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S & H Concert Review

Ronald Smith, piano, Eightieth-birthday recital, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 16 December 2002 (MA)

Ronald Smith’s eightieth birthday fell on 3 January 2002; this QEH concert was the culmination of a series of recitals he has been giving throughout the year. It was, quite simply, astonishing. The playing – and the musicianship – almost beggared belief. A friend remarked during the interval that we would generally observe of most eighty-year-olds that ‘so-and-so managed to get out a concert the other day’; that someone close on 81 years of age should tackle a programme of such breathtaking difficulty – Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasia, Chopin’s Op. 12 Studies, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, and three pieces by Alkan – and despatch it with such technical ease and musical insight is extraordinary. Add the fact that Smith’s vision is severely impaired – he had to feel for the handrail every time he left the stage – and the extent of his achievement becomes as clear as it is difficult to believe.

Smith comes on stage hesitantly, as if slightly shy, doubtless because of his eyes; once he is seated at the piano, the manner changes entirely. He sits back and low, leaning into the keyboard, his arms outstretched and his large hands held low over the keys, with the fingers appearing to drop out onto them as required. The result is a maximal clarity of texture: you can hear every note he plays, with the subsidiary lines and colours as readily perceptible as the dominant ones.

Ronald Smith’s name is inextricably linked with that of Charles-Valentin Alkan, whose greatness he perceived decades ahead of everyone except the late Raymond Lewenthal, and whose music he has done more to establish than anyone else, living or dead. So it was natural that I first got to hear to Smith in Alkan, on LP and in recitals he gave for The Alkan Society. In such repertoire, of course, there was no one to judge him against, and so when I first heard him play something else – the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata in a recital at Morley College around 1980 – it came as a salutary shock to discover that he was a great musician as well as an astounding virtuoso: that profoundly insightful ‘Waldstein’ was the equal of any I had heard from pianists whose names go in larger letters.

And so it proved here: a ‘Wanderer’ that was a template for large-scale pacing and architectural control, Chopin studies that blended Mozartian lucidity with Brahmsian power, and a Beethoven Op. 111 that was, in the first movement, blazingly exciting and compelling in its magisterial energy and, in the second, a model of Olympian calm – those murderously exposed trills were flawlessly even.

When Smith came back for his three Alkan pieces – ‘Le tombeau bat aux champs’, Op. 50, No. 2, the weird and mesmeric ‘La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer’, Op. 31, No. 8, and the fiendish octave study that closes the 12 Études dans tous les tons majeurs, Op. 35 – he introduced them from the platform, the understated whimsy of his spoken manner contrasting pointedly with the monumental command of his keyboard approach. His wife, he told us, had told him not to play the Op. 35 but would we like to hear it anyway? Yes, bellowed a near-full QEH, and so he did, with a precision and vigour that would have been barely credible in someone sixty years his junior. After a second curtain call he silenced the thunderous applause, asked whether we would like Chopin or Alkan as an encore and then played a piece of each composer. What he didn’t reveal was the reason his wife had advised against the Alkan study: a severe chest pain that had already made itself felt during the Chopin studies in the first half of the concert – and which, with hindsight, made have signalled its presence then in a momentarily loss of pace. Although in the interval he had been advised against continuing the concert, he came back and dazzled us – the mark of the seasoned trooper or a foolhardily brave gesture from someone who didn’t want to disappoint his audience, or perhaps both.

I’m aware that this review has been a raft of superlatives, but it was that kind of concert: I don’t recall a recital (and I’ve seen a few) where the artist was given a standing ovation already after the first half. Even without the guts that brought him back for the second part of the programme, the evening was an opportunity to pay homage to a remarkable musician and an outstanding man, and it will resound in the memory even if I live to Smith’s young old age.

One small sour note: when is the administration of the South Bank Centre going to throw out its exhausted old pianos and get in some instruments with sounds that project? For all Smith’s virtuosity and power, there was no bloom to the sound – and I know it’s the tool, not the workman (the one in the Purcell Room is in worse condition yet). Does no one complain? They must do.

If you missed this recital, you can still catch Ronald Smith on CD: just as he’s still performing, he’s still recording. APR has just released Ronald Smith plays Schubert (APR 5568), the latest in a series which mixes earlier recordings with new ones – in this instance, the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy was laid down in March and the two A minor Sonatas, D537 and D784, were first issued by Nimbus in 1986. (The others bring Alkan piano music (APR 7031) and chamber works (APR 7032), Liszt (APR 5557), Chopin (APR 5565 and 5567) and Beethoven (APR 5566).) ‘Landmark stuff’, says one of the reviews quoted in the Schubert booklet. It certainly is. But then he’s a landmark man.

Martin Anderson

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