Steven Osborne in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The eighteenth interview in my Classical Conversations Series is with British concert pianist, Steven Osborne. We met for a chat during rehearsals for the Midsummer Music Festival held a few weeks ago in Latimer, Buckinghamshire, where Steven was giving chamber music recitals.

Steven is one of Britain’s foremost musicians, renowned for his idiomatic approach to a wide variety of repertoire from the mainstream classical works of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to the rarefied worlds of Messiaen, Tippett and Britten.  He has won numerous awards and prizes including the 2009 Gramophone Award for his recording of Britten’s works for piano and orchestra, as well as first prize at both the Naumburg International Competition (New York) and Clara Haskil Competition.
Concerto performances take Steven to orchestras all over the world including recent visits to the NHK Symphony, Berlin Symphony, Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Munich Philharmonic, Finnish Radio Symphony, Bergen Philharmonic, Residentie Orkest, Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.  With these orchestras he has enjoyed collaborations with conductors including Christoph von Dohnanyi, Alan Gilbert, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Charles Mackerras, Ludovic Morlot, Leif Segerstam, Andrew Litton, Ingo Metzmacher, Vladimir Jurowski and Jukka-Pekka Saraste.
In the UK he works regularly with the major orchestras, especially with the Philharmonia, City of Birmingham Symphony and BBC Philharmonic Orchestras.  His concerts are frequently broadcast by the BBC and he performs every year at the Wigmore Hall.  He has made eight appearances at the Proms, most recently in September 2010 when he performed Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 1.
Steven’s recitals of carefully crafted programmes are publically and critically acclaimed.  He has performed in many of the world’s prestigious venues including the Konzerthaus Vienna, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, de Doelen Rotterdam, Philharmonie Berlin, Musikhalle Hamburg, Palais des Beaux Arts Brussels, De Singel, Suntory Hall Tokyo, Kennedy Center Washington and Carnegie Hall.  His regular chamber music partners include Alban Gerhardt, Paul Lewis, Dietrich Henschel and Lisa Batiashvili.
Amongst the highlights of 2010/11, Steven will perform with the London Philharmonic/.Jurowski (Beethoven), Yomiuri Nippon Symphony/Kalmar (Mozart), Stuttgart Philharmonic/Felz (Messiaen), Bergen Philharmonic/Mena (Messiaen), Hong Kong Philharmonic/Boyd (Mozart) and Sydney Symphony/Ashkenazy (Mozart).  He completes his four part exploration of Schubert’s chamber music performing trios with Alban Gerhardt and Alina Ibragimova and the last three piano sonatas.
Steven has won many awards for his recordings on Hyperion.  In addition to the Gramophone Award in 2009 (Britten), his recording of Rachmaninov’s 24 Preludes was short-listed for a Gramophone Award and won a Schallplattenpreis whilst being chosen as “Editor’s Choice” in Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, International Record Review, Musical Opinion and The Daily Telegraph: “This is outstanding Rachmaninov playing of acute perception, discretion and poetic sensibility, limpid, powerful and luminous in equal measure.” BBC Music Magazine May 09..  His double CD of works by Tippett was nominated for a BBC Music Magazine Award and his CD of Messiaen’s complete Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus was also nominated for both a Gramophone Award and a Schallplattenpreis in Germany. Other recordings include Debussy’s complete Preludes, solo works by Alkan, Liszt Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, and solo works by Kapustin which was also nominated for a Schallplattenpreis.  His latest recording of Beethoven sonatas was released in May 2010.
Born in Scotland in 1971, Steven studied with Richard Beauchamp at St. Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh and Renna Kellaway at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

The transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

MELANIE SPANSWICK: British concert pianist, Steven Osborne, is in demand as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the world. He won first prize at the Naumburg International Competition and the Clara Haskil Competition and has won many awards for his recordings. And, I’m delighted that he’s taken the time to join me here today at the Buckinghamshire for a classical conversation. Welcome.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Lovely to be chatting to you today.
STEVEN OSBORNE: Thank you. Good to be here.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I’m going to start by asking you all about your musical education, how old you were when you started, and what was the catalyst and whether you coming from a musical family.
STEVEN OSBORNE: Yeah, well my dad—well, both of my parents were musicians, but my dad played organ at the local church and roundabout different places. He was a very musical man. He sometimes would improvise on piano just doodling around and it was always really beautiful. And we had a piano in the house for when I was as tall enough to reach the keys, I started beginning to do that. And you know I seem to really remember that. We got a lot of pleasure out of it. Then, I started getting lessons when I was four I think, maybe five. So, I don’t know; it’s something that I was always drawn to. I used to—well, I never used to sleep very much as a kid. I’d wake up very early and I would go straight downstairs and start playing the piano at four-thirty in the morning.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Oh yeah. (laughs)
STEVEN OSBORNE: Poor dad would come down and tell me to stop. He put a big notice on the piano saying ‘please don’t play the piano before 7:30.’ Terrible those hours just sitting around waiting.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, which teachers do you think then, that were crucial in your development?
STEVEN OSBORNE: Um, well I got different things from different teachers. When I was at St. Mary’s School in Edinburgh from ten to seventeen, I was with Richard Beauchamp, a New Zealand man; very into relaxation, trying to find a good way of working with the body—very interested in physiology. So, that kind of put a little bit into what he taught. Um, when I was at Music College I was with Renna Kellaway, South African, but her education had been in Europe. Um, in Amsterdam, particularly—uh, I can’t remember elsewhere, she played for Clara Haskil actuallya bit.
STEVEN OSBORNE: So, a kind of very strong European tradition in her teaching which is all about beauty of sound, singing line and cleanliness of approach, you know, you know, not using pedal to cover a multitude of things. So, and actually just simple, technical work. I did a lot of technical work with her, which I really needed. So probably in terms of, um, how do you say it, in terms of practical influence of what my playing sounds like, she probably has the greatest influence because she really molded things technically. There were other teachers that I played for that were very influential. I actually played for Charles Rosen a few times. And I mean, not so much as teaching, but just interacting with such an amazing man and an incredible musical mind absolutely cutting through. Such a great sense of view—an incredibly clear sort of view of things, which you could agree or disagree with. It was incredibly stimulating. There was a Brazilian man, Arnaldo Cohen, who’s also a really wonderful pianist. He’s a really amazing teacher. Able to teach in extreme detail and also the broadest questions and ideas. And you know, it’s not very often that you get a teachers who can work well in both of those areas. Um, beyond that—oh, I have to mention my old head of music. My piano teacher who’s a violinist, Nigel Murray, at St. Mary’s Music School. But, he’s just an amazing man. Somebody who loved music so much that it’s absolutely infectious. Such a love of it. He was the conductor for the school orchestra and technically, you know, he may not have been the greatest conductor, but he just drew you in so much to the experience of making music for people around you.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What about developing your technique? How did you do that?
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Were you a Czerny practiser?
STEVEN OSBORNE: Yeah, well, Renna put me through all these kind of things. I guess training Czerny is what I kind of started off with. There was a lot of Brahms exercises and partly doing things through picking particular pieces with technical problems. I mean to be honest, I’m not really sure how it all worked. Because I do very little teaching myself, and I’ve never had to build someone’s technique up like that. So, not really seeing that process of, you give people these things and this is what comes out of it.
STEVEN OSBORNE: I remember suddenly—actually, I do remember one thing very clearly. It’s this Brahms exercise. It goes (plays piano)
STEVEN OSBORNE: I remember practicing that for a couple of weeks and suddenly I noticed my hand looked different. It was really fascinating that this (points to top of hand) was suddenly…
MELANIE SPANSWICK: The fourth and fifths started to………..
STEVEN OSBORNE: Well, no, my knuckles were suddenly more pronounced. I thought, ‘that’s weird.’ That’s the only thing I can really remember about seeing something…
STEVEN OSBORNE: Change. I mean, apart from anything else, it made me much physically stronger. My fingers and I mean if you’re going to play in a big hall you need to be a strong player.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, you won two major competitions. How did they shape and change your career do you think?
STEVEN OSBORNE: In a couple of ways. Firstly, you know, it’s a kind of catch-22 thing. In order to get better at playing concerts, you have to play concerts. So, it was incredibly useful to have just a few concerts coming out of that, after winning competitions. Just gradual steps along the way towards feeling more relaxed on stage and trying to negotiate the questions of nerves and new repertoire and all that stuff. But also, when I won the first competition at Clara Haskil, then it made it much easier to get an agent. It was something which people could look at and think ‘oh wow, there is some kind of sign of approval from someone else.’ It wasn’t long after that that I started working with my manager.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Right. So which composers do you really love to play?
STEVEN OSBORNE: Oh, God there is so many. I mean we are so lucky with piano repertoire—that you really couldn’t get through all the masterpieces that there are in a lifetime. Certainly, Ravel, certainly Beethoven, Rachmaniniov, Messiaen, Schubert. Those are the ones I really have this incredibly strong physical reaction to. I mean, that’s something that I absolutely love. I love the Mozart sounding, Michael Tippett….
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I was just about to ask you about that Tippett. Your recording was nominated for a BBC Magazine Award. What kind of attracted you to that style? It’s quite a brittle style isn’t it?
STEVEN OSBORNE: Well it’s very varied. Tippett was a composer Who’s ambition, exceeded his technical ability to utilize it. Certainly, his operas—he’s trying to deal with very weighty themes of existence. Even the piece, The Child of Our Time, he’s trying to, how do you say, condense the entire history of the universe into this one piece. And, the music doesn’t always quite live up to that really, but, for me the instrumental music is actually best part of his output although he’s really well known for his operas. He has a—very much like Beethoven; he confronts things head on. And he tends to set up a kind of structure which is asking certain questions. For example, the Second Piano Sonata, it’s very disjointed. He’s asking the questions, what happens if you never let, the momentum develop? You’re always cutting from one thing to another. He was looking at mosaics actually, so it’s a very striking arrangement I think as he cuts from one thing to the other. I mean the structure is, again as with Beethoven, incredibly important. Structure is a big part of what the piece says. But he is also capable of incredible lyricism in the best of his music. I just find there is a grittiness to it that I really respond to. It’s not easy for the listener. I mean, certainly, particularly the later music it can seem a bit impenetrable, but I find it really really; I mean even when I started learning the later sonatas I was like, ‘what is there in these?’ I asked a friend who played the last piano sonata, ‘is it actually rewarding to play’, and he said ‘oh yes, it’s amazing to play’ and I said ok, ok!
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You needed some encouragement.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You recently performed Messiaen’s Vingt Regards at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and you have recorded it as well. Beautiful. It’s such complex and intellectually demanding music. What significance does this piece have for you and how do you create unity in playing the whole piece?
STEVEN OSBORNE: I mean, it’s a very interesting piece in terms of how the audience respond to it because still now, a lot of people are nervous about twentieth century music, late twentieth century music because they think it’s going to be ugly or whatever and so often, I mean, I think probably literally every concert where I play it someone comes up to me and says, ‘I enjoyed that so much more than I expected it was going to.’ There is something about Messiaen’s style when he was writing at that time during the 1940’s. It has a very direct, emotional effect in his music. Even in the most complex stuff. He has the widest contrasts of just about any composer from incredibly quiet to incredibly loud, from extremely gentle to the most violent. So, that’s part of the reason that the piece can sustain itself over two and a quarter hours, well almost two and a quarter hours. So it’s got an absolutely massive canvas, which he fills with this wildly varied landscape.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yeah, and you don’t have an interval do you?
STEVEN OSBORNE: No, personally I prefer playing it without the interval, I mean there is a point in the middle after the tenth piece in which it would—you could naturally take a break. But, it might be worth saying a little about the piece. Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus is twenty compilations centered of the child of Jesus. Massiaen was a very devout Catholic. So all of his music is written as a believer the same way that Bach wrote his passions. And yeah, so these pieces are as if different characters are looking at the child Jesus, God the Father, looking at him, the Holy Spirit. Then there’s various abstract things like time or science or the Heavens. It’s just an astonishing work. Again actually the structure of it—I mean, how he creates; well, you’re asking about unity. I mean, in many ways it’s written into the piece. There are certain themes that come back. There’s one theme in particular which begins the piece, also ends the piece, and comes back in different guises in the middle of it. The theme of God goes like this. (plays piano). So it’s very beautiful, very gentle. But, it’s actually even much slower than that. Like this (plays piano) So, it’s incredibly, spacious effect, during the piece generally, it’s quite contemplative like that. The end of the piece it comes back even simpler. He takes it literally this chord (plays piano) And simply sits on one chord (plays piano). I’ve not stopped the piece is still going (plays piano) It’s an astonishing idea…when I first looked at that piece, that particular one, I thought, this couldn’t possibly work because there was so little in it. And yet somehow, I mean, Messiaen was famous for writing very, very slow metronome marks. Again, those extremes are what he goes for. There is story that in the Quartet for the End of Time, the cellist (because there’s a movement for cello and piano) came to him to ask about the metronome mark which is marked semi-quaver equals sixty, and I can’t remember what number the marking was, no it’s maybe a bit slower. I can’t remember the number. The cellist said, ‘you don’t really mean it to go this tempo do you?’ And Messiaen said ‘No, slower.’
MELANIE SPANSWICK: (laughs) You play a lot of French music. You play evening recitals of Ravel and your recordings of Debussy’s 24 Preludes have been highly acclaimed, What is it that you love so much about impressionism.
STEVEN OSBORNE: Sound. I mean, what it does to make the piano not sound like a piano. In many ways, the simple sound of the piano is quite uninteresting. I think it’s always a challenge is how you get it to sound either orchestral, or how you create some kind of sonic effects. I mean even creating a sense of line in the piano is such a fiction (plays the piano). To hear this you can almost imagine the notes are joined, but really if you looked at a computer at what it sounds like (points) bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp, like this. But, for French music particularly, yeah, (plays piano) It’s so lovely. Most beautiful thing in the world. I mean, it’s not only sound of course but the particular…attitude, for lack of a better word, of composers. I mean, Ravel’s music there is so much emotion under the surface. Like a melancholy, it seems to me, and looking back at childhood. Something about that I find very compelling. Particularly Ravel’s music. Debussy, in a way, is more exploratory. I don’t know. I find it hard to put my finger on what it is about Debussy that I love. But, it’s an absolutely amazing openess in some way. To not control the way the music goes, but to just see what happens. And he keeps finding these amazing things.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What are the greatest challenges involved in being a concert pianist?
STEVEN OSBORNE: I don’t know. Um, I mean, certainly, logistically, it can be tricky. I mean actually, one of the main things is that you’re taken away from your family a lot. And, in personal terms it’s very hard. You know, a lot of musicians, I mean, particularly if you have two musicians married, they’re both traveling a lot.
STEVEN OSBORNE: That’s incredibly difficult. But even if there is one traveling a lot and one that isn’t—I mean, well one’s traveling a lot and that’s very difficult. In terms of the actual job itself, I mean, it’s tiring traveling a lot, but you can’t really complain about that because it’s so nice seeing some of these places. In terms of the actual playing, I mean learning, assimilating, complex pieces can be very difficult on the brain. You need to have enough time.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I was about to say especially learning quickly I would imagine.
STEVEN OSBORNE: Yeah. I mean after I learned all the Tippett piano music, I quite significantly changed how I worked because I had to learn a lot quite quickly. It was so complex that I really, I just, decided not to learn anything for about a year after that, maybe more, because I needed a break. And so then I started making sure I didn’t try to learn too many pieces at the same time. For me, learning naturally is much more enjoyable. Because it’s horrible having this feeling that you’re having to force…
STEVEN OSBORNE: stuff into through your fingers. And then you’ve actually got time to assimilate and think what is it that you actually wanted to do with the music..
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What exciting plans have you got for the future?
STEVEN OSBORNE: Well, there’s all these pieces I’m learning. The HammerKlavier Sonata. I’m doing that for the first time in a couple of months. That’s looming large. Yeah, just different pieces. Beethoven Second Piano Concerto, the Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux. Talking about getting things into your fingers, that will be a big job…..
STEVEN OSBORNE: It’ll be fun. Yeah, that’ll be it.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What does playing piano mean to you?
MURRAY MCLAHLAN: I would say it feels, just utterly natural. It feels like the most natural way for expressing myself maybe. I feel it is an incredible privilege to make a living relating to these works, which are some of the greatest things that human kind has produced. It’s such a privilege working in an area which constantly keeps bringing you back to yourself. You have to feel, in order to play this stuff. Or I mean, in order for it to work. In order for the audience to get involved, you have to feel it. So, working with this stuff, you’re discovering more about your emotional life. Almost automatically if you engage with the music. That is just an incredibly lucky thing to be doing. I mean, if you’re working in a factory or something, if there is nothing of interest in your job, it must be very difficult to stay switched on.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Thank you very much for joining me today.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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