Nicholas Walker at St John’s, Smith Square

Bach, arr. Liszt
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV543
Piano Sonata in E flat, Op.81a (Les adieux)
Fantasy in C, D760 (Wanderer)
Polonaise in A flat, Op.53; Nocturne in E flat, Op.55/2;Ballade in A flat, Op.47
Études d’exécution transcendente – 4: Mazeppa; 11: Harmonies du Soir; 8: Wide Jagd
Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor

Nicholas Walker (piano)

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 27 September, 2011
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Nicholas Walker. Photograph: Rita CastleIt was no surprise that such a programme would attract a large audience, drawn equally by the reputation of this artist. Not that Nicholas Walker was interpretatively consistently at his very best throughout this long and absorbing programme, although his superb technical accomplishment was at all times evident and placed at the service of the music, but the magnificent performances he gave of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy and the group of pieces by Liszt which concluded this recital demonstrated that he is among the finest living interpreters of these particular composers.

The intelligent planning which evidently lay behind this selection of music began with Liszt’s ‘arrangement’ of Bach’s A minor Prelude and Fugue, originally for organ, and played with such fluency and expressive attention to detail alongside a total grasp of the various fugal sections (the beginning of the second ‘middle entry’ was outstandingly well projected) that at once declared Walker to be an artist of commanding insight. After this, the Beethoven seemed a little (but only a little) disappointing; perhaps it was the vast acoustic of St John’s, perhaps it was the instrument (or its placing, set a little at an angle) but the sense of intimacy which this music inhabits was somewhat less than convincing, although one would be more than keen to hear Walker play this work in a less extensive acoustic. Perhaps also the pianist was feeling the heat (in late September!) for he returned to the platform minus the coat of his evening-dress for the Schubert, of which he proceeded to give a performance of the greatest artistry and refinement: this was a magnificent interpretation of consistent excellence and understanding, the pianist at one with this imperishable masterpiece.

After the interval, his coat now consigned to the dressing-room, Walker’s Chopin group was given at a somewhat lower interpretative level; very fine playing but the confidences of much of the music (apart from the Polonaise), in this setting also seemed a shade lacking in refinement. These thoughts were swept aside by the comprehensively stunning accounts Walker gave of the pieces by Liszt, playing of the very highest quality – technically, this pianist knows no peers, and his unfailing musicality was displayed with breathtaking effect: nor is this a euphemism for superficiality – far from it, for one’s overriding impression was the profound understanding Walker brought to these fearsomely difficult pieces and the almost effortless manner by which he transformed technical demands into purely musical Romantic expressionism, such as one hears so very rarely among pianists today.

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