The pianist Steven Osborne is a favourite with Birmingham music-lovers, not least for his appearances with the CBSO , but also for his many recordings on the Hyperion label, including the complete works for piano by Michael Tippett. And he brings that composer’s glitteringly lyrical Piano Concerto to Symphony Hall on June 14, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducting.
What is it about Tippett’s music that attracts Steven so much?
“I love composers who are concerned with expressing something. Tippett doesn’t get lost in complexities, he wants to reach out to the audience to say something that is worthwhile, something that is challenging, or something that is comforting, but he’s really taking very seriously his position in society. It’s a very basic thing, and a bit unusual, the extent to which he took that position among 20th century composers.
“And there’s this thing about the sound of the music... I don’t know, it’s incredible, the whole soundworld! I always think of Beethoven when I think of Tippett, because there’s a similar engagement with trying to tackle things head-on.
“You often get with them music which sounds quite complex, but always goes to a real emotional point.”
We agree that Tippett was passionate about Beethoven (even to the extent of quoting that composer’s epic Ninth Symphony in his own Third), and Steven adds that Tippett’s Piano Concerto was influenced by admiration for Beethoven’s Fourth.
The CBSO famously premiered the Tippett Piano Concerto in 1956, Louis Kentner the soloist (after Clifford Curzon, Julius Katchen and Geza Anda had all declared it unplayable), Rudolf Schwarz conducting. Will this be adding any extra frisson to Steven’s performance?
“Honestly, this piece doesn’t need anything else added to it,” declares Steven. “Every time I get the chance to play it, I’m so excited, because it’s one of the concertos that are closest to my heart. I just feel that it’s such an individual, specific and fabulous piece!”
I tell Steven that during my initial interview with Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla after her appointment to the CBSO a year ago we discovered we share a mutual enthusiasm for Tippett’s music. How does Steven feel this will colour rehearsals?
“It’s a very hard piece for the orchestra. I’m sure it will be pretty hard work,” he replies. “It’s also quite hard in places to co-ordinate, it’s very tricky, and extremely precise in its timing, unusually so, and it’s quite difficult to get the thing to flow so that everyone’s exactly on the same page.
“Particularly with a piece like this, that’s difficult. It’s very helpful to know that the conductor loves it! You know that they’re not trying to get through it and get on to the next thing, or whatever.”
Steven is currently artist-in-residence with the CBSO, featuring in several concertos with the orchestra. What has this relationship meant?
“It’s so great to come back several times in the season, see the same faces. It’s an extremely happy place to come into, just visit, and obviously it’s a fabulous quality of orchestra, and so there’s very little to overcome in order to make music – they’re really focused and working on the main job.”
We spoke just a day before Steven was appearing at Symphony Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Messiaen’s epic Turangalila-Symphony under the orchestra’s chief conductor Sakari Oramo, once music director of the CBSO.
My review of this performance appears elsewhere in these pages, but Steven tells me how the whole experience has been.
“The broadcast London performance on Wednesday was fantastic,” he says, “with an unusually engaged approach to the piece. It’s so complex for the conductor, it’s usual for the conductor to try and sit back and control what’s going on. Sakari didn’t do that, he just threw himself into it. It was thrilling!”
* Steven Osborne plays the Tippett Piano Concerto with the CBSO, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducting, at Symphony Hall on June 14 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.