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Interview with Steven Osborne

img  Tobias

You're known to deeply appreciate Jazz and Improvisation ...
It’s an amazing feeling being in front of an audience, not knowing what comes next but being (mostly) confident you will find your way. The problem with playing classical pieces is that it‘s easy to lose a sense of spontaneity because you become so familiar with the music. Often this is really against the spirit of the piece - most great music is unpredictable in one way or another. So improvising is not only a fantastic experience by itself, it also helps to rediscover this sense of unpredictability in the classical repertoire.

After watching you live in Berlin, I was wondering whether your interest in chambermusic possibly stemmed from the fact that it creates a similar energy between the different musicians as a good improvisation?
There’s definitely a connection - to play chamber music well you need to trust your colleagues and be willing to follow their flights of fancy. It’s so much more fun when you all do things you didn’t rehearse - that makes the music much more alive.

Why do you think it is still so uncommon to integrate improvisatuons into a classical program?
Maybe because classical music education system until recently put up firm boundaries between classical and jazz/improvisation. That’s gradually changing, with improvisation increasingly becoming a part of college schedules. I suspect it will become more common for people to improvise in classical concerts as a result.

Another aspect of performing, related in a way to improvisation, is „taking risks“ on stage ...
Ideally, flawlessness is a concept which doesn't even enter one's mind while performing because it is (in my opinion) fundamentally opposed to the world of feeling; it's like the difference between a 2-dimensional and a 3-dimensional world. And the truth is that wrong notes are irrelevant to an audience unless they are many and very obvious. Yet it can be a battle to accept this! We work so hard in the practise room to get everything right.
But it's my suspicion that the truly greatest performances come out of unselfconsciousness, a state of being where wrong notes are irrelevant to the performer because the world of musical feeling is utterly dominant.

Despite your interest in the act of improvisation, you haven't as yet released an improvisational album yet. How come?

Improvisation is something I’m still finding my way with. To sustain a whole album of improvisation is quite a task - it needs a great deal of invention. The things I play at the moment tend to be quite short and I want to explore longer forms before thinking about doing a CD.

How do you decide on what you want to release?

I love working with Hyperion, because they all love music; they’re true enthusiasts. When it comes to a new album, it’s a simple process - I suggest something and they decide pretty much immediately whether they are interested. Sometimes they suggest things to me - the Alkan Esquisses and Britten works for piano and orchestra were both their suggestions.

Who came up with the idea for the two Messiaen-discs you did for the label?

That was me, but they were a bit sceptical until they heard me play the Vingt Regards in concert. After that they were happy to go ahead.

What is it you appreciate about Messiaen and his music?
It speaks to me very deeply; I think a lot of that is to do with the enormous extremes, from profoundest calm to great violence.
To me the music is very clear indeed. I think it’s amongst the simplest music to interpret because there aren’t many decisions to make - once you decide on the tempo and basic feel, many of the pieces just play themselves. Of course, that means that those few decisions become extremely important.

Would you say the religious dimension is making it easier or harder for you to perform his work?
That’s a difficult question. I’ve performed the work both as a Christian, many years ago, and more recently as a non-believer, and I can’t deny that these different perspectives change the meaning of the piece. There is the certainty of faith in his music, and it used to feel like a special thing to be able to express that faith so unambiguously in his music. When I stopped being a Christian I initially felt a loss in relation to Messiaen’s music, but now I love it more than ever. Inevitably, the meaning for me now is more human, reflecting the great conflicts of life and the capacity for stillness and acceptance. And of course, transcendental feelings are not limited to religion, as anyone who enjoys walking in the mountains knows. For me, Messiaen’s music expresses some of the real peaks of human experience.

„Visions de l'Amen“, as a work involving two Pianists, seems especially demanding ...
Actually, this piece is much easier than the Vingt Regards. It’s nice to share out the difficulties with someone else. Martin was a joy to work with. He’d played the piece many times before and we turned out to have a closely shared view of it, so the sessions were pretty trouble-free.

It could be seen as a long way from Messiaen to Beethoven – do you nonetheless see some connections between the two?
I really do actually. It’s something to do with the sense of certainty the music projects. There is perhaps a similar instinct for clear structures, but the nature of those structures is obviously very different.

By Tobias Fischer


Ravel (Musical Heritage Society)  2000
Mackenzie and Tovey Piano Concertos (Hyperion) 2000
Nikolai Kapustin Piano Music (Hyperion) 2000
Olivier Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (Hyperion) 2002
Alkan: Esquisses, Op 63 (Hyperion) 2003
Franz Liszt: Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (Hyperion) 2003
Olivier Messiaen: Visions de l'Amen (Hyperion) 2004
Debussy: The Complete Preludes (Hyperion) 2006
Shostakovich and Schnittke Cello Sonatas (Hyperion) 2006
Tippett: Complete Music for Piano (Hyperion) 2007
Britten: Complete works for Piano and Orchestra (Hyperion) 2008
Alkan and Chopin Cello Sonatas (Hyperion) 2008
Rachmaninov preludes (Hyperion) 2009

Steven Osborne

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