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How Prokofiev finally met his match in a Scottish pianist - and his physio

Scottish pianist Steven Osborne 
Scottish pianist Steven Osborne 

The Scottish pianist Steven Osborne has been recording for 20 years, and now seems to be at the height of his powers. I am prompted to this judgment by his meticulous, but passionate, new account of Prokofiev’s three War Sonatas (No 6 in A Major, Op 82; No 7 in B flat Major, Op 83; and No 8 in B flat major, Op 84) on Hyperion, the label that cleverly spotted him in 1998, when he was in his 20s. 

There are numerous recordings of these intense, dark, brilliant works, and I have long thought Boris Berman’s, for Chandos in the late Nineties, would be hard to beat. Well, Osborne has done so. He matches Berman’s faithfulness to the scores, in which Prokofiev left detailed instructions to the performer; but he adds something almost indiscernible in clarity and tension.

Osborne, born in 1971, studied both in Edinburgh and at the Royal Northern College in Manchester, and in his youth picked up notable piano prizes. In 1999, the BBC chose him as one of its New Generation Artists in the scheme’s inaugural year. His main gift as a performer, other than his precision, is his ability to generate a sense of excitement. That certainly comes through on the Prokofiev disc. 

The contrast between, for example, the aggressive, pyrotechnic final movement of No 7 and the ruminative opening of No 8 shows Osborne’s absolute command of his material. The former makes exhausting demands on the soloist and, if done properly, leaves the listener almost believing he or she has endured a bombardment; the latter requires a profundity of understanding on the part of the pianist, and not merely a virtuoso exhibition of mechanical skills (though Osborne, on the sleeve-note, does thank his physiotherapist). It is almost as if Prokofiev had expelled something unpleasant from his system in the way he completed No 7, before embarking on the more careful, reflective No 8. 

For those who believe music is almost always about context – and I do – the background to these three sonatas is essential to grasp. Prokofiev himself never called them “war sonatas”: but they were written between 1939 and 1944, after the composer had been lured back to the Soviet Union by Stalin. (The move would have mixed consequences: the first Mme Prokofiev ended up in the gulag, not, it appears, entirely to her husband’s disappointment.) In 1941, the Soviet Union formally entered the war, after being attacked by Germany, but from 1939 it had been occupying and “protecting” – to use Stalin’s iniquitous phrase – eastern Poland and the Baltic states, and liquidating dissidents and intellectuals there. The family had in fact returned to Moscow at the height of Stalin’s purges.

Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev (1891 - 1953) Credit: Hulton Archive

The second Mme Prokofiev said her husband worked on the three sonatas simultaneously, and only when he had assembled most of the material did he concentrate on each separately. It is ironic that the most serene music in the three – in the second movement of No 8 – should have been completed as the tide of slaughter was turning, and Soviet troops were engaging in their orgy not just of killing Nazis, but of rape and pillage across eastern Europe; that such high culture could be created at the same time says much about how the civilised mind makes accommodations to survive in moments of horror.

If you are unfamiliar with Osborne’s work, hardly any of his Hyperion recordings will disappoint. On the smaller scale, there are sublime recordings of Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux, Schubert’s Impromptus and some of Debussy’s piano miniatures: but one should not on any account miss his award-winning recording with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov of the Britten Piano Concerto – a wildly undervalued work – or of the two Ravel concerti with the same orchestra under Ludovic Morlot. Like the Prokofiev sonatas, they provide an excellent and immediate introduction to the enormous talent of a great British pianist.