of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata. It was shockingly invigorating, utterly uncompromising, and brought out all the strangeness of the piece and the extremes of its structure without in any way being self-conscious or self-serving. For me, it was like hearing Beethoven play. I'll never forget it.

It was a great privilege to know him. I'll leave you with a quote typical of his mental agility and humour. In it, he's talking about a passage in the last movement of Beethoven's piano sonata op.111 in which a slow melody goes so high up the keyboard that the pianos of Beethoven's time haven't the slightest chance of sustaining the sound.

"More than any other composer before him, Beethoven understood the pathos of the gap between idea and realisation, and the sense of strain put on the listener's imagination is essential here. The best argument for using the pianos of Beethoven's time in place of the modern grand piano is not the aptness of the old instruments but their greater inadequacy for realising such an effect, and consequently the more dramatic effort required of the listener. The modern piano, however, is sufficiently inadequate to convey Beethoven's intentions."
This is a great remembrance. It makes me curious to hear the late Beethoven sonatas on a period instrument. I will also never forget my introduction to Messiaen after listing to you play the 20 Regards at UConn. Thank you.
Posted by Ben Fuller on 10 March 2013

30 October 2012

I'm sitting in a café waiting to hear my one and only student (Mohamed Shams) give his debut with the RSNO playing Rhapsody in Blue. For a while I've had a good association with the Royal Conservatoire Scotland, giving a masterclass every term, but over a year ago I became curious what it would be like to teach more regularly. So I approached Aaron Shorr, the head of keyboard, with a view to taking on a single student (my frequent absences made me reluctant to take on more). In fact, it has been intensely rewarding, and challenging in a really good way.

The issues surrounding teaching force one to engage with music more broadly. It's not enough for the teacher to feel the music strongly - you have to engage with someone who might feel it in a totally different way. Do you let them go their own way, playing in a way you feel unconvinced by, do you try to push them towards your own ideas, or do you find a way to encourage them to strengthen their own ideas? Of course, teaching is partly about practicalities - technical questions of how the fingers work, how to create different kinds of sound, and also the practicalities of interpretation, how one gesture leads to another, how to create a sense of structure - but for me the central question is how to encourage someone to find in themselves an intensity of engagement with the music. Otherwise, what is the teaching for? To get them to play like you? I feel this temptation: when one has a strong vision of the music, it can feel like 'the truth'. And indeed, there must be some place in teaching for leading a student in the specifics of interpretation, showing them possible solutions to interpretative difficulties. But the student's individuality also has to be respected and nurtured. If they play like me, it will sound false; they have to find their own voice. So, there must be an open space where the answers are not yet clear, where the student is confronted with their own indecision. Every time I learn a new piece I find myself in this place, struggling to find my way towards a sense of deep conviction about the music. It's so much more rewarding than being spoon-fed the answers, which is why I very rarely listen to recordings of pieces I'm learning. I feel it's the job of the teacher to show their students what this place of indecision is like, to encourage them to go deeply into it, and to trust that they can find their own answers. I'm sure this is harder with some students than others, but as I sat in rehearsal this morning listening to Mohamed playing Rhapsody in Blue, alongside my own suggestions I heard things I had never imagined in the piece, beautiful things. For me, those are the most rewarding bits of all.
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