Distinguished statesman of British music and tireless champion of the French pianist and composer Alkan
Tuesday 01 June 2004
Ronald Bertram Smith, pianist, composer, teacher, writer and broadcaster: born London 3 January 1922; married 1969 Anne Norman (one daughter); died Saltwood, Kent 27 May 2004.
The pianist Ronald Smith - known as "The Amazing Mr Smith" or "the Alkan man" - was proof that while artisans may retire, artists never do.
In the Indian summer of his life, with more than half-a- century of music-making behind him, Smith was as energetic and enterprising as ever. He was still teaching and still recording with all the enthusiasm, mental staying-power and physical prowess of players generations younger. The older he got, the fresher his responses seemed to become. There was no pulling back of tempo for him, no shortening of programmes, no safety nets.
Smith will be remembered for his concentrated, toughly symphonic view of the classics, for his big-boned concertos and for his poetic way with the reflective side of Romanticism. His lasting memorial, however, will be his championship of the French pianist and composer Alkan. Smith put Chopin's misanthropic Parisian friend on the map, through pioneering BBC broadcasts and recordings (on both modern and period instruments), his trail-blazing book Alkan, published in two volumes in 1976 and 1987, and his presidency of the Alkan Society, tirelessly supporting new initiatives, including the society's Piano Scholarship inaugurated in 2001 in collaboration with Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.
Although he never recorded the solo concertos in his repertory, Ronald Smith's studio legacy - from 1950 to 2002, mainly under the aegis of EMI, Nimbus and APR - otherwise embraced much he was passionate about: Alkan (the major piano and chamber works); Mily Balakirev; Beethoven (a notably powerful, cohesive Waldstein Sonata); Chopin (all the mazurkas including his published completion of the last one); Liszt; Mussorgsky; and Schubert.
Smith taught for over 40 years at the King's School, Canterbury, his home open-house to anyone in need of musical immersion. He enlightened and entertained many, through master-classes from the Purcell School to Australia, knowing when to say nothing and when to intervene. A demanding but kindly mentor, nurturing, expanding and overseeing the minds of his young charges, with an individual recipe for each, he gave people the belief that anything was possible and that there was always a solution to a tricky corner. British music could not have wished for a more distinguished statesman.
Winning the Sir Michael Costa Scholarship, Ronald Smith went in 1938, aged 16, to the Royal Academy of Music, where he attracted the attention of the conductor Sir Henry Wood. Wood later directed a student performance of Saint-Saëns' Fourth Concerto, conducted Smith's Symphonic Prelude for large orchestra, and invited him to make his Proms début at the Royal Albert Hall in August 1942. In the post-war period, Smith studied privately in Paris with Marguerite Long and Pyotr Kostanov.
Smith wanted to be a composer, even maybe an academic - and throughout his life thought like one. He took his external Bachelor of Music degree from Durham University in 1946, and the following year had a Violin Concerto broadcast by Martin Sauer with the BBC Northern Orchestra (the BBC Philharmonic as it then was) under Charles Groves. Piano playing, however, took over and at the Abbey Road Studios in 1950 Smith made a landmark recording of Bach's Triple Concerto with Edwin Fischer and Denis Matthews, consolidating his reputation as a Bach specialist.
During the Fifties Smith enjoyed a high-profile concerto schedule, working with Ernest Ansermet, Adrian Boult, Anatole Fistoulari, Hugo Rignold, Malcolm Sargent, Constantin Silvestri and William Steinberg (who declared that, unlike the composer, only Smith and Vladimir Horowitz played all the notes in Rachmaninov Three). When he wasn't on tour, he was busy teaching, broadcasting or recording. Always the professional, he got into the habit early on of turning up at halls and studios impeccably prepared. For him the philosophy of recording was about one take. He abhorred "patching" a performance together. Being ready for anything, having the security of a rigorously disciplined technique (however much, in his case, unorthodox and personally developed), knowing what needed to be said, was what mattered.
In his velvet jackets, Smith cut a flamboyant figure on the London scene - he was suave, attentive, precise and softly-spoken, needing no more than a decibel or two to lend a word persuasive emphasis. On stage, his pianism, like his choice of music, defied adjectives. His 80th birthday recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in December 2002 was typical of the fearless programming he was renowned for.
Similarly his final appearance, at the Old Market, Hove, just over a week ago - juxtaposing Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata, Alkan ( The Song of the Mad Woman by the Seashore that he had made so much his own over the years), Chopin's Op 25 Studies, Liszt (challengingly, the Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody), and, by way of last encore, the A minor Mazurka from Chopin's Op 17. His sight might almost have gone, but he had lost none of his musical faculties, nor his gift of "orchestrating" at the keyboard.
Off-stage, his knowledge amazed. I have memories of specifics, digressions and startling wisdoms over civilised meals; and of sitting on competition juries where his quietly firm logic and psychologically astute grasp of situations and people set unfaltering standards.
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