Playing to extremes

Steven Osborne
Steven Osborne

Scottish pianist Steven Osborne is attracted to extremes. This summer he abseiled off the Forth Road Bridge near his home city of Edinburgh for charity, apparently not so much in spite of the fact that “I’ve always been rather scared of heights” as because of it.

He walked out through a gate and had to climb over a chest-high safety railing before launching himself into space high above the Firth of Forth. “It felt very, very raw, a feeling near to paralysis,” he says. “Your brain is shouting at you not to go.”

With his wife, clarinettist Jean Johnson, taking off alongside him the 43-year-old completed the stunt successfully and now says he would do it again.

This has something in common with his approach to music, where “My default position is to reach for extremes. I’m drawn to music with large contrasts,” but without the nerves. “On stage, I’m in control. Very often I have no nerves at all. I just really enjoy it and that’s when I play best.”

Osborne launches Music in the Round’s Kurzman Recitals, a series made possible by a legacy distributed by the Arts Council from the will of an almost completely unknown benefactor, Diana Kurzman.

That his best is very good indeed is born out by the glittering prizes: the Royal Philharmonic Society named him Instrumentalist of the Year and pre-eminent among British pianists in 2013, when he also took his second Gramophone award. The New York Times praised his “compelling, sometimes melting performance” in Schubert.

How important is it to “feel” the music as well as play the notes as marked? “In no other area of music would you need to ask the question,” he says. “It’s an absolute travesty of what a composer wants just to reproduce the precise markings that are written without the feeling. I don’t know why it’s like that in classical music. You wouldn’t expect it of an actor in Shakespeare.”

The music he listens to is jazz, pop, hip-hop, Pink Floyd – not much classical music unless it’s related to what he’s playing. But if he had to play one composer for the rest of his life? “Beethoven, for the range, the way he combines an incredible intellectual approach with something that’s visceral.”

In Sheffield, where he plays on October 9, it will be Schubert, providing a foretaste of a recording due for Christmas. He looks forward to the intimacy of the Crucible Studio, which can seem overwhelming to players unused to having 400 people in close attendance all round you: “I like it. You don’t have to ‘shout’ as you sometimes do in concert halls.”

Osborne credits a pianist well known to Sheffield audiences, Martin Roscoe, with the advice that helped him with the need to keep learning new pieces. “I’ve always been driven, interested in the breadth of the repertoire, and he taught me to learn slowly so you can play fast when you need to.”

He practises on an electronic keyboard but relishes Music in the Round’s new Steinway: notes and feeling.