Sonata in G, Op.31/1
Sonata in E, Op.109
Fairy Tales in B minor, Op.20/2 & D minor, Op.34/4
Four Characteristic Pieces Water Nymphs; Fragrance; Bittersweet; Fireflies
Bernard Roberts (piano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 8 July, 2004
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
There’s no mystique to Bernard Roberts, who turned 70 in 2003; he walks on to the platform in an enthusiastic and business-like manner and acknowledges the audience with a friendly smile. He sits down, adjusts his spectacles, peruses the music in front of him (he prefers to play from the printed score) and then plays with a fine mix of naturalness and perceptiveness.
This recital proved gratifying. Beethoven filled the first half, maybe Roberts’s signature composer (although a glance at his Nimbus recordings, the Wyastone link below, will find not just this composer), and began with a jaunty account of the first of the Opus 31 sonatas, in which Roberts played-up Beethoven’s ribaldry. If Beethoven’s wit is less succinct than Haydn’s is (and surely Beethoven is imitating his great predecessor), Roberts’s enjoyment of Beethoven’s bluffs and counter-bluffs ensured that the listener had no inhibitions at smiling. Roberts unfurled the ‘Italian aria’ slow movement with elegance and flow, and the finale was suitably droll.
From the ridiculous to the sublime (via a lively version of the improvisatory Fantasia) with an account of the wonderful E major sonata that had warmth and clarity and culminated in a very moving traversal of the theme and variations finale that, while less transporting than it can be, got to the soul of the music in the most direct and human way.
Brahms’s four Ballades began the second half. As Roberts adjusted his glasses, a thought-bubble seemed to appear above his head: “Now, what have we got here? Ah, Brahms.” This is music easy to distend and pull out of shape. Roberts played all four pieces straight, with heart and subtle inflexion; any real or imagined narrative was left to the listener’s imagination, and one could enjoy Roberts’s dynamic withdrawals, especially memorable in the middle section of the third Ballade, which became quite ethereal. His simple, integrated eloquence throughout was very satisfying.
After he’d found the sheet music (!), Roberts then brought out the fantasy and declamation of two of Medtner’s Fairy Tales, the first a storming piece that was well within Roberts’s compass, although he might have been more demonstrative, while the more lyrical second one culminated in imitations of bells, which pealed out significantly.
Good to hear some Frank Bridge pieces live; this set dates from 1917. It’s possible to imagine the first three made more alluring, more impressionistic, and more elusive. Roberts chose to underline the structure of each, yet wasn’t short on charm (and what a beautiful sound he produced from the Steinway throughout the evening). The rapid figuration of the final piece, Fireflies, was deftly handled. For an encore, Roberts introduced a Pavane by Herbert Howells, one that looks back several centuries; quintessentially British and ineffably beautiful. Roberts’s blissful smile as he played the final chord said it all.
It was good to catch Roberts. He’s just issued Schubert’s ultimate (B flat) sonata on Claudio Records: given the qualities of this recital, that’s a tempting prospect.