I was privileged to be able hear this recital twice, which was quite exciting. Stephen is an English pianist, who has released over 40 CDs and, while he may not be a household name yet like Horowitz, Rubinstein, and the other great pianists of the past, he could well be on his way there. (And there’s also a question of, “With the decline in interest in piano music, is any pianist likely to become a household name?”)
Stephen’s program was very cleverly picked, and I won’t go through all the pieces there because there were lots of them, and even if you were interested, he’s finished touring (at least in Sydney – you could jet down to Melbourne if you were keen this Saturday).
But to mention a couple of my favourites: In the first half, Stephen played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 32. For those of you who aren’t huge watchers of Beethoven, he wrote 32 sonatas in his lifetime for the piano. So, therefore, there’s something very special about hearing the last one.
It’s almost as if Beethoven knew that this was going to be his last formal sonata for the piano, because in it he says everything he wants to say about the piano. It starts with a very stormy opening movement that gradually resolves itself into peace (almost as if Beethoven is expressing his frustration with his deafness, life in general, etc. and then getting through it and calming down.
And then the second movement . . . wow! It’s a theme and variations, but the theme is a slow, beautiful tune, almost like a hymn. Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but I could easily imagine Beethoven playing this tune to himself as a comfort when times were hard. There is such beauty and heartbreak in this theme that it can sometimes be hard to listen to.
And then the variations . . . awesome. Some are very simple, some are rollicking and lively. And, finally, the last one ends with the most delicate of trills up in the upper part of the keyboard. Then a few simple chords to close off, and that’s it. All Beethoven’s sonatas over. I can’t tell you how it moved me.
The second half of Stephen’s program was all waltzes, which made a fun contrast to the first half. My favourite of these was a piece by von Weber called Invitation to the Dance which is, on the one hand, has all the cliches of a Viennese waltz, but on the other hand is so sparkling and joyous that you can’t help but like it. The tune is still floating around in my head a few days later.
By the end of the night, the crowd was cheering louder than any other Musica Viva concert I’d been to this year and I don’t blame them. Stephen actually ended up playing three encores, including a rather amusing rendition of Waltzing Matilda in the style of a French impressionist.
You can read more about Stephen here.