Saturday 6 February 2016

Jonathan Plowright at Rhinegold Live

Jonathan Plowright at Rhinegold Live
Jonathan Plowright at Rhinegold Live
Brahms, Mozart, Paderewski, Chopin; Jonathan Plowright; Rhinegold Live at the Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 4 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Powerful and thoughtful playing this early evening recital

Rhinegold Live started 2016 with a concert by pianist Jonathan Plowright at the Conway Hall on Thursday 4 February 2016. The programme included Brahms Rhapsody in B minor, Op.79, No.1, and Ballade Op.10, No.4, Mozart's Variations on' Ah, vous dirai-je Maman', three of Paderewski''s Humoresques de Concert, Op.14 and Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op.31.

It is no surprise that the programme included two substantial pieces by Brahms. Plowright is in the middle of recording the complete Brahms piano music on the BIS label (three discs have been released, he has recorded a fourth and there is a fifth to come), and the event was the launch of the third disc. The Rhapsody in B minor is one of a pair of pieces Brahms wrote in 1879 (when the composer was 46) during a summer holiday. Dedicated to his friend, the composer Elisabeth von Herzogenberg she persuaded him to call them rhapsodies rather than simply klavierstücke.
Marked Agitato the Rhapsody in B minor is a large-scale piece where Plowright displayed some strong finger-work and a sense of flexible tempo. He brought firm articulation to the piece and also a sense of classical clarity arising both from the discipline of his playing and, as we found out later, the quite detailed way he pedals the music. The lyrical central section had a lovely transparent texture with a singing line, and overall the piece was full of magical moments.

Plowright introduced each piece from the platform and the next piece was included he said partly because 'I like variations'. Mozart's Variations on 'Ah, vous dirai-je-Maman' proved to be twelve variations on a tune that we known as Twinkle, twinkle little star. Here we had neat, precise and firm tone with dexterous finger-work. The sound was crisp, very present and involving, not at all laid back, with a delightful perkiness in the faster variations and an admirable evenness to the fast passagework.

Brahms Ballade, Op.10, No.4  is an early work written when he was 21 but despite this it shows a remarkable depth and maturity of tone. Again Plowright's playing had a lovely fluidity to it, with great transparency of texture. And whether the melody was at the top, or in the middle of the texture, it always sang beautifully. Overall it was a mellow, inward performance full of considered poetry.

The Menuet from Paderewski's Humoresques de Concert, Op.14 is perhaps his best known piece (that minuet), each of the pieces is in a particular dance style with the three played by Plowright being in old styles, Menuet, Sarabande and Caprice. The Menuet was elegant and brisk, with notable lack of sentimentality yet great charm, and some dazzling pianism too. Charm and elegance were also a feature of the Sarabande whilst the Caprice was vigorously fast and furious, with some terrific passage-work.

Finally we had Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op.31. Plowright made the opening rather intriguing, with a lovely contrast with the brilliant chords. His playing was stylish, yet he did not linger over much and he kept a light touch except in the moments when real power was needed. This was a robust yet poetic performance, and finished the recital in a suitably barnstorming manner.

For an encore we had an explanation of what suspensions were, followed by a lovely Scriabin prelude that was nothing but suspensions. A lovely way to finish.

Afterwards there was a short Q&A with Jonathan Plowright and Owen Mortimer, editor of International Piano. Amongst the things were learned was Plowright's rather detailed way of pedalling Brahms, during which he referred to pianists' pathological hatred of losing bass notes a piece. He went on to talk about how fascinating it was getting so close to Brahms during the process of recording all the solo piano music, and how much we misunderstand the composer and that one of Brahms' most common markings was leggiero.  For some of the Brahms, Plowright has returned to the original manuscripts and the Handel Variations autograph includes markings of Brahms' own fingerings.

Talking about how he got into music Plowright told the story of his grandfather who was a miner in Thurnscoe in Yorkshire. Hearing the name Paderewski and being intrigued without really knowing who or what Paderewski was, Plowright's grandfather walked the 14 miles to Leeds on his day off to hear the pianist play. He came away impressed, though Plowright suspects it was as much for the adulation Paderewski received as for the music and he made Plowright's father learn the piano.

Plowright also touched on the process of making recordings, saying that he found it very intimate - just you and some microphones, and that he enjoyed it and found it far more relaxed than the concert hall.

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