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Light and Shadows
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28 Pastoral [26:13]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Waldszenen, Op. 82 [22:46]
Frédéric CHOPIN (180110-1849)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 Marche funčbre [22:55]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Narodil se Kristus Pán (Christ the Lord is born) [0:53]
Tom Poster (piano)
rec. 21-22 December 2014, Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, UK

Tom Poster’s surname rhymes with ‘Foster’, so I will resist referring to him as the former ‘poster boy’ of British pianism, a pun I’ll bet he’s never heard before. In any case it’s now a decade and a half since most of those prizes and awards and he has become something far more interesting than that. His early precocious talent has truly matured — which sadly doesn’t always happen — and he has become a complete professional musician. He composes and arranges music, records TV and film soundtracks, plays with leading orchestras and is sought after as a colleague in song and chamber music by some of the best names in the business. If that sounds as if he is spreading himself a bit thinly, it must be said that on this evidence he still remains a very fine soloist in the core piano repertory.

Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata has one of his most ingratiating openings, and makes a beguiling start to the disc. At first I thought this perfectly good account of the piece rather penny-plain, but a few hearings convinced me of its rightness. In particular, it does not over-dramatize, but places the sonata, which dates from 1801, on the cusp of the composer’s early and middle periods. Its few forceful moments are given their due, but so are its predominantly lyrical moods. The nickname ‘Pastoral’ was the publisher’s invention, but it has always seemed an appropriate one. Despite the virtuoso flourish which closes the work, and which is very precisely dispatched here, this is essentially a very agreeable amble in the Viennese countryside. Poster is an illuminating guide.

The pianist muses in his own booklet note on the relative neglect of Schumann’s Forest Scenes and indeed two supposedly comprehensive books on the composer – Alan Walker’s old edited volume and Jensen’s more recent book in the ‘Master Musicians’ series – give it so little space as to seem dismissive. They should hear it played like this, full of fantasy and charm, each contrasting sylvan scene suitably characterised but not so much as to disrupt the cumulative growth across the whole cycle, which we know Schumann took great care to structure persuasively. These seemingly artless missives from Arcadia, composed with great art, need the most dedicated advocacy, which is what they receive from Tom Poster. Waldszenen was one of Schumann’s own favourites among his works, although Clara Schumann felt some of it was too personal, even too distressing, to play. I wonder if she had the wonderfully poignant final scene in mind, an Abschied played here with surpassing tenderness. The pianist almost sounds reluctant to take his leave of this envoi, which he finds “utterly heartbreaking”.

The Chopin B flat minor sonata gets off to a stirring start, in a reading of the first movement which balances the turbulence of the first subject and the nobility of the second with a convincing impetus in its five and a half minute duration. As is usual on disc we are denied the exposition repeat in this first movement, though it would be nice to hear it once in a while, especially when it has gone so well first time around. I imagine pianists are aware that the work is going to end with a very short movement and do not want to unbalance the structure. The scherzo is swift and remorseless, and its delightful central melody is chastely phrased, only distantly reminiscent of its passionate Bellinian models. One nearly resents the return of the violent scherzo for disrupting the idyll.

The funeral march slow movement must be one of the most familiar pieces in all classical music, yet it never fails to make its effect. So it is here, noble and keening in its comfortless grief. It is rare to hear the consoling middle section of the march played quite so intimately, so withdrawn in mood. It is as if we hear Chopin communing with himself, and we have become his transgressing auditors, able to overhear him while holding our breath. The reprise of the march is implacable, its crescendo perfectly graduated. The hundred-second whirlwind of the finale is as bleak and nihilistic as is surely intended by this ‘anti-music’. I quite see why Poster wanted to end not with that, but with the tiny Janáček carol, a sort of good angel to the fallen one that closes the Chopin sonata.

What do we look for in a mixed recital of standard repertoire like this - Beethoven in the Brendel class, Schumann to rival Richter, Chopin reminiscent of Rubinstein? Surely not but we have something here just as rewarding in its way – a satisfying programme from a musical personality with something individual to say about each of these composers, and the technique - and temperament - to hold the attention throughout. Even if you have discs of these pieces with all those pianistic giants from the past, you will still find plenty of inspiration here.

The disc is very well recorded with piano sound warm and realistic in a good acoustic, and the booklet note is both personal and insightful. It is to be hoped that this is just a start to a relationship with this label and they will let us hear more of Tom Poster’s work.

Roy Westbrook



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