Piano Recitals in Interesting Places

You want to hear a piano recital? Best to avoid the major concert halls. The grander the hall, the meaner the results, for the most part. The lovely halo of sound that lifts around the open case of a concert grand has all but evaporated by row ten, and the point of certain composers – the harmonic mist, the dying of the note - has gone with it. Too often those whopping new pianos lack character and the innate capacity to move you, unlike those heartrending Bechsteins of the early 1900s.
I prefer unusual venues, relaxed audiences, intimate listening.
Recently, I heard Chisato Kusonoki in one of the Friday evening concerts at the National Portrait Gallery. Room 22 is a space hung with paintings of 19th century grandees and great parliamentary canvasses that somehow treble the audience numbers. There are marble busts on display tables, carefully listening. The walls are a Downton Abbey green and the ceiling a pearly colour. It's a civilizing room to be in, well before the music starts. I guess people come to these concerts as much by chance as design, and on this occasion a shortage of stools meant that many of us had to stand, or hunker down on the floor, or lie stretched out, head on a briefcase.
How very unimportant we all looked compared to the faces on the wall! And what an intriguing concurrency of eras and cultures were represented by the combination of nineteenth century goods and greats peering at us from yesteryear, the motley crowd on the floor, and a programme of Russian music played by a Japanese pianist.
Indeed the chaos of associations, the gallery girls stomping like crowd-control heavies at a Rock Festival, the rustling from the lady in front of me and even the pianist's iridescent dress all taxed my concentration in the first piece; and maybe it distracted the pianist a little, too. The arena of communing wasn't sealed, and people could wander in and out, squelching their sneakers on the parquet.
But when Chisato launched the Moment Musical in E minor by Rachmaninov, we all looked sharp. This was something alarming and difficult going off under our noses. The proximity to a musical torrent was almost intimidating. The Yamaha, moreover, had all kinds of layers in its sound, a symphonic differentiation of registers – very rousing and conquering, especially when given extra boom by the room's wooden floor. After the Moment Musical Chisato progressed through a sequence of Scriabin, Liapunov and Medtner pieces, and more and more the audience was paralyzed by the surround-sound immediacy of it. It wasn't simply that she played brilliantly. The dynamo of passionate energy was right in our midst, only yards away, and it was riveting to be that close, almost dangerously close, to the human reactor producing the sound. Undoubtedly this epic Russian music releases an energy that can be awe-inspiring in any hall, but the intimate setting enabled one to experience the brilliant current of the pianist's mind as a physical thrill, to be buffeted by her super-charged reflexes and the tornado of sound particles scarred up by her tumultuous playing. It was a revelation of something beyond and behind music.
Of course alternative venues can be a hazard for the performer. A couple of weeks ago I went to hear Dennis Lee's recital at Charterhouse, near the Barbican. It's a long room, seats on either side, and the venerable Bluthner piano is parked midway at an angle. Dennis had the conundrum of reconciling the need to project his tone so that all could hear with the need not to blow those nearest out of their hearing aids - a dilemma made worse by the piano's Heldentenor brightness. I chose my seat with some care. The good news was that we would hear a really mature instrument (as opposed to an executive concert grand tuned by a BMW-driving technician) made around the time that Ravel was composing for the piano in a room of historic interest (not a prestige hall, where the acoustics are uneven). The venue seemed a gift to music making. The pianist couldn't come in as artist hero or spot-lit high priest, so we just got – in a sense - the man. The humanization of the musician made it easier to identify with the task before him. Would you want to play a Beethoven sonata at close quarters with the audience and reveal its greatness on a tricky old instrument? It seemed a much taller order without the elevated stage, and the ocean liner Steinway and the faceless audience beyond the stage lights.
Well, the Pathetique sounded truly German on the old piano, its sforzandos full of bite and growl when you needed it, and a good puritan singing tone in the Adagio; but the sounds conjured by Dennis in Gaspard de la Nuit were not only ravishing, but of a dimension I have never heard before, which I attribute both to his marvellous playing and the Bluthner. Strata of sound were suspended in a colour-wash of resonance, arabesques swirled, overtones shimmered – making for a wealth of timbre and a flux of colour unimaginable on a modern grand. I honestly felt I had never heard it like this before, and that the experience was as illuminating as any I had heard in the Barbican or the South Bank
These observations coincide with what I believe may be a trend – that the big venue 'event' recital is slowly receding. We don't really need it. Although every pianist wants to triumph at the Carnegie Hall, the piano is fundamentally a domestic instrument, intended to speak to people in a room. Both big venues and piano stars are an economic contrivance that has little to do with the needs of music or the properties of an instrument. Of course I have great memories of great pianists in great halls, but music has many wonderful servants, and it is too often more affecting to be 'in the room with them' as it were, when the communing starts and the mysterious beauty of the piano can be heard properly.