James Rhodes can’t draw fingers
Occasionally when I have family visiting, I can feel responsible for things like the weather and traffic. I keep apologising for London Underground; saying things like “it’s not usually this bad”, even though it has nothing to do with me. Well, in the same way I felt a little trepidatious about having roped in a good friend, who is in his own right a very accomplished pianist, to come with me to James Rhodes’ piano recital last night at the Ambassadors Theatre. This is not a review – I am not nearly knowledgeable enough to render such judgement. Also, my relationship to music is far too personal. Let’s call this “my impression”.
Our seats were on the left of the front row. “If all I can see is your arse, I am asking for a refund” I had tweeted James Rhodes. Thankfully, the piano was set almost parallel to the auditorium and so I knew we would have a splendid view of his face and hands. The lights went down and out came this charming geek with sparkly shoes on – his “West End” shoes, he told us. With a disarming fondness for the composers and their music, he told stories about Bach and Chopin in a uniquely self-effacing way. He made jokes about his medication. He described Bach as someone “in desperate need of a blowjob”. He made us laugh and relax a little and in the process calmed himself down. And then he sat to play.
My first observation is that James Rhodes does not appear to have command of his instrument. And that is because the piano is not an instrument in his hands. The black lacquer seems more like the slick skin of some mythical beast. Its curves expand and contract as if it were breathing. His fingers never fully tame it, nor do they try to. They sense it; cajole it; tease it. One has the immense feeling of watching music being constructed right there. It was as exciting as watching Stokowski conducting the orchestra in Fantasia as a 4 year-old. Each note floated off in different colours like Disney animation.
My delight was amplified by my companion’s comment during the interval. “It is so nice to see someone who does not play like a machine. He owns the music”. I understood what he meant. So many concert pianists nowadays, record and re-record, take after take, correct, splice, modulate. The result is an automated, heartless, perfect performance which cannot be distinguished from a hundred others. The only emotion one can detect in them during a recital is the misery of being forced to practice as a child-prodigy and resenting it.
During the Chopin in the second half, while I cried like a girl, I thought “thank heaven for people like James Rhodes”. So what, if he missed a couple of notes in his fabulous Grieg encore? It was a result of his choice of lunatic tempo – his hands literally blurring over the keys. Great artists have always been accused of a lack of technique. There is a segment of the world that does not understand Maria Callas, Yehudi Menuhin, Billie Holliday or Alfred Cortot. But I am firmly on the other side of the divide. There is nothing I love more than an artist brave enough to take a risk; someone who puts everything on the line every time he performs. James Rhodes could have lost his shirt last night. Instead, the result was a magnificent evening of music. To experience that and say it was technically imperfect is like looking at a Cezanne and remarking “he could not draw fingers”. He is performing again on the 16th. Don’t be a plank. Just go.
I leave you with a 1935 version of the last encore of the evening: Schumann’s Widmung (this time screeched by someone in German – Richard Tauber with Percy Kahn at the piano).