You’d be hard pressed to find two pieces written by countrymen within the same three-year period that are more different than Prokofiev’s “Visions Fugitives” and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2. Prokofiev’s 20 fleetingly vivid snapshots and Rachmaninoff’s romantic indulgences formed the second half of Steven Osborne’s stunning recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, and the Scottish-born pianist retooled himself to become the ideal purveyor of each.
Many of the Prokofiev movements clock in under a minute — barely time to register that something new is happening. But Osborne moved through the set with apt characterizations that were all transparency and delicacy, as butterflylike twittering in one vignette led to the pompous posturing in the next and angular jauntiness led to moments of wry despondency.
But it was a big-statement Osborne who sat down at the keyboard to address the rigors of the Rachmaninoff piece (in Vladimir Horowitz’s revision), full of the passion and the drive needed to gobble up waves of romantic effusion. This Osborne was a master of momentum and color, a wielder of power and a sure navigator through huge landscapes, and his Rachmaninoff was both coherent and daringly free.
The first half of the program, however, which paired Beethoven’s Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”) with Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” focused on their similarities: a progression from quiet self-reflection to ferocious activity. Osborne’s literal and restrained reading of the Beethoven movement brought out the uncliched aspects of its beauty as did his light touch in Ravel’s first-movement “Ondine.” His technical mastery allowed the Beethoven presto finale and the full force of Scarbo’s malevolence in Ravel’s third movement to build inexorably.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.