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Interview: Steven Osborne pianist

24 May 2013

Ben Ealovega

I played the piano for fun from when I was young, and really enjoyed it. I went to music school and music college without ever thinking about actually following a career as a musician. Luckily, I had a teacher who helped me chart the path into the profession. I never considered doing anything else.

The piano just seemed a very natural fit. It felt, and feels, like a profound way of expressing myself.

I was never in a hothouse environment, for which I'm grateful - none of that nine-hours-a-day-practice stuff. Sometimes I worked hard, sometimes not. When I went to music college, my teacher there put me through the mill with a lot of technical work, which I really needed.

I adore Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus by Olivier Messiaen. I've always been attracted to large-scale works because you get the chance to really immerse the audience in something, and this is pretty much as large as it gets for piano. There are such extremes of emotion, within a monumental structural concept. It's immensely satisfying to perform.

I recorded it a good few years ago for Hyperion. I doubt I'd want to change too much - the piece is very simple, very direct.

Actually, my experience is that listeners don't find it difficult. Virtually every time I play the piece, at least one person comes up to me to say they'd enjoyed the piece far more than they'd expected. I think the main difficulty for audience and performer alike is the concentration required for a work of over two hours. But for me that's integral to really experiencing the piece - you're taken quite profoundly into another world.

Certainly, it is a work that expresses Messiaen's faith. At times, it's almost a theological commentary. For example, he gives the same melody to the cross and to the star that led the wise men. There are some wonderful musical metaphors. The movement about the incarnation is a very tightly organised musical process, which starts in one place and gradually shifts, repeating, moving, getting louder, creating a transformation from one thing that is very ethereal to the end, which is an absolutely enormous noise - God becoming man.

The movement "by whom all things were made" is an incredibly complex construction, with incredible detail and a very strong sense of energy. The climax is the theme of God in full blazing glory. The theme of God is the most astonishingly gentle music. The Holy Spirit is depicted as almost violent, such is that movement's great energy. The emotion of the music is very direct, even with its passages of complexity.

Messiaen had a quirky theological bent - the inverse of what you might expect. He's quite interested in the abstract; so there's a movement about the contemplation of time - time contemplating Jesus, and "Contemplation of the heavens".

He thought birds were the greatest musicians; so there is a lot of birdsong in it. He was a very serious ornithologist. He travelled round the world collecting birdsong, which he puts into the music to express divine joy.

Every piece is its own world. What I always want is to engage the audience, and open up to them a world of feeling. To try and describe the feelings would probably trivialise the music. Suffice it to say, some of my most profound musical experiences have been performances of the Vingt regards.

Other composers? Particularly Beethoven, Ravel, Schubert, and Rachmaninov. There are a bunch of new pieces I'm working on, but the main one is Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata.

The most important choice I've ever made was deciding, on balance, to do a concert in Singapore. It was difficult to fit in with my schedule. I met my wife there. She's an American clarinettist who was playing in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

We live in Edinburgh, and play together quite often; but, yes, we do have to travel, and I travel more. It's worse for the person left behind. When you're travelling, you've got the stimulation of new places and performing, but being on your own at home for a week isn't much fun.

Family becomes all the more important when one's life is so peripatetic. My mother is near, and brother, and the rest of the family - all within an hour from where we live.

I regret most the times I've hurt friends and family, but I feel lucky that generally I've had the chance to put those things right.

Three teachers really influenced me: my school head of music, Nigel Murray, who embodied a deep and passionate love of music; my professor at Manchester University, Ian Kemp, who showed me that musical analysis was a profoundly engaging discipline; and my physics teacher, Christine Soane, who told me to throw a brick through the TV.

My favourite sound is the opening of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. It's the piece I probably listened to most as a kid, and it always made me really happy. I only have to think about it now. It's the essence of joy in music. It's incredible what he catches - the feeling of a beautiful day in a beautiful place, the breeze.

I last got angry about some trivial thing with my wife.

I experience two very different kinds of happiness: one is playing a concert when I feel inspired, and the other is spending time with my wife when we're both relaxed and have no agenda.

I don't pray. I used to be religious, but haven't been for many years.

Music is a satisfying area to work in - I could imagine that it could fill that space. It certainly feels like a vocation. It's amazing way of expressing oneself and getting to know oneself.

It keeps bringing you back to yourself, because you respond to the music and keeps you grounded. If you are doing it properly, you can't get too far away from yourself. There must be a lot of jobs that are repetitive or frustrating, where it's difficult not to zone out. Music keeps you in touch with what you feel.

I'd like to be remembered as having been generous and open-hearted in the way I made music.

Maybe I'd like to be locked in a church with Beethoven. I've always been fascinated by people whose wildness isn't hidden, and, by all accounts, Beethoven was particularly unrestrained in person. But most of all, I'd love to hear him improvise.

Steven Osborne was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

He will be performing Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 29 May.

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