Soloists must bare themselves to the audience and perform without the safety of the music stand. Crowds appreciate the danger, performances intensify, communication becomes more direct, phrasing is freed. Learning lines, after all, is only what actors do. And music is language, albeit of a heightened form. Dump your stands, all ye who would be kings.
The Park Lane Group Concerts use the intimate modern cube of the Purcell Room at London’s South Bank Centre to present selected international performers to an audience of music writers, composers, impresarios, intellectuals, know-alls, eccentrics and fellow performers. The two artists who have made the biggest impact this week both have the courage to face these daunting judges without the security of the notes.
The first is the 22-year-old guitarist Manus Noble who perches on a piano stool and touches out the harmonics at the start of Bruce MacCombie’s Nightshade Rounds with nonchalant confidence. His playing acts like a potion and we are hooked. No sound comes from the mechanics of his technique, no scrapes and clicks from the activity of playing. We hear only the clean notes. He vibratoes through the frets and watches his own immaculate fingers scurrying like spiders across the strings.
With no music to collect, Noble doesn’t even leave the stage, barely shifts position except modestly to bow, before the world premiere of Darren Bloom’s THREE. Its three-time opening based on a three note motif, eventually expanding into a three-part work, sets the Bach-like tone. Having internalised the score, Noble becomes one with it, alone in his spotlight, absorbing the energy in the Hall. The birth of a new work produced in these sacred conditions is special and the acclaim here is immediate.
The interval interrupts, but it is the same handsome star who takes the stage again. He plays the mellow repeats and echoes of Philip Cashian’s Talvi and the deceptively casual rhythmic busker chords, jazz snaps, open strums and body taps of Ginastera’s Guitar Sonata Op47 which loves the instrument. On this evidence, Noble must be the next big name in classical guitar.
The second exciting new prospect to emerge is Alexander Soares, a London based pianist of extraordinary technical skill and phenomenal memory. The tolling ritornello chords in Martin Butler’s Funerailles have jubilant, summon-all resonance under his rigid fingers. He disappears to dab his brow, but returns immediately beaming to give the UK premiere of Indian composer Naresh Sohal’s Prayer. The first of two parts treads gently with a sad snatch of melody seemingly from the music hall song ‘Won’t you come home Bill Bailey’. A sense of longing attends his touch. The second calls for right-hand triplets of breathtaking speed over low left-hand pile-driving chords like wild and urgent supplications.
Soares’ great achievement however is his account of Henri Dutilleux’s Piano Sonata, written in 1947. He renders its charming Gallic tune in the Allegro with a shrugging bounce and cannot resist the jazz in its syncopations. Freed from the tyranny of the stand, he sniffs the theme in the air in the lyrical second movement Lied and dwells long, cuddling the juicy harmonies. In the last, he dazzles with a powerful statement of the choral and launches into mighty variations, bouncing on the upholstered seat. He slips a couple of times in the coda’s cascades and his final gestures could be grander, but the sense of having been on the most thrilling and exhaustive journey.
The pianist Jennifer Lee plays every piece from the score except, ironically, Judith Weir’s I’ve Turned the Page. She has a sprightly spontaneity in its high arpeggios. She looks up at the notes while leaning awkwardly on her left arm, like relaxing at the bar, to depress the keys at the start of Roxburgh’s Prelude and Toccata. She has an impressive technique that enables her to play at any volume with the same amount of hand movement.
The recorder virtuoso Francesca Thompson also performs from behind a barrier of stands. Her big hit piece is Ned McGowan’s Workshop for Alto Recorder and Tape which features industrial wheezes, slams, door creaks and windscreen wipers against her cool, resigned blowing and it wins laughter from the PLG crowd, but the novelty in other pieces wears off with her hidden. She plays the Paetzold square bass, an odd contraption that looks and sounds put together by a four-year-old
Ensembles are not bound by the same criteria and there is only one group currently working where all the members are expected to perform by heart (the Zehetmair Quartet). The Lakeside Piano Trio warms to Frank Bridge’s Piano Trio No2 so that its ending is as powerful as anything heard this week. They play Camden Reeves' Starlight Squid which is based on the plainchant Ave Maris Stella. The composer says he first heard this theme rendered by Peter Maxwell Davies in whose honour the picture of the costume journalist nude begins this blog. The St James Wind Quintet play Robin Holloway's Five Temperaments with colourful brilliance despite a slight horn burble. They give an entertaining performance of Giles Swayne's programmatic and humorous The Murder of Gonzago, a scene from Shakespeare's Hamlet, to end an unforgettable concert.