Saturday was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Rachmaninov. Trust the Wigmore to get in first, with a perfectly judged tribute by one of the best living exponents of his music. The Scottish pianist Steven Osborne has staked his claim to musical ownership with a series of brilliant recordings, and at the Wigmore he gave a taste of the master with a series of works reflecting both his large-scale magnificence, and his intimate and irresistible lyricism.
Until recently Rachmaninov was generally pigeon-holed as a throw-back to late Romanticism. He may have provided the music for Brief Encounter, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a dozen other films, but snobbery inspired by his middle-brow popularity has obscured the refinement of his art and his unique gift as a melodist.
And he was self-critical to the nth degree, as witness the gestation of the majestic Piano Sonata in B flat minor which he completed in 1913. Glumly observing that his hero Chopin’s second piano concerto said “all that needs to be said” in half the time, he pruned his own work savagely, and then, still dissatisfied, left it up to individual pianists to decide which version – or combination of the two – they wanted to play.
Osborne began with the composer’s first piano sonata, a dense, complex work theoretically based on the story of Goethe’s Faust. But no extra-musical commentary was needed here, for this work was all about musical ideas and effects, and swung between two polarities – a stentorian, warlike mode, and the comforting evocation of church bells. And indeed, those bells were the leitmotif of Rachmaninov’s entire oeuvre. As he observed, “They accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave. All my life I have taken pleasure in their differing moods.”
After a big-boned rendering of this mighty opening statement, Osborne took short dips into Rachmaninov’s pastoral world with two Preludes and two Etude-tableaux. If the lyricism was pared down in Opus 23 No 4, it became quizzical in Opus 33 No 5, and was seductively embroidered in Opus 32 No 5, with the colour and texture here finely calibrated for each piece.
The finale was Osborne’s own version of the second sonata, and I’ve never heard it so taut, persuasive, and passionate. His control over the disparate elements of this work – the sweetly insistent melodies, the furious climaxes, the bell-like carillons – was masterly, and his sound was huge.
For an encore – preceded by the cheeky first line of ‘Happy birthday’ – he played Rachmaninov’s own arrangement of his All-Night Vigil, hushed and exquisite.