To hear Tom Poster performing in Oxford is always an event. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but Mr Poster's long association with the city - he was a pupil at Cherwell School, and on Sunday he had family and friends in the audience - seems to add a certain je ne sais quoi to his playing. What I do know is that a few years ago he gave the most thrilling live account of the 'Ravel Piano Concerto in G' I've ever heard.
At the Holywell Music Room, dressed all in black save for a blue open-necked shirt, he began with Schubert's Piano Sonata in A, a deceptive piece in that though composed on Schubert's holidays at the same time as the Trout Quintet, the tone strays a little further than does that piece into the more shadowy places of the Upper Austrian rural idyll. The first movement was played by Mr. Poster with grace and refinement; everything in place, no harsh outbursts or steely tone. The andante was played gently and serenely. The finale, I think a rondo, opens with a Mozartian playfulness and energetic style, later briefly taking on a more sombre tone. Here in the HMR, dating from a couple of generations before the composer's day, Mr Poster enabled us to conjure up the conflicted psychological world of Schubert's music. It's as if the composer found that shaking off the city dust for the country life still did not permit him to outrun 'dull care'.
Then the four Ballades by Chopin. First-hand opinion had it that Chopin's own playing was remarkable for its freedom of rhythm, yet sounded entirely natural. That would seem to be the ideal, but to play Chopin with the rhythmic subtlety he requires without seeming contrived is a rare gift. On this showing Mr Poster has it in abundance. The packed audience listened to his shaping of the opening theme of Ballade 'No. 1': tentative, hesitant, then gradually gaining momentum.
'No. 2' has none of the punch of the first piece, though it comes to life a little way in. 'No.3' is an intricate piece since it juggles three separate themes. I have heard its latter sections played almost raucously; our soloist was having none of that. The contrast going in to 'No.4' is stark; a joyous, soft piece until the final pages. Both this last Ballade and 'No.1' conclude on a tone of drama, even of grandeur; this suggests to me Chopin wished to make for them a particular claim of merit to posterity. How fitting, then, that Mr Poster commanded like a master the almost orchestral range of colour these works demand.