Simon Nicholls at The Red Hedgehog

Variations on a Theme by Salieri
Sonata in E minor, Op.90
Bagatelles, Op.126
Variations on an Original Theme, Op.34
Sonata in C, Op.53 (Waldstein)

Simon Nicholls (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 3 December, 2006
Venue: The Red Hedgehog, Highgate, London N6

Simon Nicholls is stocky, rather grizzled and bearded. He teaches piano and accompaniment at the Birmingham Conservatoire. I envy his students.

In a soft-voice and with wry humour, Nicholls introduced each of the pieces, placing them deftly in Beethoven’s oeuvre and in his life. He also commended The Red Hedgehog bright, cosy, friendly venue as eminently suitable for the intimacy of this Sunday afternoon piano recital.

The occasion itself was eminently satisfying. Simon Nicholls cares about and takes care over what he does. He prepares himself thoroughly, leaving nothing to chance. Every note is assessed judiciously and allocated its proper place; phrases are meticulously demarcated; contrasts are robustly made.

This much was evident from the start. The rarely-played Variations on a Theme by Salieri begins with a trivial theme; the ensuing Variations have real power. Nicholls played with a forceful forward motion that spurned the scurry of lesser interpreters looking for energy. Each Variation had its own particular glitter, paraded as a jewel in its own right. We, the listeners, could take delight with him in the stylistic change of each commentary – hints of the melody in the bass, scamperings into the treble, vigorous embellishments of the original harmony and so on.

Simon Nicholls introduced the Opus 90 sonata most engagingly, as Beethoven’s view of the stormy courtship of the Count Moritz Lichnowsky (the work’s dedicatee) and his wife (E minor), followed by his hopes for their spirited marital bliss (E major). Nicholls played the first movement as a vigorous conversation piece, not unlike Janáček’s voices in his two string quartets. We heard a strong, peremptory, male voice and a flowing, cajoling female reply. We heard raised voices. We heard some accommodation. Then we heard a song of ardent tenderness swelling into moments of ecstatic togetherness. Rarely is this sonata played on such a human scale. It was most affecting – and felt so right.

Like the earlier Variations, the Bagatelles, Opus 126, were remarkable for their contrasts, delineated tellingly for all their fragmentary abruptness. This is, after all, a notebook sketching the fleeting moods of a master – some jottings developed over a page or two, others gone before they’ve barely begun.

Finally, the tornado – the ‘Waldstein’. This was a massive and well-judged rendition of might and vitality. Notes cascaded in avalanches of huge emotion, executed after great care and forethought. As in the previous pieces, every change of tempo, change of mood, change of texture and change of style had been thought through, in the sense of being carefully and soundly considered. Yet Simon Nicholls is not cerebral. He does not dissect the music with a textbook at his side. In his hands, Beethoven is wholly impassioned – towering and restless, versatile and spirited, and at the same time utterly human. Someone we can understand.

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