06 April 2009

I have had a few confused enquiries in recent months about what I wear in my ears when I perform. The answer: earplugs. This probably seems a bit absurd - why would I want to block out the sound I'm creating? Well, there are many reasons. It originally started when I developed mild tinnitus after practising for several years on a piano which was too large for my practice room. Of course, this was a rather disturbing experience, and I rushed off to an audiologist who found minor hearing loss in one of my ears and recommended I wear custom-made earplugs whenever I practise. So I bought some Etymotic musicians earplugs which reduce the sound by about 15Db (which means you still hear everything, just a bit quieter), and was rather surprised to discover that practising with them lent three significant advantages. Firstly, the sound coming back at you is much less overwhelming. This is important because a grand piano can create an enormous amount of noise in a small room and, much in the way that someone shouting in your ear causes you to recoil, this can create a lot of tension in your body. I wasn't even aware of this until I started using earplugs, when I discovered that my body was quickly relaxing due to the reduced volume. Secondly, you play as if you are in a much bigger room - it is a very common difficulty with students to convince them to play loudly enough to project in a big hall because it feels very unnatural. Something written mp may well have to be played mf or even f to convey the effect. Earplugs instantly transport you into a larger aural space, so to speak.The third advantage was maybe more personal - I found that I became more detached from the music that I was working on. This might sound like a disadvantage, but for me it is easy to be seduced by the sensual nature of sound, to get carried away by the music and waste time simply playing through pieces rather than focussing clearly on what work needs to be done. So my practice became much more efficient as a direct result of wearing earplugs.

I told my good friend Alban Gerhardt about this who, being the open-minded soul that he is, immediately tried out some earplugs and loved the experience. Very soon he was telling me he was enjoying using them for concerts too. I had done this once before and found the experience very disconcerting, but on his recommendation I tried again. At first I felt very insecure because wearing earplugs meant I got no feedback from the acoustic - was I too loud or too quiet? But after a couple of concerts I realised that it was actually just as easy to judge how loud to play with or without earplugs from simply observing the size of the hall and trying the piano for a few seconds au naturel (do not misunderstand what I mean here). It is possible to misjudge this, of course, but then it's possible without earplugs as well.

So what are the advantages of performing with earplugs? Essentially, it is a question of focus - I find with earplugs I am less distracted by audience noise and problems with the piano. The first never bothered me much anyway, but the second can be very irritating - when certain notes are a bit louder or softer than the others, it can really disturb one's concentration. Some pianists would probably say that this is a terrible reason to wear earplugs, like burying your head in the sand, but my belief is that these piano quirks seem much more significant to the performer than the audience, and that by wearing earplugs I actually hear much more realistically what the audience hears. But this is incidental: the real point is that performing for me is about achieving a state of unselfconsciousness in which I can react very spontaneously to the emotion of the music. For this, earplugs are very helpful.

As it happens, musicians wearing earplugs is becoming something of an issue for european orchestras. The EU is investigating how much noise orchestral musicians are subjected to with the possibility that earplugs will be compulsory in some settings. I think this would be a great shame - the experience of playing wind instruments, for example, can be fundamentally altered by earplugs (even the intonation can sound different), so coercion seems an unfortunate way of solving the problem. Nevertheless, one can easily damage one's hearing without realising, and it certainly must be a good thing for orchestral musicians to understand exactly what is going into their ears. Jeannie told me that one time when she was sitting directly in front of a trumpeter, it felt like someone was slapping her in the back of the head.

One thing I feel rather strongly about is that music colleges should give out earplugs as a matter of course. I suspect some students would find their work improves if they use them because many practise rooms in British music colleges, and probably elsewhere, are too small for the purpose; you simply can't hear properly what's going on when you play loudly.
Steven, I heard you discussing earplugs on BBC Radio 3 In Tune. This has been a revelation to me. I'm off to buy some! I too suffer from tinnitus, after half a lifetime of playing both classical and rock music. I was in the front row at the National Opera Studio a few weeks ago. The volume of sound a trained opera singer can produce is definitely bordering on the ear damaging. Many thanks.
Posted by Chris Newport on 28 April 2009

A mammoth trip
30 March 2009

A couple of weeks ago I got back home for the first time in 5 weeks, to be greeted, of course, by a mound of post as well as all the emails I hadn't got around to dealing with while I was away. I'm only now through this backlog and able to give you an update on what has been happening.

After Iceland I went on to play at the opening of the Melbourne Recital Hall which turns out to be a wonderful place: beautifully designed, excellent acoustics, and 2 great pianos. Piers Lane chose them, and as I was talking to him about it I remembered the one time I chose a piano for a hall - the Horsecross in Perth. That is really a tough job because pianos sound completely different in a small-ish factory room compared to a hall. I learned this to my cost the first time I had to choose a piano for a recording - I went to Steinways and picked out a wonderful, colourful, ballsy instrument which in the recording venue turned out to be much less powerful than I expected. So three days of very hard work followed.

It was a strange experience to play in Melbourne during the recent fires; it was clear people were preoccupied and it makes you question the value of what you are doing. On September 11th 2001 I was due to give a house concert for some friends in London and after seeing these incredibly surreal images on television of planes flying into skyscrapers I really had to ask myself if it was possible to play, and for people to listen. In the end, we decided to continue with the concert and I think it a decision which everyone thought in retrospect was the right one: it turned out to be a very joyful shared experience, in spite of, or maybe even because of the context.

There followed a week in Japan with the NHK symphony, a wonderfully disciplined orchestra. Japan is one of the few places in the world left where you really struggle to get by without speaking their language. That doesn't particularly bother me - I actually quite enjoy the challenge of making myself understood - but I had a salutory experience going to a restaurant without menu where you just order from all the ingredients laid out in front of you. The food was rather good, and before the bill came the waiter showed me their photo album of previous diners - Sting, Britney Spears, Daniel Craig, Christina Aguilera, Brad Pitt etc. etc. I got a bit worried at this point. The bill ended up being just over £100. Still, I heard about someone who went to a hostess bar in the same area, had a few drinks with one of the hostesses, and ended up with a bill for £1000, so maybe I got off lightly.

The final concert of the trip was in Singapore, an old friend of an orchestra which a few years ago happily (for me!) gave up its associate principal clarinet to be my wife. I met up with Jeannie there because she had a concert herself, and then we went on to have a brief holiday in Cambodia and Thailand. I have to say that Cambodia is one of the most extraordinary places I've ever been to. Most famous is the 12th century temple of Angkor Wat which is astonishing, utterly ancient and even alien (and strangely reminiscent of Gaudi, I thought). Hardly less impressive are many other temples scattered around the Siem Reap area. It is impossible to be unaware of the great poverty there and on a trip to the 'floating village' (exactly what it sounds like), we were taken to a shop where you can buy items for the local school at outrageous prices, even by western standards. You then get taken to the school where you hand the items out to the children. I found this a very morally dubious enterprise: the shopkeeper is cheating the children out of the extra supplies they would receive if a fair price was charged, and us tourists are made to feel like heroes handing out measly packets of nuts or pencils to the kids when the main thing we're doing is interrupting their education. Still, it was actually a very valuable experience - to give something directly to people who have so little makes it much harder to ignore the fact that they are the same as you. It is very difficult to take in the reality of economic inequalities around the world, I think, and that experience forced me think about these things in a new way.
I went to your Messiaen concert in Melbourne and thoroughly enjoyed it. It felt really appropriate to hear/see Messiaen's music performed in a hall that looks like the inside of a tree. I certainly didn't have to think twice about booking my tickets when I heard you were coming back to Melbourne to do the Vingt Regards. The fires were the last thing on my mind when I was listening, so in that sense I believe what you were doing was absolutely valuable. Something puzzled me, though - during the concert you had something shiny tucked inside your ear. Was it some sort of microphone?
Posted by Jeff, Melbourne on 01 April 2009
Hi Jeff, I was wearing earplugs which I always use for concerts. Long story, but I'm going to write a blog entry about it in the next couple of days.
Posted by Steven Osborne on 02 April 2009

St. George's Hall, Liverpool
30 March 2009

This is just a brief entry to comment on what a fabulous hall this is. Renovated for the European Capital of Culture last year, it is now without doubt one of the finest recital halls in the country. I played a recital there two weeks ago and was immediately smitten.
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07 February 2009

I just got back to the UK from Iceland, where I was playing Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Rumon Gamba. This trip really brought me to a state of high excitement, more so than any country I've visited for years. It's hard to say exactly why, but it has something to do with barren places - I find them very fascinating and somehow nourishing. To be in the middle of a wilderness with very little to look at is one of my very favourite places to be. I think it must be partly that the lack of visual stimulation is a very calming thing; maybe also that one's significance (or lack thereof) comes into sharper focus when confronted with such a landscape. Why is feeling insignificant desirable? To me it cuts to the core of what it is to be human - to learn the truth about yourself that you are merely one of countless millions, that you are not worth any more than anyone else, this is a terrible, perhaps unbearable assault on one's pride. Maybe this is particularly true for performers, for whom each concert is a confirmation that we are indeed special - we have all of these people clapping and cheering for only us, it must be true! I believe this is one of the great pitfalls for any performer - the danger of thinking one is special. I think it is the antithesis of what music should be about: a performer sharing his feelings and implicitly saying, 'This is what it is to be human, this is what we share'. But to try and maintain, or even reach this state is a constant battle, for me at least. One of the greatest performances I ever heard was Mario Joao Pires playing the Schumann concerto at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago. It was a performance that was far from perfect and rather underpowered, but what shone through was a profound humility, and that touched me in a way that I had only experienced listening to Clara Haskil's recordings. I went to meet her after to tell her how deeply touched I had been by her playing and she seemed genuinely surprised and grateful that someone would enjoy her playing.

Somehow I have drifted far from Iceland! Suffice to say, the trip lived up to all my expectations. I found the people marvellous - thinking, positive, down-to-earth. Before the Messiaen, the concert began with a premiere of Þuríður Jónsdóttir's flute concerto, played by Mario Caroli. I have to say, I loved this, both for the tremendous performance and for the rather beautiful piece which seemed entirely it's own thing; unpretentious, with wonderful colours and a very savvy structural sense. Both conductor and orchestra were doing the Messiaen for the first time and I was extremely impressed. They have been nominated for a Grammy this year, by the way. In the end, though, the highlight was a night trip to one of the hot springs in the middle of nowhere. Swimming in 38 degree water with the air temperature minus 11, under the moon and stars, this was something unforgettable.
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23 January 2009

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Working with Dietrich Henschel
16 January 2009

Last Tuesday I performed Schwanengesang with Dietrich Henschel at the Wigmore Hall. This was the first of a series of concerts with music from the end of Schubert's life, the others comprising the piano trios, the last 3 sonatas, and the late piano duets (these will happen in the next couple of years). It's the first time I've 'headhunted' a musician to work with: when I decided on this project I didn't know who the singer would be. In the process of listening to many CDs, Henschel stood out for me as a musician with a sensibility I felt I could strongly relate to - his focus seemed to be very much about musical line and structure, and I also liked his willingness to take his voice to extremes. I'm very opinionated about other musicians - I think it's maybe unavoidable when one is passionate about making music - and one thing that often puts me off singers is an over-preoccupation with beauty of sound. To me it's clear that music often is not beautiful. I remember once rehearsing the Poulenc Sextet and asking the oboe player to play a particular note with a really ugly sound - it seemed to me the right effect. But it was almost a physical impossibility for him to do this, so strong was his mindset (and presumably training) about 'always making a beautiful sound'. To me this is a great shame because it severely limits what you can communicate.

To cut a long story short, I am very excited by this collaboration. We sadly only had one concert together; it would have been nice to do the programme a few times and get really comfortable performing together. But regardless of this, the process of rehearsing was so absorbing for both of us that I strongly suspect we will be performing together for years to come. He is a musician whose approach to music I profoundly respect and I have the sense there is a lot we can learn from each other.
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Rachmaninov preludes recording
09 January 2009

Back in August I recorded the complete Rachmaninov preludes and it was quite an amazing experience: I've never felt so free and uninhibited in a recording session. Strangely (or maybe not?) I was quite depressed the night after the final day of recording - I felt so strongly how much expressive possibility there is in this music and how impossible it is to really capture that on record. You have to choose between many wonderful options - if only you could have them all at once! So for the first time I saw an inherent sadness in recording: there is so much I want to say with these pieces and some of those things can't coexist in the same performance. To put it rather melodramatically, it's like having to choose which of your children you keep. Maybe if I had children I wouldn't dare to make such a connection, but I think it's common for musicians to have such a strong connection to music that it really feels a part of them, and so to reject some aspect of the music can feel like a betrayal.

All the editing is done now, and I'm relatively happy with the results. I can't ask for more: when I hear one of my CDs for the first time I always hope to be overwhelmed by the music as I was when I played it, but I think this really is impossible. I listen too analytically, and too aware of the possibilities in the music that I missed. Maybe some day I'll be able to listen as if it's someone else playing; then it would probably be much easier to be objective.

Here are the liner notes which I wrote for the CD. It comes out in May.

"Recently as I was exploring a book shop I saw the banner 'Tragic Life Stories' over an entire wall of books. I laughed, but I could have cried, and not in the way the authors presumably hope. What a bizarre phenomenon this is, the sudden emergence of a genre of writing which apparently delights in describing personal misery at its most heart-breaking.

"Why do I mention this? Well, I adore Rachmaninov's music - there are few composers who speak to me more directly. Yet I know a number of musicians, including some whose opinion I greatly respect, who think his music shallow, even cheap. I have a suspicion that for some of them, the music is a bit like one of these stories - not so much emotionally explicit as manipulative, calculated to draw the maximum sympathy from a credulous audience. (At least, this is what appears to underlie the famous entry in the 1954 Grove Dictionary which laments Rachmaninov's 'artifical and gushing tunes'.) It may be a tempting response to a composer whose music fit seamlessly into the classic film Brief Encounter, but the charge doesn't really stand up to scrutiny: listening to Rachmaninov's piano playing, one hears a clarity and emotional discretion which is the very antithesis of such sensationalism.

"I cannot dismiss all 'Rachmaninophobics' so easily, and there is an issue here which interest me: what does it mean for music to have depth? Compare Rachmaninov's music to Schubert's, and it seems to me clear that the latter contains much greater complexity of emotion. Schubert's late works in particular blend innocence, violence, sublime playfulness, humility, dread, and innumerable other emotions in the most potent fashion; as a result, there are very many ways of understanding his music depending on how one balances these conflicting elements. With Rachmaninov there is one element which dominates: a sense of melancholy to which his music returns again and again. Correspondingly, there is less ambiguity to the music. Does this make it less deep, less meaningful? I think the better response is to say it is less complex, because Rachmaninov expresses more profoundly than almost anyone else what it means to feel hopeless, to long for what is unattainable; the depth of feeling is, to me at least, unquestionable. This helps me make sense of the antipathy some have towards Rachmaninov's music. The more ambiguous a piece of music is, the more likely we will find personal meaning in it. If, however, we are directly confronted with a rather depressive musical world, it is understandable that some will find that threatening, self-indulgent, or else simply uninteresting.

"I am overstating the case to make my point. Rachmaninov's music can contain a wonderful variety of mood, as these preludes clearly show. Still, it is worth asking how many pieces here reflect a truly positive, outgoing frame of mind. Even the most sunny and ebullient, those in Bb, C, E and Ab major, all have their moments of inwardness, the last three of these ending with a kind of retreat into privacy. I think this is a telling instinct in music which is otherwise so open, suggesting that the pull of introversion was difficult for Rachmaninov to overcome.

"Tragic Life Stories notwithstanding, it is possible to write an account of a difficult life which transcends the details of abuse or neglect (as Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes triumphantly shows). I think there is a real sense in which Rachmaninov's music tells us such a story. It may be dominated by the pain and sadness of his life but it expresses much else besides, and when we reach the astonishing climax of the final prelude, I find it impossible not to be deeply moved that a man like Rachmaninov was capable of creating such a rich and life-affirming gesture."

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A month of Messiaen
15 December 2008

For the past month I have played virtually nothing in concert except Messiaen - the Quartet for the End of Time in various places, Turangalila Symphony in Munich, and the Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus in London. Strange to say, given how physically demanding this music is, but for me it has been like a kind of holiday, because I find I need to give the music virutally no thought before playing it. Of course, it wasn't always like this, and certainly over the years I have thought a lot about these pieces, but compared to most other music there are very few interpretative decisions to make about Messiaen's music - once you decide on the speed and the basic mood much of it simply works itself out.

I do feel a particularly strong connection to this music. Sometimes I'm asked after playing the Vingt Regards whether I am religious. I used to be deeply religious (and even imagined I could have become a minister) but am no longer. The connection I feel is more to do with the great range of the music, from the deepest calm to the most enormous energy, even violence; I feel these extremes in myself.

So it has been a month of many satisfying concerts, with some wonderful colleagues: playing the quartet with Kari Kriikku, Viviane Hagner and one of my closest friends, Alban Gerhardt, and working with the marvellous Jun Maerkl and the Munich Philharmonic. But most satisfying of all was a performance at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday of the Vingt Regards, a mammoth work for solo piano which lasts over 2 hours without a break. Giving a concert is a bit like playing a slot machine - there are many elements which are out of your control, like the spinning reels, and you have to hope at least most of them land in your favour. On Saturday it felt like I hit the jackpot. The hall is of course marvellous, the piano had great range, colour and beauty, I felt absolutely relaxed, and the audience was unbelievably attentive and concentrated. I felt many things after this concert: principally, I felt like king of the world, I felt humbled by what the audience contributed by their attention, and I felt sad it had to end. It is a strange transition moving from such a rapt state of mind back to everyday life and it helps to have some company in the hours following a concert. So I went to a Turkish restaurant with my manager, Emma, a good friend from Hyperion records, Mike Spring, and a great Australian conductor (are there ANY unpleasant Australians, by the way?) Matt Coorey. We ordered 3 Healthy Meals to share. There was no option for an Unhealthy Meal.
Vingt Regards is a very special 'piece' for me, curse me for not keeping up with Wigmore's events diary properly! How I would love to have been there. I'm sure you know the cycle like the back of your hand, but I can't begin to imagine how emotionally and physically demanding it must be to play it all in one concert, bravo. I first heard you play about six years ago whilst studying music in Manchester and am just listening to your Kapustin recordings, hence googling and finding this fantastic site. I shall keep up with your blog.
Posted by Mat Smith on 20 December 2008
However good it was at Wigmore Hall I can't believe that it was any better than the performance of the Vingt Regards which you went on to do in the small hall at the Sage, Gateshead on Wednesday 17th December. As a Messiaen enthusiast, I have had a fantastic year and I thought that it might have peaked with St Francois in Amsterdam or the centenary concert at Royal Festival Hall with Boulez conducting. However, your performance was easily on a parr with those great events and touched me more personally than any of them. I also took threee seventeen year-olds to the recital and was worried that a 2 hour + piano cycle might not work for them. Quite the contrary, you held their attention for every note and they loved it. Your recording of the Vingt Regards is one of my most frequently played CD's, but I was able to get even more insights into this wonderful piece from hearing and seeing your live performance. For me, you particularly brought out the humour of some of the birdsong. Although I am not religious in the way that Messiaen was, the was quite the most spendid and spiritual preparation for Christmas which I could imagine. Many thanks. I hope to hear you again soon.
Posted by Frank Hinson on 23 December 2008

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  1. No 9 in A major – Rachmaninov preludes
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  7. III. Andante – Prokofiev Works for Violin and Piano
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