Jimmy: James Rhodes Live in Brighton
Alessandro MARCELLO (1699-1747)
Adagio, from Concerto No. 3 in D minor (arr. Bach, BWV 974) [4:38]
Jimmy on classical music and Beethoven [7:07]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C, “Waldstein,” Op 53 [22:16]
Jimmy on Moszkowski [1:39]
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)
Etude in F, Op. 72 No. 6 [1:49]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 [4:10]
Jimmy on Chopin [4:17]
Frydryk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Romanza, from Piano Concerto No. 1 (arr. Balakirev) [10:07]
Jimmy on Bach [4:27]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chaconne in D minor, from BWV 1004 (arr. Busoni) [14:29]
Jimmy on encores and Schumann [1:59]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Widmung (arr. Liszt) [4:30]
Jimmy on Grieg [1:02]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
In the Hall of the Mountain King (arr. Ginzburg) [2:34]
James Rhodes (piano)
rec. live, December 2011, The Old Market, Brighton, UK
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD308 [37:27 + 47:30]
James Rhodes is awesome. A lot of people are going to shudder at the cover photo and the title “Jimmy,” looking like a second-rate pop album, and a lot of them are going to shudder when they find out that this live concert recording preserves all of Rhodes’ chatting with the audience. They can click the back button. James Rhodes cuts through the shroud of the classical mystique to play music for the non-specialist audience the way it should be played: with approachability, without condescension, with a great teacher’s ability to share his sense of awe with students, and without overt pandering or phoniness. In all his albums, and in his liner-notes, and on his Twitter, Rhodes is obviously being himself. It’s not a marketing image: he really is this passionate about classical music, and this passionate about sharing it with everybody even if they’re wearing jeans and platinum dyed hair and pocketing their iPhones. Plus, he is a very good pianist. And that’s awesome.
Live in Brighton is an 85-minute concert from December 2011, about 64 of music and 21 of Rhodes talking about his program. The music, lest there be any doubt, is handled well: the Marcello/Bach adagio is a moving prayer to the piano, which Rhodes says he plays to calm his nerves and which definitely works for me. The Beethoven “Waldstein” isn’t perfect, but it is very good. The slow intermezzo is handled with tenderness and the first movement flows wonderfully, but Rhodes hasn’t quite learned how to bring off the finale’s first bars with magical softness, or how hard he can attack the minor-key episodes later on. First movement repeat is omitted. Who wouldn’t want to hear such glorious music twice?
Rhodes plays the Chopin/Balakirev Romanze with tenderness and sensitivity which has made this one of his signature pieces, then turns around and delivers the best performance of the night in the Bach/Busoni Chaconne, built with the vision and unwavering power of a cathedral, but also passionately romantic. I don’t know how you combine a full plunge into the manic-depressive emotional swing of this music with an ability to make it hang together structurally, but James Rhodes pulls it off as well as anybody. The very small audience knows it. The program also includes a few smaller encores: a fiendish Moszkowski etude which comes off, for all its difficulty, as a light little after-dinner trifle exactly as intended; a lovely Schumann/Liszt Widmung, and an “In the Hall of the Mountain King” in which Rhodes has as much fun as can be legally had on a piano in a public place. There’s Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor too, but I’ve heard that so many times now that my favorite part was Rhodes admitting he hadn’t planned to play it.
Now about the talking. Rhodes himself is very modest about his chatting in the (awesome) booklet, saying, “you can very easily … remove it entirely from your iTunes library should you get bored senseless by my voice.” But “I’ve often wished that more classical musicians would take the time to communicate to their audience during their concerts, and I hope you’ll indulge me for doing so.” Indulgence granted: Rhodes is a gifted communicator, and although he comes across as rather shy and mumbly at times, this is in his favor. If he was as charming as Eric Idle’s emcee from Flying Circus, there’d be something very suspicious about it. What makes Rhodes a gifted talker is his natural ability to explain music to the audience: he compares Beethoven’s experimentation with new pianofortes to people queuing up to buy iPhones; he is hilarious on Chopin’s unrequited loves; he gets the audience in stitches explaining why Bach was “the baroque Keith Richards”; Remember, JSB sired 20 children. He’s also keen to explain what he hears in each work, and why he wants to play them.
Isn’t that a good idea? I don’t see why it’s so foreign for an artist giving a recital to turn to the audience and say, “here’s why I really love this music, and why I want to play it for you.” I don’t fully understand the philosophy of the classical performance being like an art gallery: look with awe and appreciation, and if you don’t get it, read the plaque/booklet. Art galleries do tours. They have wine tastings and eager docents and the Tate Britain has little stations where you can pick up a pencil and try to copy what you see. Classical music has James Rhodes. Actually, a lot of this century’s performers are more accessible to their audiences, especially thanks to Twitter and the rise of the after-concert reception. I once attended one where a young pianist asked Hélène Grimaud for advice and she said, “If you can do anything other than play the piano, do that instead.” It can only be a force for good, I think. That is to say, I love dressing up and staring down people who clap between movements, too, but I also love seeing an audience get really engaged with the music when they weren’t expecting to do so.
What stands out about James Rhodes is that he’s not trying to connect with his audience so much as he is trying to connect his audience directly to the music. He’s a tattooed, profane, and profoundly gifted ambassador for the music he loves. He is, in a word, awesome. If there’s someone in your life who says things like “I like hearing classical music but don’t know much about it,” give this album to them for Christmas. Trust me.
James Rhodes is a gifted ambassador for the music he loves, and this is a fantastic live album that showcases his great playing and his even better commentary.