Brussels Philharmonic | Steven Osborne: Giant Steps

Giant Steps

World War II looms as Britten composes his Piano Concerto. Hitler has just invaded Poland, and tensions in Europe are escalating.

I've always despised history, never felt drawn to it. But you hear it in the music, in the intensity, in the threat in the march that concludes the work. It's hidden within the music, shaping the character of the piece. The musical characters evolve against this backdrop, and I find ways to make the music tangible in my body, sometimes together with the orchestra, and sometimes in contrast. The piano says everything you need to know.

My piano teacher, on the other hand, detested Benjamin Britten. Consequently, his Opus 13 remained untouched for years. It wasn't until I was almost forty that I delved into it. I can only disagree with her.

It's an unusual piece. Four movements instead of three: Toccata, Waltz, Impromptu, March. Names you wouldn't immediately associate with a concerto, as if he diminishes the depth of the work from the outset. Four character studies. The Toccata is energetic, bordering on manic. The Waltz is peculiar, almost like an audio drama. The music emanates from all corners of the orchestra, an unprecedented combination of sounds. The third movement, Impromptu, is seven years younger than its musical siblings. To radically reimagine a crucial piece of your work: quite a feat. Musically, it sometimes reminds me of Giant Steps, John Coltrane's jazz standard. Step by step, third by third, the piece evolves. A moment of calm before the finale. Then, it accelerates. Once you find the right tempo for the March, it hurtles helter-skelter towards the end.

Britten was a fantastic pianist. Odd that he left only a handful of works for piano. Or maybe that's precisely why. For some composers, the piano is the instrument through which they express and identify themselves. Did Britten feel safer at a distance? In the Piano Concerto, you sense him shedding all inhibitions, getting carried away in impressive melodies and harmonies, scales up and down. Beautiful, overwhelming. Perhaps too overwhelming? A portrait of the artist as a young man. He was only twenty-four when he first performed his Piano Concerto. The youthful energy is palpable. It's impressive.

- Steven Osborne

[these notes appeared on the website of De Bijloke]
[explore more writings by Steven Osborne]
[read the notes by Aurélie Walschaert]

Britten & Brahms 4 · 16.12.2023 · Flagey

The young Benjamin Britten meets the old Johannes Brahms: the young force, full of impatience for what the future will bring, facing the established value that looks back contentedly on what has been. It is precisely this contrast between the two masters - closely linked by their special way of translating human emotions - that creates an inspiring and poignant experience.

with KAZUSHI ONO conductor STEVEN OSBORNE piano

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