When I heard that the first of the two 2017 Summer Gala Concerts was to be given by the winner of the 2014 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, I was intrigued by the prospect. It seemed to me to be a highly praiseworthy initiative to provide an opportunity for Leicester to hear a talented young pianist towards the beginning of his career. However, in such a setting as this concert series, which for example has seen in the last three years concerts by Paul Lewis, Ronan O’Hora and Stephen Hough, it raised the question as to whether it would attract very many punters. In the event, I am pleased to say that there was a reasonably sized and enthusiastic audience.
However, I thought there might be another problem. Comparisons are of course odious but I wondered whether it would be difficult not to make such comparisons when the bar had been set so high in previous years. Was it realistic to expect performances at this stage of a career which would rival the level of piano playing we had become accustomed to in this series? The dilemma was made more acute by changes in the programme in which it became considerably more mainstream and challenging. In particular, the inclusion of Beethoven’s Sonata Op 31. No 3 coupled with the advertised Bach Partita made the first half of the concert very demanding indeed.
Well, it seemed to me that the only way forward, not least as a sign of respect for the artist, was to write absolutely as one found. In any case it rapidly became clear that Martin James Bartlett is a major talent. There was much to admire. Bach’s Partita No.2 came across often sparkling in its clarity and thrust. Also, I admired the way he declined any unfit expressiveness. However, therein lies the problem all pianists face when playing this composer on the piano, how within a narrow range to vary the dynamics, texture, and colour so that monotony does not set in as dance follows dance. I felt this artist did not fully avoid that result, but then I have to recognise that the line in Bach between boredom and delight is for me a narrow one!
I also had reservations about the performance of the Beethoven. Here it became clear that one was in presence of a virtuoso. This was a performance brimming with fire and drama. However, this was achieved perhaps rather at the expense of some of the more subtle features of this work. The dynamic range seemed to me rather narrow with heavy bass and loud treble . I have heard performances of this sonata which make a good case for it being one of the composer’s most joyous, witty, even quirky compositions, full of delightful wrong turnings and surprises. Here in the general urgency it came across without too much of a smile. The treble in particular hardly ever skipped, tripped, caressed or sang, even in the third movement. One wondered whether overall greater relaxation might not have reaped a richer harvest.
So, as we reached the interval I felt this was turning out to be one of those concerts in which there was much to admire but which for want of much individuality were rather unlikely to stick in the memory. And then out of the blue the pianist played an encore to the first half, a Liszt transcription of Schumann, which seemed an intimation that in the second half there might be something altogether of a different order and I spent the interval wondering whether possible nerves had disappeared and whether the Romantic and 20c. repertoire would show the artist in an altogether different light.
How true that proved to be! It was a warm evening and the pianist emerged for the second half without his jacket. To my mind nothing could have been more symbolic of the change in atmosphere. Here at last was a pianist intent upon sharing delights with his audience. The Museum piano began to sound like it can, warm and glowing. A beautifully rapt account of the most famous of Schubert’s Impromptus, played with disarming simplicity, was followed by, for me at least, a revelatory performance of Granados’s El amour y la Muerte from Goyescas. I have a CD of this by possibly the most famous Spanish pianist of the last century but, perhaps because of the quality of the recording, have never found its sound world immediately as attractive as some Spanish music can be. As a result I couldn’t see where the piece was going at times. Here everything seemed in place and the shading and shaping that the pianist achieved at times was ravishing. A friend remarked later that he felt Goya’s picture to be in front of him such was the effect of this performance. Alas, I could not recall the painting but it mattered little.
By now things felt to be well and truly on a roll . A grandly romantic rendering of Liszt’s Petrarch’s Sonnet No.104 was followed by Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.3. You could feel the pianist’s joy that at last he could display without inhibition his command of the keyboard in one of most outrageously virtuosic pieces ever composed for the piano, written by a young genius intent on shocking the musical world. The effect was duly stunning and provided an electric climax to the concert.
Except that it wasn’t the climax! That belonged to the encore, the last movement of another Prokofiev Sonata. Clearly by this time the pianist’s adrenalin must have been flowing at some prodigious rate. Suffice to say, it made for a concert which was mightily memorable after all.
News of Forthcoming Events
LIMF 2nd Gala Concert The Carducci String Quartet Thursday June 8th
The Carducci String Quartet are no strangers to Leicester and time and again have shown themselves to one of the finest quartets playing today. They have put together an enticing programme of Haydn, Beethoven and Shostakovich. Also they have been part of an LIMF musical education project in the city and will play a piece written by a student currently at Wyggeston Queen Elizabeth 1st 6th Form College.
As usual the concert is at the Museum and starts at 7.30.
Budleigh Music Festival July 7th -12th
Marian Culhane a stalwart of the LIMF over the years who now lives in the West Country visited Leicester for the above concert and she tells me that many old friends are to be found at the above Festival. So, if you fancy a short break in the West Country, you will find all the details on the internet.