Frank Braley, Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London

An intimate evening with a thinking pianist
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Frank Braley won the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels 10 years ago, which gives him a certain status. The Purcell Room on the South Bank might seem a slightly modest venue for a pianist such as him, but Braley's recital opened a week-long festival, Harmoniques, featuring French musicians who have recorded for the harmonia mundi label, and that was where they put most of the concerts. (The last was yesterday, by the pianist Alain Planès, at St John's, Smith Square.)

As it happened, the Purcell Room was ideal for Braley's intimate style. He's clearly a thinking pianist, and he devised his programme as two continuous sequences, hypnotising his audience into silence between works by remaining poised for the next and keeping the house lights turned down.

It worked rather well. Two of Kurtág's Games – one composed entirely of quiet chords without rhythm, the other a stealthy exploration of etiolated sounds – led into Haydn's F minor Variations, which Braley provocatively analysed to the point of preciousness. Even his manner, the cocking of his head, seemed to say "Now listen to this", as if he were showing us something new or unexpected, which he was.

Fair enough in a work in sectional form, as variations are, but the first movement of Beethoven's Opus 110 Sonata begged to be allowed to sing. And although the second movement was to the point, and much of the final movement flowed beautifully, particularly the first fugal section, Braley lost his sense of pace thereafter and it didn't quite add up.

The best of the recital came after the interval with a selection of Debussy Préludes. "La sérénade interrompue" was marvellously played, with vivid contrasts, precise colours and confidently shaped rhythms that revealed it as a tight little masterpiece of shock tactics. "La puerta del vino" had a seductively snakelike movement, and that rather inscrutable piece with its puzzling title, "La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune", was thrillingly mysterious. "Feuilles mortes", with its jazzy chords (as Braley pointed out in his short introduction before he started the group) led naturally into Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, done with the right feeling of spontaneity, though that couldn't redeem its fidgety lack of cohesion. Debussy, on the other hand, raised surprising juxtapositions to a fine art, as Braley demonstrated again by adding "Minstrels" as an encore, matching Debussy's rowdy evocation of the music hall with his own highly polished swagger.