Tuesday 6 June 2017

Re-thinking the concerto: Steven Osborne in Ravel and Falla

Ravel, Falla piano concertos - Steven Osborne - Hyperion
Ravel piano concertos, Falla Noches en los jardines de Espana; Steven Osborne, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ludovic Morlot: Hyperion
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 06 2017
Star rating: 4.0

The influences of Spain and the Parisian musical world come together in these three concertante works for piano and orchestra

There is an intriguing Franco-Spanish background to the three works on this new disc on Hyperion from Steven Osborne and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ludovic Morlot. The disc pairs the two piano concertos by Ravel (whose Basque/Spanish mother was an important influence), written in the late 1920s / early 1930s, with another work from some earlier, Manuel de Falla's Noches en los jardines de Espana (Nights in the gardens of Spain), work conceived of whilst Falla was living in Paris. All three works have their origins in the Parisian musical world and the pianist Ricardo Viñes, to whom Falla dedicated Noches en los jardines de Espana, was a friend of Ravel (who dedicated a number of works to him).

Ravel's piano concertos come quite late in his career, and both appeared virtually simultaneously. The Piano Concerto in G major (the one for two hands) is the sparkier of the two. Ludovic Morlot and the orchestra start a quite a measured tempo, but still keep the atmosphere light and crazy. Steven Osborne's first entry is quite thoughtful, relaxed at first but with wonderful mad-cap flare-ups. This is a performance which moves easily from light filigreed delicacy to high drama, and back again. In the slow movement it is Osborne's delicacy which we notice, he and Morlot create a sense of time suspended. In the final movement Osborne combines dazzle and lightness of touch, with some sardonically circus-like comments from the orchestra. Morlot really keeps control of the tempo, generating a strong sense of excitement and anticipation.

Manuel de Falla's Noches en los jardines de Espana is not a traditional concerto, like Ravel and many of his contemporaries he was re-thinking the relationship between piano and orchestra. In fact the work started out as a piano solo and it was at the suggestion of Ricardo Viñes that Falla worked it into a nocturne for piano and orchestra.

The first movement, En el Generalife (In the Generalife) combines evocative orchestral textures with real clarity, and Osborne brings relaxed luxuriance to the piano figuration, content to be part of the overall texture rather than protagonist, and knowing how to fluidly bring Falla's piano writing alive. Finally, the movement does reach a gorgeous climax. The second movement Danza lejana (Dance in the distance) again combines delicacy and clarity in the orchestra. Osborne brings flexibility and poetry to the piano part but there are flurries of excitement and a real sense of colour. The movement builds directly to the explosion which opens En los jardines de las Sierra Cordoba (In the gardens of the Sierra at Cordoba). This movement is a welter of orchestral colour, with the high piano octave melodies really standing out, and some marvellously dramatic 'Spanish' moments. And then it all magically evaporates.

Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major is rather more darkly dramatic than the G major concerto, with a stronger admixture of jazz. We open with an evocative welling up from the depths of the orchestra, matched by Osborne's sonorously dark piano. Again, Morlot's speeds feel measured, with a sense of slow build-up. For all the dark drama, there is much quiet poetry in Osborne's performance as well as a rhythmically perky, almost cheeky, march. There are big bravura moments, but it is the sense of thoughtful poetry and delicate transparency which are most striking. For all the superb technical and emotional achievements of this performance, it was a little bit too clean limbed for me and needed a touch more sleaze and vulgarity.

You will always want Alicia de Larrocha in Manuel de Falla's work, and I would not want to be without the recording of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major made by Marguerite Long (who premiered the work), but this new disc makes a satisfying programme in modern sound, of three French or French-inflected piano concertos.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) - Piano Concerto in G major [21.37]
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) - Noches en los jardines de Espana [23:12]
Maurice Ravel - Piano Concerto for the left hand in D major [18:13]
Steven Osborne (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ludovic Morlot (conductor)
Recorded in City alls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 25 & 26 March 2016
HYPERION CDA68148 1CD [63.03]
Available from Amazon.

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