Steven Osborne

Ravel: The Complete Solo Piano Music

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It is tempting to overlook the other works on pianist Steven Osborne's album in order to bestow ecstatic praise on La valse, but that would be like skipping the various courses of a feast and heading straight for dessert. Osborne shows off his gift for and love of the great French composer's work in this complete set of pieces written for solo piano. In the enjoyable Miroirs, "Noctuelles" is blooming and rapid in Osborne's lovely interpretation, and "Alborado del gracioso" is stunning for its phrasing and perfect rhythm, even when Osborne restrikes the same key at a rapid-fire pace. Unfortunately, both CDs, especially the first, suffer from a weak recording quality that renders the softest passages inaudible. Sometimes, Osborne's slower or piano dynamic passages are ever so slightly static. The second CD is possibly more interesting than the first, as the compositions are more varied and Osborne's athletic playing and fiery passion are more evident here. In Le tombeau de Couperin it is a delight to hear each beautiful trill rolling off his fingers in "Forlane" (which has foreshadowings of La valse), the lively contrasts in the famous "Rigaudon," or the feeling and complexity of the "Toccata." Ravel's famed tone color is brought to life in "Jeux d'eau," and a grand, balletic sweep can be relished in the brief "À la manière de Borodin." When Osborne plays full out, it is truly magnificent. Valses nobles et sentimentales whet the listener's appetite for the main waltz to come. One can hear the antecedents to La valse, such as in "Modéré--Très franc," which moves with ease and a music box-like inner motion (without which the piece would fall apart); "Assez animé," which sends the listener into rapture; and the grand crescendo of "Moins vif" that is played with such vigor that Osborne must be using his whole body and soul. One wonders why La valse was not programmed after Valses nobles et sentimentales, to save the best for last. The piece threatens to send the listener into ecstasy. The menacing low notes and rubato in the beginning show Osborne's tremendous control of tension in the line. The rich music is very difficult to play, yet Osborne has a superb sense of musicality. He fleshes out Ravel's orchestration, and he knows how to create maximum drama through dynamics and pedaling. The crescendo-allargando is astounding, as is the ending accelerando, which is frenetic by degrees; the pianist's urgency is palpable.

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