BACH Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C. Partita No. 6 in e. Concerto in d (after Marcello): Adagio. BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 30 • James Rhodes (pn) • SIGNUM SIGCD185 (77:09)
This is the second release from this label of the playing of the young British pianist James Rhodes. In my review of the premiere CD, I admired the playing while snickering at the rather silly production values. Rhodes continues his snarky ways inRead more this presentation, which is subtitled Now Would All Freudians Please Stand Aside (a quote form his favorite pianist, Glenn Gould), and is filled with edgy but I must admit interesting photography. The program is dominated by Bach, the composer who allowed for Rhodes’s best performance in the earlier CD. His playing of the Bach/Busoni Chaconne revealed “a firm sense of the architecture and pacing of the work, and the overall dramatic effect is quite powerful.” On this release, we get more Bach playing of intuitive theatrical power, superb manipulation of tonal color, and a deep affection of the music that nevertheless does not smother or distort it. This is especially so in the grand transcription, again by Busoni, of the magnificent Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C. Rhodes, in an interview on a bonus CD, refers to the famous Horowitz performance of the music, and while Rhodes cannot match the grandiosity of Horowitz, he plays with greater dignity and respect for musical idiom.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 is imbued by a Baroque sensibility, especially in the great variation set, an effect amplified in the context of the Bach. Rhodes plays the music impeccably and essentially straightforwardly, which is good enough to make listening to this extraordinary music rewarding, but not good enough to catapult Rhodes into the ranks of the likes of Schnabel, Arrau, or Uchida, to name just three of the many performances that are distinctive in ways that make the music pop into a higher realm.
The interviews on the bonus CD intriguingly lift away a few more veils from the enigma that is James Rhodes. He refers to a lack of formal training. He talks about having been involuntarily institutionalized, where he learned the Bach/Marcello Adagio away from the keyboard, and which he plays like a prayer. He also speaks of this music he so dearly loves with poetic intuition. I was especially taken with his notion of the opening of the Beethoven sonata existing in a kind of eternal ether, which the pianist enters into, like hopping on a train that is already moving along at a gently animated pace.
The persona of Rhodes bears a superficial resemblance to another British classical musician, violinist Nigel Kennedy. Kennedy, with his ripped tuxes and Mohawk hairdo, was easy to laugh at, in the stuffy context of the classical concert circuit. In the case of both young men, it doesn’t matter at all when you close your eyes and hear beautiful music, and then they get the last laugh.
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