A Display of Pianism of the Very Highest Order in Newton Abbott from a Top British Pianist

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Martin James Bartlett (piano). Courtenay Centre, Newton Abbot, 17.2.2019. (PRB)

Martin James Bartlett (c) Philip R Buttall

Bach-Busoni – Chorale Prelude, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639
Bach-HessJesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, from Cantata No.147
Schumann Kinderszenen, Op.15 Nos. 1 and 7
LisztThree Petrarch Sonnets from Années de pèlerinage – Year 2, Italy, S161; Liebestraum No.3, S541
Schumann-Liszt Widmung (Piano Transcription), S566
Granados El amor y la muerte (Balada), from Goyescas (1911)
Wagner-Liszt Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde (piano transcription), S447
Prokofiev – Sonata No.7 for Piano in B flat, Op.83

It was only a month ago when I was singing the praises of NADSA, a flourishing annual concert series based in the Devon market town of Newton Abbot. On that occasion the highlight was undoubtedly a quite sublime performance of Elgar’s glorious Piano Quintet. But if memories of this had been one of the main topics of conversation there to date, then all traces were surely totally erased after today’s exceptional recital.

Pianist Martin James Bartlett won the prestigious BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2014. Since then, he has performed with such ensembles as BBC Symphony, BBC Scottish Symphony, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. As part of the Chinese state visit in 2015, he took part in a private performance for the First Lady of China, while in 2016 he performed at Her Majesty The Queen’s 90th Birthday thanksgiving service in St Paul’s Cathedral. With such an impressive pedigree, it came as no surprise to find that there was no spare seat to be had anywhere in the house for his recital here today.

Bartlett has recently signed with Warner Classics, and his debut album ‘Love and Death’ is set to be released this May. Its judiciously devised programme will present these two fundamental concepts in a musical mélange of works by Bach, Schumann, Wagner, Liszt, Granados, and Prokofiev, a good number of which form the backbone of Bartlett’s recital today.

Bartlett  opened with a Busoni arrangement of a Bach Chorale Prelude. It was clear from the very outset that he is a pianist who listens intently to every single sound he makes. He carefully matches the volume of each successive note, so as never to cause those unfortunate jolts that so often spoil a cantabile (singing-style) melody, especially when as here, the original source would have been vocal. In that sense, he really made the mid-sized Yamaha Grand sing here, and to an even greater degree in Myra Hess’s better-known Bach arrangement. This exhibited a perfect sense of line. Bartlett finely judged the balance of melody and counter melody to perfection, always mindful of letting either one stand out in relief, rather than it being ‘brought out’ by undue accentuation. Meanwhile, his use and command of both pedals, and the various techniques he employed to achieve a number of special effects, were carefully judged and immaculately executed.

Bartlett had an easy, engaging manner with his audience from the very outset, something that makes any such event so much more personal and involving. After Von fremden Lăndern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples) from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Bartlett slotted in one of the best-known examples from the set, Trăumerei (Dreaming). Bartlett’s highly sympathetic and imaginative performance really got to the nitty gritty of what Schumann’s intentions were and why so much greater maturity is clearly required to elicit this in performance.

Liszt’s Three Petrarch Sonnets also clearly display their vocal origins, songs by the composer. He has fashioned them into three richly-melodic piano transcriptions, and imbued them with such telling harmonic colours, and almost orchestral timbres at times. Once more Bartlett gave three all-surpassing readings. Not only was it visibly apparent that he was constantly fine-tuning the sounds he and his piano were producing, but he still could despatch all the wonderful filigree writing and melodic decoration with ease and panache.

While ‘Love’s Dream’, by its very title, is a strong candidate for inclusion here, over the years this particular piece from the Hungarian master – his Liebestraum No.3 – has gained a less than fashionable reputation at times. That is due to its use by many pianists in the more popular, easy-listening sector, many of whom have not really the technical expertise to bring off some of its trickier moments without relying heavily on the sustaining pedal to mask some of the difficulties. Needless to say, Bartlett brought a welcome freshness to the reading, where the clarity of line and ever-changing harmonies really came back to the fore once more.

Bartlett brought his superb command of touch in long-sustained cantabile phrases, and masterly control of different registers to Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s Widmung, with such great effect that at times you could have been forgiven for thinking that there was, indeed, a voice present in the texture.

The programme notes explain that El amor y la muerte (Balada), while not the most popular of Granados’s two-volume piano suite Goyescas, is the most significant – and longest – since the composer incorporates all the themes of Goyescas in this, the fifth piece of the set. Bartlett’s highly impassioned performance idiomatically conveyed the Spanish feel of the score, with its often quasi-improvised nature. Personally, I found it a trifle frustrating at times when some of the best-known themes were alluded to, but never really developed, and thus I would have instead preferred arguably the best-known piece of the set – Quejas, o La Maja y el ruiseñor (Complaint, or the Lover and the Nightingale) – while of course acknowledging that El amor y la muerte does provide the theme and title of the forthcoming CD.

If you are going to die on stage, there are few better occasions than in the truly sublime Liebestod from Wagner’s epic five-hour music drama Tristan und Isolde. In Liszt’s transcription the pianist is required to represent a Wagnerian orchestra in full song. They essentially must pace themselves until the work’s truly orgasmic climax is reached, building tension all the time, but always having something in reserve for the final denouement. Bartlett’s pacing was absolutely superb here. He produced a massive, yet never unpleasant sound from the instrument – a consummate performance that could hardly be bettered.

But bettered it surely was, with a quite phenomenal reading of Prokofiev’s shortest, and most popular of the three ‘War Sonatas’, first performed by Sviatoslav Richter in 1943. Bartlett attacked the opening Allegro inquieto with real gusto, perfectly pointing its grotesque, military-like intensity, and hammering out the bass chords with their pounding rhythms. Just one of Bartlett’s immense talents is the way he can so quickly and almost imperceptibly transform such violent aggression into immediate calm and serenity, as here when the quiet Andantino section kicks in, now so wistful and improvisatory by comparison, before skilfully returning to the dark menace of the opening.

Were Bartlett an actor, he could certainly be a master of disguise, for no sooner is the first movement done and dusted, with its violent and belligerent playing, the Andante caloroso slow movement presents a complete contrast, almost a hint of occasionally jazz-like decadence, with its comparatively opulent melodic shadings, to which Bartlett again adjusts so easily.

In a way, though, the whole afternoon has been working towards Prokofiev’s veritable tour de force finale, marked Precipitato. According to the programme note, it has been claimed that if a pianist here plays all the notes in the right order, it is not being played fast enough. However, Bartlett not only maintained a break-neck tempo throughout, miraculously he seemed never to put a foot wrong either – the mark of the ultimate technician. And if the playing was not already thrilling enough, the way he appeared to choreograph the ending where the final B flat octaves seemed to act like an ejector seat, propelling the pianist right off his stool to an upright position ready to acknowledge the tumultuous applause, definitely warranted an action-replay.

Clearly the audience was not going to let Bartlett leave without some kind of encore, so he finally returned to give a clearly turbocharged performance of Schumann’s Ritter vom Steckenpferd (Knight of the Hobbyhorse) from Kinderszenen – understandably there was still some residue of the Prokofiev left in his system.

This had been a fascinating recital and display of pianism of the very highest order, from an eminently personable British pianist who now, even at the ripe old age of 22, has a tremendous future in front of him. It was also another real coup for NADSA, and their trusty Yamaha Grand Piano.

Philip R Buttall

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