James Rhodes, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Wednesday 11 February 2009
A piano recital normally begins when the player hits the keys, but this one began with a blizzard of public interviews and a fuzzy performance on YouTube. When James Rhodes shambles gawkily to the piano and stuffs his fags in it, then launches into a speech about how Chopin and George Sand remind him of his disastrous first marriage, we're back in his PR loop of childhood trauma, booze, drugs and attempted suicide.
So it comes as a surprise to find that he really can play, and that he knows what Chopin was up to in his majestic Fantaisie in F minor. The pace may at times be glacial, but the tone is singing and spacious. Only when he reaches the virtuoso sections do we remember his chequered tutorial history: the hands don't have the requisite quicksilver dexterity.
"Phew, pleased to have got that out of the way," he confides when it's over, gratuitously adding that playing it is like sex, at which he is "quite good". Next he will play Chopin's monumental Polonaise-Fantaisie, which puts him in mind of all the shrinks through whose hands he has passed: we're talking serious identification here. He conjures up a noble tone and despatches the piece with panache, coming dangerously off the rails at one point but getting straight back on; his genuinely poetic gift has been well schooled.
After the interval we get Bach's Fifth French Suite, prefaced by some jokes about Bach's sex-life for which juvenile is too kind a word. Playing to the gallery, Rhodes mocks the supposed pedantry of announcing the key of each work he plays, but it's clear he himself takes such details very seriously: if three movements of this demanding work are undercharacterised, the other two are joyously delivered, with the concluding piece going like the wind. He ends with more feeble witticisms about Bach's sex-life, then one about his own – is he touting for business of a different sort, later in the evening? – and then it's time to thank his teacher and publicists before giving three encores, the first of which comes smart as a whip.
One can see why Kennedy is a hero to Rhodes, though where Nige sold rebellion, Rhodes sells vulnerability, and the audience love it. Dozens of conservatoire students could have played as well or better, but Rhodes has an act which, on the basis of this maiden trip, may take him far in showbiz, if not in the concert hall.
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