23 March 2013
I can remember no better piano experience. Stephen Whale was performing at St Albans and he’s a great, young pianist presumably with a notable future. He could only be in his early 20s. He’s studied at the Sydney Con and at Yale for a Masters. He played in this little church for a mature, even aged, crowd, and the respect and welcome were palpable. We were obviously in the presence of a very capable concert pianist and it was intimate, loud and close. Stephen called the concert Perspectives on the Divine. He played Rautavaara’s Ikonit, Mozart’s Sonata in Fmaj and Liszt’s L’apres une lecture du Dante, Fantasia quasi sonata. Stephen started each tune by steadying himself in quiet with closed eyes. He played from memory. He’s long limbed and flexible, often at arms length from the keyboard but occasionally leaning forward. This is obviously physical, his legs moving for pedals and balance, his body lifting and generally moving with the performance. Not extreme, but mobile. I thought of footy players, young, flexible, responsive. The Rautavaara started with whole handed chords, then through delightful consonance and frequent dissonance, tides in and out of semiquavers, perhaps a crochet melody in the left hand. I noticed throughout his perfect sense of time and two handed polyrhythms. His later Mozart just had perfectly rounded and unrushed little twists of melody (presumably ornamentation). Not that the time didn’t vary, maybe it sped up or slowed down, but no line or lyrics were uncomfortable. Obviously well practised. And his dynamics were big. His chords could be grand and loud then followed by gentleness or tranquillity, but that’s dynamics at a macro level. I noticed how the melody moved with admirable clarity and obviousness between lines in right and left hands: internal dynamics. The essence of the tune was always there, clear as day, talking to you, not lost despite Lisztian flourish and virtuosity. It was the same with the Mozart that twinned playful genius with courtly dignity. All evident, all exposed, a revelation. These were very different pieces, the Raatavaara and Mozart and Liszt, but all were spoken with believable characters. I didn’t know Rautavaara but I feel I do now, and the Mozart and Liszt were as we’re told in the books and films about these masters. I’m sure there are other pianists like Stephen, but not this day (or this year) in so small a concert that I could touch and chat with him afterwards. Something like this is a gift and a gem. Fabulous.