I went to two piano recitals last week: one by a famous international artist, the other by a young man who is still a student. They could not have been more different. Nor could my enjoyment of the two events.
The first was given by Sir András Schiff at the superb Saffron Halls, the newly-built 740-seater auditorium in the grounds of Saffron Walden High School. At £10 million it is the most expensive building of its kind built by private donation. The acoustics and sight lines are exemplary. I wasn’t going to go, for Schiff is not my kind of pianist. And the programme was not my kind of programme: four sonatas by ‘Vienna’ composers played one after the other without an interval. Great works all – a Haydn C major, Beethoven Op.109, Mozart ‘Facile’ C major and Schubert’s late C minor. Well a friend phoned up the day before and offered me her spare ticket so I thought – oh why not?
But it was just as I feared. Schiff wandered on bowed to the front, bowed to the back, sat, measured his arms’ length, waited, began. Lovely tone, lovely colour variation, plenty of character and rhythmic alacrity– and then of course you realise ten minutes into the Haydn you’re going to hear the whole things from the beginning again. Exposition repeats in Haydn and Mozart sonatas only become bearable if there is some variation in colour and execution the second time round. Schiff gave us an exact duplication, a computerised copy.
The Haydn ended. We applauded dutifully. Schiff rose, bowed to the front, bowed to the back, sat, measured his arms’ length – a pause which allowed a few latecomers to settle in their seats and created a palpable air of tension in the hall – and was just about to play the first notes of Op.109 when someone dropped something or banged their seat or, at any rate, made a noise. Schiff didn’t look out but merely shook his head sorrowfully as though silently reprimanding a naughty child in class. A few in the audience thought this was a light-hearted gesture and chuckled. The rest of us stiffened in our seats. We hadn’t realised we had come to a religious gathering. Op. 109 came and went, technically assured, faultlessly executed, emotionally cold. Same routine before the Mozart and Schubert. We applauded a skilful artist and a few people left their seats to head home – but no. He was going to play an encore. How delightful! Für Elise? A Schubert Impromptu? No. The whole of Op.110. All 20 minutes of it. And that’s why I vowed never to attend another recital by Sir András Schiff. If that evening was the first piano recital someone had been to, they would have been put the off the experience for life. Five heavyweight sonatas without a break. Nothing above ff or below pp. No communication with the audience or any indication that the recital was a pleasurable experience for the pianist or that he actually enjoyed playing the piano in public for money.
What a contrast with the next recital. It took place in the tiny church of St Mary’s, Wethersfield, a few miles from where I live. This was the first of a series of three concerts to be held there within a few weeks –rare examples of professional musicians appearing in our rural neck of the woods. The professional musician on this occasion was Martin James Bartlett who won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2014 at the age of 17. Here he was, two years later, still a student at the RCM, bespectacled and sunny of disposition, kicking off with Beethoven’s E flat Sonata Op.31 No.3, the one which Saint-Saëns used for his Beethoven Variations for two pianos. Delightful, charming and witty, Bartlett’s default facial expression seems to be a smile. His face reflects the mood and the phrasing of the music – nothing on the same ridiculous level of Lang Lang – and leaves one with the impression of a young man enjoying the task, reveling in the technical and musical difficulties that LvB throws at the player.
These, of course, are nothing compared with his next offering, Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann, one of the piano’s great masterpieces in my opinion. Bartlett paced the music beautifully making the first entrance of the big tune (high up in the register) especially moving. The work’s peroration with the same theme was powerfully intense (‘neurotic, but not as neurotic as Horowitz!’ was his jokey verdict to me afterwards). Great applause from the 140 present (nearly a full house) most of them unfamiliar with Op.31 No.3 and Vallée d’Obermann. They might have previously heard the three best known Schubert Impromptus we had after the interval but not, I think, the gritty, tumultuous Barber Sonata which followed. This was given a superb, confident reading that put the half-sized grand through it spaces – a shame that its bass register was so thin and that Bartlett had to work hard to achieve the sounds he wanted, especially in the Schubert (even so, this well-prepared piano cost £500 to hire on Sunday rates, a huge chunk of the revenue from the concert). As a quasi-encore we had Earl Wild’s virtuoso étude on ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’ which inevitably brought the house down. I introduced myself to Bartlett who was happily sitting at the back of the church, as people filed out, chatting to some young friends he had brought with him. I told him that his programme was something I could imagine Shura Cherkassky having played. ‘Oh he’s one of my heroes,’ was the reply. I told him how much I had enjoyed his recital and how bored I had been by Schiff’s. ‘Yes he does tend to play that sort of programme. I have to play these three Schubert Impromptus to him in three weeks time.’ I said ‘Well don’t let him change a thing. You must keep on playing as you are!’