Clive Lythgoe, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Clive Lythgoe gave his Wigmore Hall début recital some 50 years ago. Returning there last Sunday, he didn't look old enough for that to be true – he's a nice-looking man with a full head of dark grey hair. And he has an amiable manner which he has put to good use on American television, becoming something of a public figure in his adopted home of New York. He called his recital "An Englishman living in New York salutes America" as a response to recent events, and devoted it entirely to American composers. Part of it was televised by CBS.

Edward MacDowell, who died in 1908, is criticised in America for having been too European, though in his time all American composers sought their roots this side of the Atlantic. MacDowell's Sonata Eroica takes its inspiration from Arthurian legend, the darkly brooding first movement a picture of Arthur, the magical, elfin scherzo depicting Merlin, the slow movement Lancelot and Guinevere, and the finale the battle between Arthur and Mordred. But Lythgoe was vague in depicting its wealth of character, however conventional that may be. His casual, ambling manner of playing suggested he doesn't practise much these days, as if, in his retirement, he were recollecting music he used to play more seriously years ago.

Gottschalk's paraphrase of American tunes, "The Union", is a showpiece forcing "Hail Columbia", "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" into uneasy alliance, resulting in some distinctly awkward counterpoint. Had it been played with gusto, it might have been fun. But without energy or tension, it just seemed badly composed. Throughout the evening, Lythgoe's relaxed introductions were more engaging than his playing, for which "relaxed" would be a euphemistic description.

The second half was a set of 14 song transcriptions by Gershwin. Unless played with cool athletic command, they easily seem cluttered, and Lythgoe took his time, correcting a mistake in "Do It Again" as if the title were an instruction, and floundering briefly in the middle of "Fascinating Rhythm". That momentary downward transposition near the end of "Oh Lady Be Good" was so heavily underlined, we might have been playing a parlour game ("What key am I in now?"). But fortunately, Lythgoe pulled himself together for "I Got Rhythm".

Composers, painters and writers may produce their greatest work at an age when others have long since retired, but sadly, a pianist's agility and stamina, even the ability to concentrate, enter a marked decline and it's better if they put their experience to good use as teachers.

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