Bernard Roberts 70th Birthday Recital, St John's, Smith Square, London

Bernard Roberts never shot to fame by winning a competition, nor covered himself in glory by standing in at short notice for an indisposed star, but he has certainly proved his staying power. I first came across him as a student when he was one of the youngest teachers at the Royal College of Music. It was many years before I heard him play, when after a tremendous performance of Beethoven's Eroica Variations at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the critic Peter Stadlen said to me: "Why haven't I heard of this man before?" Since then Roberts hasrecording all Beethoven's Piano Sonatas direct to disc.

It's in the Austro-German classics from Bach to Brahms that he has earned a reputation as a player of unusual honesty and power, and his 70th birthday recital last Friday drew from them exclusively.

The programme was not quite as predictable as that implies, for to start, Roberts chose a little-known Sonata in E major (No 31) by Haydn, written before the composer's more popular piano music. Far from making a dainty miniature of a piece that would originally have been played either on a harpsichord or on a small-toned early piano, Roberts projected it on a Steinway as generously as he would a piece from the 19th century. Never has piano tone filled St John's more surely, and the three-part texture of Haydn's second movement Allegretto sang out particularly boldly, yet without seeming forced.

Roberts chose to follow Haydn's pithy piece with Schubert's by-no-means pithy Sonata in D major, D850. It was a joyous relief when the first movement burst into life at a lively tempo that promised - and sustained - impetus without pomposity. As in Haydn, Roberts up-graded quiet passages so that they reached our ears clearly.

His way with Schubert's second movement was surprising, because he didn't mould it with the soothing "legato" most pianists apply here, but instead, made it firm and crisp, and observed Schubert's articulation marks punctiliously. Throughout its leisurely elaborations he maintained that basic firmness.

The finale doesn't confine itself to the innocent insouciance of its main theme, and one of the dramatically pugnacious episodes exposed a particular feature of Roberts's playing: a way of having his hand in position so that there was a slight hesitation after a jump to make sure of a safe landing.

This was to crop up again in the big work following the interval - Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel - and it made for slightly heavy going in the final variation, before the authentic sense of struggle in the fugue.

Roberts is not a colouristic pianist, and few would call Brahms that kind of composer, but sometimes I wanted sharper characterisation. You felt, at the end, rather as if you had eaten an extremely substantial, high-protein meal, and slightly ungrateful for missing something piquant by way of added savour.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup