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Review: For Mexican pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, a better-late-than-never recital debut

Review: For Mexican pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, a better-late-than-never recital debut
Jorge Federico Osorio performs Thursday at the Wallis in Beverly Hills. (Kevin Parry)

Call him the reluctant recitalist. At the ripe young age of 67, Mexican pianist Jorge Federico Osorio made his Los Angeles-area recital debut Wednesday night in Beverly Hills at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

To be sure, Osorio has given recitals in major U.S. cities, but he didn't make his New York recital debut until 1997, when he was in his 40s — unusual for a pianist who won several international competitions as a young man.

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Although Osorio has appeared as a guest soloist with Southern California orchestras — his last was in 2017 at San Diego's Mainly Mozart Festival — there's nothing like watching a recital unfold with all its potential risks and rewards.

The European-trained Osorio, whose teachers included the legendary Wilhelm Kempff, began with two familiar Bach-Busoni chorale preludes: "Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" and "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland." Osorio gave both chorales a hint of organ-like sonority, employing a bright but edgeless tone.

The Bach-Busoni set a contemplative mood that carried into Schubert's Sonata in A Major (D. 959), composed a few months before he died at 31. A difficult piece to hold together, Osorio's rendition, while compelling in parts, didn't add up to a persuasive whole. He captured much Schubertian melancholy and rage at the dying of the light in the great central Andantino, and Osorio's dark bass notes at the end of the movement resounded with convincing finality. Yet the shifting moods elsewhere in the sonata didn't quite emerge organically.

A more integrated reading can be heard on Osorio's latest recording, "Final Thoughts: The Last Piano Works of Schubert and Brahms" on Cedille, a label based in Chicago, where the pianist lives.

After intermission, Osorio went from strength to strength, opening with a technically impressive reading of Liszt's brooding "Vallée d'Obermann." Three vividly characterized Debussy Preludes followed, with Osorio's conjuring of the atmosphere and mystery of "La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune" (from Book II) especially memorable.

Osorio's reputation as a major proponent of Spanish and Mexican music — other Cedille discs feature earthy, colorful and rhythmically propulsive programs of works by countrymen Carlos Chávez and Manuel Ponce — proved well-deserved.

In Albéniz's "Mallorca: Barcarola" Osorio conveyed Spanish dance rhythms and a sad melodic undertow recalling Chopin. Just as invitingly picturesque was the pianist's rapt account of Mexican composer Ricardo Castro's "Barcarola."

The recital concluded with gripping, invigorating renditions of Ponce's "Rapsodia Cubana" and "Balada Mexicana," both composed in 1915. Ponce, who died in 1948, was primarily known for his guitar music, most of it written for Spanish virtuoso Andrés Segovia. Osorio has been a champion of Ponce's underrepresented and idiomatic piano music.

Osorio found Lisztian grandeur in "Cubana." He let "Mexicana" unfold with charm and grace. And Osorio clearly galvanized the audience on this rain-drenched night as he raced to the work's thrilling finish.

Incidentally, Osorio's next Southern California dates are March 9 and 10 for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the San Diego Symphony conducted by Robert Spano. But one should hope the pianist returns in recital soon.

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