As part of the preparations for this year’s St. Magnus International Festival, I interviewed the Scottish-born pianist Steven Osborne. His connection to the place is deep: he loves its “few trees” and “barrenness,” he told me. Recently, we met up in his Edinburgh home to discuss performance anxiety, his own unlovely piano, and the struggle of making Chopin sound organic.
VAN: You play varied repertoire within short spans of time. How do you manage switching between different pieces so frequently?
Steven Osborne: It’s not really a deliberate decision. In an ideal world I’d have blocks of just one concert. Although, I’d get bored of three months of playing the same thing. I quite like the stimulation of changing, but every so often you find that it’s gotten a bit too complicated and you’re going to have to work hard to go from one thing to the next.
More generally, I’ve never wanted to settle into my repertoire with a bunch of pieces I keep playing. I’ve always wanted to keep expanding.
Is it easier to learn a new piece than to return to one you know?
I wouldn’t say it’s easier. But when you’re starting a new piece, and you’ve got a new score and there are no markings, it’s like when you’ve got a virgin field of white snow. There’s such an excitement starting out on that journey.
What kind of pieces do you find yourself drawn to?
What I’m not drawn to are fripperies, things that are just entertainment. I’m allergic to that. The humor in Haydn—I love to hear people who can do it, like Brendel, but I really struggle to bring that kind of thing out. But give me Beethoven where there’s so much granite. Or else, things that have a lot of emotion like Rachmaninov, or Ravel, where there’s so much emotion under the surface. For me, Haydn is slightly too balanced.
Are there any pieces or composers you specifically avoid?
I don’t really know what to do with Chopin. The only thing I’ve played in the last 20 years by Chopin is the Cello Sonata. I enjoyed doing it, but it was hard work finding my way into the style: I worked out what gestures were going to work and did my best to make it organic. With the music I love playing I don’t have to think in those terms because the gestures come immediately from the feeling I have about the piece. Some day I might suddenly fall in love with Chopin—but the world doesn’t really need another Chopin pianist.
You were given the task of choosing the St. Magnus International Festival’s concert piano. How important do you think it is to have the right piano and how did you go about choosing it?
The nicer the piano the less you have to think. Normally pianos have got various little things that aren’t quite ideal. But as long as the instrument is decent, you can get across what you want. This piano [indicating his own instrument] is not great. It’s a good workhorse, but it’s not very beautiful. So when I’m practicing, I’m not particularly enjoying the sound. But it’s lovely psychologically as almost any piano I play in concert is nicer than this. The best thing is to forget as much as you can about the particulars of the instrument and get into the music. For me, anything that helps that process of forgetting the piano is helpful.
People like different things from different pianos. I like an enormous contrast, being able to play really, really quietly and really loud. Other people like something narrower, which is easier to control. People also like different sounds, like how direct, round, or smooth it is. So in choosing the piano inevitably you’re drawn to things that you like, but you’ve got to keep in mind what other people might like. But normally there’s only one or two that really stand out as being special.
Do you still feel nervous when you perform?
Yes, certainly. If you’re playing at a big venue for the first time, or playing at the Proms or Wigmore Hall, it’s like not wanting to let your parents down; I really want to do a good job for them. But the flip side is that when there’s that elevated awareness that something’s important, if you can relax it gives even more intensity.
There is this supposed truism that you need some nerves to perform and I absolutely don’t believe that. For me it’s like being awake at 3 a.m. when you’re a student with your friends chatting, maybe you’ve had a few drinks and you’re really relaxed and start talking about all kinds of stuff. Performing when it’s working well feels like that. It feels open. I think it’s about realizing your own perspective is almost completely unimportant. What’s important is this shared experience.
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How do you prepare for concerts you feel nervous for?
I’ll spend some time before imagining myself in the situation and trying to set myself up so that I’m not suddenly feeling nervous. I might start to feel nervous on the day, but because of the thought I’ve put in before I can think, “Yup, I knew that this was going to happen,” and that helps you to settle yourself. In the past I’ve tried visualizing being on stage and feeling calm but increasingly it feels a bit artificial. So instead I imagine myself on stage, feel the tension that immediately comes, then think about the tension, and try to feel what it feels like. It’s all about paying attention to what’s actually there, without trying to fix it. You feel the nerves and then spend time with them, try and befriend them, which can be a really tall order.
Is there more pressure on classical performers now than 50 years or so ago?
There’s certainly an expectation for a kind of perfection that’s almost unattainable. But that can affect you as much as you let it. When it comes to playing the wrong notes, generally they’re not very important. I think it’s much more a pressure performers put on themselves, this obsession with perfection.
Should performers be more open about their nerves and their mistakes rather than presenting themselves as always operating to perfection?
Yeah. I think the mystique of the performer is very unhelpful. It distances the audience from the music if they sense that the performer is this untouchable figure, so I like talking about nerves and how you deal with wrong notes, or the feeling of what it’s like performing. Which is of course true of composers as well. Composers are seen as these great figures, but they also make mistakes in their music. It’s so unhelpful to see their scores as these god-like creations. ¶
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