Bernard Roberts: Pianist acclaimed round the world for his fluency and subtlety who went on to be an inspirational teacher

 

Thursday 30 January 2014 22:30
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One of that select band of British pianists to achieve international recognition, Bernard Roberts was in constant demand as a recitalist, chamber musician, accompanist, concerto soloist and teacher. He was acclaimed by audiences and critics, the remarkable breadth of his industry bringing greater recognition for the instrument itself and proving pivotal in inspiring generations of aspiring performers.

He spent his formative years in Manchester. While his father was a librarian at John Rylands Library by day, he served as a church organist at weekends and a music critic for The Manchester Guardian in the evenings. Bernard accompanied him to all the city's major musical events and never forgot the impact of hearing the many great artists attracted to Manchester in the immediate postwar years.

In 1949 Roberts won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied piano with Eric Harrison. He served as a typist in the RAF during his National Service, his musical career beginning in earnest in the early 1950s. Amid the occasional solo recital he accompanied the Ballet Rambert, played the organ and returned to the Royal College of Music as one of their youngest ever piano professors.

While he was a lyrical player, with great fluency and subtlety, his sensitivity to nuance and colour allowed him to take delight in the occasional grand gesture. It was surprising that he had to wait until his forties before he appeared on disc. With a beguiling mix of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Medtner, he made his solo London debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1957. Two years later he qualified for the finals of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society's International Piano Concerto Competition.

Initially a member of the Richards Piano Quartet, he went on to partner the violinist Jürgen Hess and cellist Olga Hegedus in The Tononi Trio. At the same time he teamed up with the celebrated Australian pianist, Ruth Gerald, and together they forged a highly popular duet partnership.

Other instrumentalists he partnered included the cellists Anna Shuttleworth and Amaryllis Fleming. He was invited to join Fleming and the violinist Manoug Parikian in a concert to celebrate the Wigmore Hall's 75th birthday in 1976, and the Parikian-Fleming-Roberts Trio achieved international success, as did the later Bernard Roberts Piano Trio, formed in partnership with his two sons, Andrew and Nicholas.

Roberts made his Proms debut in 1979, the same year he made history by recording the first complete direct-to-disc set of Beethoven's piano sonatas. This suited Roberts, allowing him to bring the same degree of commitment to the studio that he did to a live recital.

Roberts also enjoyed a warm and productive friendship with the composer Stephen Dodgson. At the Wigmore Hall in 1985 he gave the first performance of Dodgson's elaborate and challenging Third Piano Sonata. No less inspired was his Fifth Piano Sonata, premiered by Roberts eight years later. As a sought-after teacher, Roberts' influence was immense, and in later years his talents found a ready outlet at workshops, competitions and master classes worldwide.

KENNETH SHENTON

John Bernard Roberts, pianist and teacher: born Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester 23 July 1933; married 1955 Patricia May Russell (divorced 1988; two sons), 1992 Caroline Ireland; died Bristol 3 November 2013.

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