Pianist Daniel Lebhardt, now from London but born and bred in Budapest, came, saw and conquered the numerous Holywell Music Room audience at Sunday morning's coffee concert. This is an experienced, discerning public, not I think easily impressed, but the force and variety of Mr Lebhardt's playing of a well-chosen programme was irresistible. He had previously played these same pieces in West London on January 17th.
The soloist began with Beethoven's Piano Sonata no 18 in E flat major from 1802, a herald of the composer's middle period. Mr Lebhardt set off at the appropriately rhythmical canter of an allegro tempo, only briefly punctuated by its scored hesitations, before quickening into a silvery pace in the succeeding 'scherzo' that then became vigorous with the left hand active at the bottom end of the register. He's a pleasure to watch at the keyboard: a slim figure in black, generally upright and avoiding exaggerated body movement, he repeatedly raised high his left hand when playing solely with the right hand. More than most pianists one sees, he crosses hands, no doubt finding the movement of the cross-over to be more fluid than that of shifting the opposite hand. There followed a pensive minuet, latterly with evident relationship to its formal steps, the dance theme - though not its mincing gait - then taken up again in the finale with its tarantella.
Next came the last three of Brahms' Six Pieces for Piano, op 118 from c. 1892, a canny contrast to the muscular works sandwiching them. The audience, including a five year-old and a canoodling couple in the upper seats, relaxed a little hereabouts with the less forceful playing. In the slow middle section of No. 4 Mr Lebhardt delicately crossed and swapped hands something in the manner of a fairground juggler tossing up balls of eggshell porcelain. As he played No. 5, for once he leaned well back on his stool, his body movement both flowing into the music and receiving rhythm from it. His touch was feather-light on the sad, concluding notes of No. 6.
When came the turn of Rachmaninov's Sonata no 2 in B flat minor, op 36, the complex, tumultuous theme and recapitulation of its 'allegro agitato' reminded us of the composer's status as a magnificent pianist, perhaps the greatest of the 20s and 30s in both Europe and the USA. As the 2nd movement, a quieter 'lento', was played, the bare branches of the sycamore outside one of the east windows swayed sullenly in the freezing breeze, as it were in time with the music. For the finale Mr Lebhardt piled on the pressure once more, arriving shortly before the end at a characteristically Rachmaninovian melody composed of expansive chords in which I thought I noticed traces of the 3rd Piano Concerto of four years earlier, and then flowed into the rapid coda.
For an encore, preceded by a gale of applause, we heard the 2nd of Brahms' Six Pieces. Mr Lebhardt played throughout the 75 minutes from memory, something of a feat in itself, and in an interesting discussion with me afterwards in the green room he remarked that especially in a fast-moving work like the Rachmaninov he can find the presence of the score and page turner a little distracting. He also told me that Robert Schumann had made an acid comment about the virtuoso Franz Liszt for playing in public one of Schumann's works for solo piano without the score, apparently suspecting (with good reason) that the flamboyant pianist would branch out from the score as written into territory of improvisation and even of one of Liszt's own published pieces.
A memorable recital. This soloist cannot return to Holywell St too soon.