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James Rhodes, Queen Elizabeth Hall (4/5)


Every concert programme tells a story, even one as exiguous as that for James Rhodes. Nothing about the works to be played, just a list – JS Bach, F Chopin, M Moszkowski, and a certain LV Beethoven, which suggests it was written by a computer.

Nothing about the pianist, except for an invitation to follow him on Twitter. All of which is code for: this concert is about the man, and you know him already.

It was clear the audience - unusually young for a classical event - did. No need to remind them of his drugs, sectioning, and late conversion to pianism. Since his sudden irruption onto the scene three years ago, he’s traded shamelessly on all that, presenting his performances – with louche digressions on the echoes between his traumas and those of his chosen composers - as part of his ongoing therapy. He offers the foul-mouthed charm of a rock-star in rehab.

And here he was again, coming on in faux-diamond sneakers like a poor man’s Lang Lang, sitting straight down and playing some slow Bach. But beautifully. ‘Classical music,’ he announced when he’d finished. ‘Serious. Like this hundred thousand pound Steinway. Serious. Like these fucking shoes. Very serious.’ He didn’t like that word ‘serious’ for classical music. ‘I prefer intense, but I like to challenge people’s perceptions.’ Now he would play a sonata by his hero. ‘Beethoven. An evil genius, a tramp-like figure saying, I compose what I like, and if you don’t like it, tough shit.’ Then he played the ‘Waldstein’ sonata, one of Beethoven’s most austere and technically demanding works. There were points where his technique threatened to let him down – I’d put him at second-year conservatoire level – but the warmth and epic sweep came triumphantly across. This was followed by a Moszkowski study - ‘pianism’s equivalent of Formula One’ – serenely brought off. After warming us up for the second half with Rachmaninov's most celebrated prelude, he discoursed raunchily about Bach’s sex life before embarking on Busoni’s transcription of the D minor Chaconne. Playing with a gorgeously singing tone, he fully honoured this work’s Herculean conception. His firework encores were fun, but reasonably accomplished.

In short, this one-time basket-case has transcended his past, got musically serious, and become a very effective ambassador for classical music. Bravo.