Oscar Peterson, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The king loses his grip - but finds his audience
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The Independent Culture

Not many performers get a standing ovation just for turning up. Oscar Peterson (inset) did, the whole, packed hall rising in acclaim as he entered, rather haltingly, from the wings. Walking with the aid of a stick and acknowledging the applause with courtly waves and blown kisses, Peterson's royal progress across the stage was painfully slow. Understandably, the generosity of our response came mixed with feelings of relief, especially given the concert's slightly delayed starting time. The great Canadian pianist, a star since his Carnegie Hall debut in 1949, is 80 years old and the survivor of a series of strokes. That he might not be playing as well as he once did isn't really the point; it's a miracle that he's playing at all.

But, settled behind the piano, accompanied by the excellent musicians of his quartet, Oscar Peterson sounded pretty good, and identifiably himself. On a thrilling version of Milt Jackson's "Reunion Blues", his right hand still stroked out outlandish bebop doodles, decorating the rhythm in a pixilated line thick with clustered repetitions. The left hand, however, was barely there, other than for chordal comping. It was while playing the Blue Note club in Tokyo in 1992 that Peterson fumbled a left-hand boogie-woogie passage and thought the tingling in his hands was arthritis, and his "feeling strange" due to stress. This was the first stroke; a partial paralysis of his left side followed.

What Peterson has lost, however, has given his late work new pathos. As a "genius" pianist in the lineage of Art Tatum, he was a piano-machine, so forbidding that other musicians could find him impossible. Once the epitome of smooth urbanity, his twinkling art has become all too visibly vulnerable. At the Albert Hall 15 years ago, just before the stroke, I'd seen him rifle through the repertoire, and the contributions of his musicians, with haughty imperiousness. Now, Oscar Peterson is more King Lear than Hamlet. The band, no longer mere foils, look after him with tender solicitude.

As in his performance in London, he repeated tunes, giving us "The Love Ballad" twice in the space of four numbers, and "Satin Doll" once in each set. In truth, it didn't matter: they sounded even better the second time round. He ended with a terrific "Sweet Georgia Brown", before leaving the stage to another ovation. It was a moving climax to a performance full of big emotions. And whatever the infirmities of age, we'd still seen Oscar Peterson.

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