MUSIC / A happy return: Adrian Jack on the 60th birthday recital concert by Bernard Roberts at Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture
Last weekend the pianist Bernard Roberts presided at a bighearted celebration, well-filled with his many friends and admirers, colleagues and pupils. Roberts himself was in a relaxed mood and played from the scores. After spreading the music on the stand, he would lift both arms up as if to embrace the composer before playing. He had chosen a characteristic and substantial programme of his particular favourites, though it's a pity there was no Schubert, which he plays incomparably.

In the first half he offered four works whose similar qualities set them apart in two pairs. Haydn's C major Sonata, Hoboken 48, and Beethoven's E minor Sonata, Opus 90, are both in two movements and make the most of humour and lyricism. Then we heard Brahms's Variations on an original theme and Variations on a Hungarian Song, both early sets which were published together as his Opus 21.

Roberts is a mellow and deeply humane artist for whom keyboard technique is a means to an end, not something to draw attention to itself. The variations really called for a more thrilling virtuoso style than Roberts commands. But with his infallibly natural sense of line and timing, he filled out both Haydn and Beethoven - particularly the ample first movement of the Haydn - to their true stature. If his tone-quality was a bit basic, at least he didn't pamper them like a virtuoso's playthings.

Yet in the second half of the programme, he played three Debussy Preludes from Book 1 with real finesse as well as charm, shaping the sultry Neapolitan tune in the middle of Les Collines d'Anacapri as irresistibly as the most expert of Latin lovers.

Debussy's pieces came as relaxation after the first performance of the Fifth Sonata by Stephen Dodgson, whose music Roberts has made a particular point of playing over a number of years. This was a rugged and very determined piece in four movements which were closely unified by similar short bird-like motifs, insistently repeated and varied. Three of the movements seemed to have too much in common, and were so broken up by pauses and switches of gear that they never really got going. But the slow third movement was a welcome contrast, and carved an arduous but steady ascending line. This hard-won continuity was quite lacking in the rest. Composers sometimes get the blame for the shortcomings of their performers, but in this case, Roberts seemed very well-prepared and played with a massive sense of commitment. The Sonata can hardly have been better served.

He ended with four lush and sonorous pieces by Nikolai Medtner, who you might call the piano buff's alternative to Rachmaninov. Here Roberts could really enjoy himself, with a warmly romantic Novelette and Fairy Tale, and a Funeral March which built up inexorably to a baleful and typically Russian rumbling of bells. A final Dithyramb was a bit turgid for its title, but Roberts derived sturdy pleasure from it and so did the audience. There were lots of flowers and cheering and two gentle little encores of Herbert Howells and Poulenc.