Instrumental Records/Signum Classics
James Rhodes is an important – and perhaps polarising – figure in contemporary classical piano; he’s a scholar with a deep passion for and knowledge of the form/s and music/s. He’s a rule-breaker and though on the end of some technical instruction is sometimes described as “self-taught” even though that’s not really the case.
So whether you choose to hear and see him as Nigel Kennedy or Glenn Gould or somewhere – anywhere – in between the two it’s likely that some conversation around and understanding of his personality and motivations (as someone almost belligerently focussed on breaking down the stuffiness and delusionary worlds within classical music) will inform your view of his playing, or interrupt it.
Here’s Five, his fifth album release. Rhodes trained, gave up, returned to piano, had a break-down, walked away, then re-focused. And if the timeline I have there isn’t quite right, or the order of those events rather, that’s still all the key ingredients.
I find that stuff interesting – because I’ve been on board since seeing his quite wonderful first TV series – and that sent me back to hear his earlier-released albums and I’ve been anticipating his just-about-to-be-released memoir and future, further music ever since seeing that show; reading his occasional columns also.
As much as that all helps to try to understand the man when it’s just Rhodes and the piano – as it is here, working through Bach, Beethoven and Chopin (he has a fondness for the heavyweights) – it’s so easy to just fall under the spell of his playing. Never mind the anger and energy that propels it, the positive outlook and inspirational conquering of demons, what matters is the stateliness and grace when hearing the Partita in B-Flat Major or Piano Sonata in D Major.
His reading of the Bach is sublime.
There are a couple of “surprises” in the inclusion of Gluck’s Orfeo et Eurydice and Schumann’s Fruglingsnacht – working here as encore to the main pieces. His Chopin (Ballade No. 3 in A-Flat Minor, Op. 47) is a charming lift with cascades across the keys and though heavy as it moves to its conclusion there is, throughout, a lightness that perhaps offsets some of the more sombre moments in the rest of the program.
I’m probably under the spell of Rhodes for all of that personality-driven preamble that I then suggested is easy to ignore. It certainly feels like it goes out the window when you hear him play. But you know that it’s there, informing his choices.
He’s a skilled pianist and, as has been the case with previous albums from Rhodes, I’m as impressed by the selection, the thought and care in curation as the playing.
Five is a lovely way to spend 70 minutes with a player still evolving, still finding new ways to approach old pieces.