Piano Forte: 75 minutes with Thomas Adès (and Ludwig van…)

The last 18 months or so have been strange and troubled for music and musicians (as well as for everyone else). Thanks to our philistine, economically irrational UK government, musicians and others whose lives depend on live performance have had it very tough indeed – but anyone who understands that the arts are crucial to our emotional and spiritual well-being has also suffered. Creators and consumers alike have had to deal with this unforeseen crisis as best we can. Much has been lost; but there have also been unexpected pleasures, due to changes in performance ‘platforms’ (for want of a more enticing term). We’re talking digital, online, virtual, whatever you choose to call it.

All of which is by way of recommending a special musical event – of that non-live kind – which I caught up with yesterday evening: an online broadcast, recently made available by London’s Wigmore Hall, of Thomas Adès playing Beethoven there in May 2021. Together with BBC Radio 3, the Wigmore led the way last year in offering online concerts performed to a more-or-less empty hall (and, later, in providing live performances to socially distanced audiences in the autumn). But that was not the only or even the earliest response to Covid shutdowns: often using fairly basic equipment, Igor Levit, Boris Giltburg, Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, Angela Hewitt and Lars Vogt were among the musicians posting performances – some of them daily – from home. Daniel Hope even set up a series of technically polished concerts in his Berlin home which were broadcast by Arte. All this was enormously admirable and beneficial, and I, like countless others, was grateful to  enjoy some wonderful music. But the Adès recital felt – to me at last – a little different, unlike the home-based recitals, but also unlike the Wigmore’s early online concerts with a presenter and the Hall’s director John Gilhooly present as the only in-venue audience members.

Adès’ achievements as a composer, conductor and performer are extraordinary. As a pianist he is always a delight to hear. I’m not going to be so bold as to offer a review as such, but his playing in this instant is par for the course; we are talking about sensitivity, transparency, finesse, restraint and power. (I’m no pianist, but I can recognise emotional subtlety and nuance when I hear it.) But I’m certainly not claiming Adès is a superior pianist to any of those musicians mentioned above. So why recommend this particular broadcast?

There is something quite magical about seeing and hearing Adès perform to an empty hall. Not a  word is spoken, no bow taken. Sound and image, inevitably, are more polished than in the home-based performances, but there remains something quite strange about seeing Adès – not the most flamboyantly demonstrative performer in terms of facial or physical gestures – playing by himself in this solitary way. It’s as if we’re privileged to bear witness to a private reverie; as if he’s playing for himself and to himself, since he appears to be so unaware of the camera’s presence. Clearly, of course, he knew he was being filmed for an audience, but that’s not the impression one gets when watching the recital, so utterly, quietly immersed in the music is he. The result, paradoxically, is something that feels still more intimate than those at-home performances. And the playing is phenomenal. The music’s not bad, either. 

You can see Thomas Adès performing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no 7 in D, Op 10 no 3; the 6 Bagatelles, Op 126, and the Piano Sonata no 28 in A, Op 101 at https://wigmore-hall.org.uk or on YouTube. It’s free to view, but do make a donation if you can; it will help musicians.

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