Ronald Smith 80th-Birthday Recital – 16 December

Le tambour bat aux champs, Op.50/2
La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer, Op.31/8
Etude (Octave study), Op.35/12
Sonata in C minor, Op.111
Twelve Etudes, Op.25
Fantasia in C, D760 (Wanderer)

Ronald Smith (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 16 December, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Still playing, teaching and recording, Ronald Smith, his 80th already celebrated by the time of this recital, gave one of the concerts of this or any year. It’s difficult to understand why he should only appear in London for something significant like a milestone birthday.

The programme he chose, music he has played and recorded over many years, looked on paper something of a gamble. But that’s the folly of worrying about somebody’s age. In reality, Smith had this mighty repertoire safely in his memory and in his fingers. Yes, there were some wrong notes – but these counted for nothing when Smith’s musical command carried all before it.

Many a tribute was paid to Smith in the programme book from colleagues and pupils. One imagines that recital-giving is not now a regular part of Smith’s life, but he obviously means a great deal to many people through his work as a pedagogue and as an authority on his chosen composers – not least Alkan on whom he is also an author.

Alkan ended the recital. Beforehand, there was the far from trifling matter of masterpieces written between 1822 and 1836. Schubert’s ’Wanderer’ opened proceedings and immediately established Smith’s authority. He plays with the minimum of fuss. His range of dynamics is wide. His bass has presence without being forced. The treble sonority never stings. There is plenty of power without the need for bombast. There is much delicacy without it sounding artificial. What’s more important is that Smith plays from within the music – everything he does has musical validity.

This recital returned some sanity to attending concerts. Here was an audience that came to listen to a master, and it did so without the now commonplace lowering of standards … no mobile phone rang, for example. Smith’s musicianship is such that anything vacuous, superficial or self-consciously audience-pleasing is not even thought about.

In a nutshell, throughout this recital, Smith played with strength, candour and compelling musical focus. His athletic fingers combed the keyboard for a whole range of colours, touches and nuances – everything being complementary to the music, of which Smith has absolute structural focus. How wonderfully he traced the ominous-to-ethereal motion of Schubert’s second movement; how daredevil he was with the reckless tempo for the last – reckless for a chap of 80, but Schubert took precedence and Smith is a truth-teller and justified his decision.

Also from 1822, Beethoven’s ultimate sonata (the Diabelli Variations were still to come) opened the second half. Trenchant, exploratory and rough-hewn, Smith caught the questing nature of the first movement’s drive. The concluding ’Arietta’ ranged from hypnotic fluency to unashamed syncopation to rapt stillness – the focus on the final chord was summed as the perfect journey’s end.

Chopin’s Op.25 studies followed the Schubert. Technical challenges met and subsumed, Smith concentrated on the music within these twelve pieces. The tenderness with which arpeggios were navigated, the subtlety of trills, the buoyancy of rhythms, and the warmth with which melodies were unfolded all spoke of Chopin’s genius and Smith’s long experience. There was seriousness of purpose, no lack of charm or enjoyment, and a genuine sense of culmination with the majestic and tempestuous three final studies.

Having written succinct and vivid notes for the programme, Smith introduced the Alkan from the stage – with enthusiasm, insight and a touch of the raconteur. What a fascinating composer Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) is. He was a friend of Chopin’s, gave occasional recitals and was famous as a virtuoso despite long reclusive periods. As a composer he wrote many short pieces and a number that are substantial and physically demanding of the performer. His music is interesting, often audacious, and personal and couldn’t be mistaken as being by better-known contemporaries. Smith, not surprisingly, sought out musical expression rather than technical edification: the spiralling to hallucination of Op.31/8 or the huge demands of the Etude, in 10/16 time, which electrified the Hall. Look no further than EMI 5 75649 2 for a twofer introduction to Alkan’s music, astonishingly played by Smith in the ’seventies and ’eighties.

This was not, after all, a recital given for old time’s sake, but a scintillating and moving one that not only confirmed Ronald Smith as a magnificent musician but one where an encore in the form of another London recital is surely mandatory. This recital’s actual encores were more Alkan and Chopin’s Op.10/5 study, the ’black keys’ one.

I wonder too if Smith’s work as a composer could not be brought to wider recognition, not least the Violin Concerto that was referred to enthusiastically by Colin Sauer who once played it with Sir Charles Groves for the BBC. Does a tape survive?

Fortunately, APR has recently documented a number of Ronald Smith’s interpretations – it’s so good to know that this modest but magisterial figure is being looked after and remains a force to be reckoned with in recital.

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