Expectations were running high at Sunday's Coffee Concert. Not solely mine, but also those of Luigi Thompson and Diana Bonakis Webster, two of the stalwarts who so generously give of their time for the running of these coffee concerts; they told me of their anticipation of something special from Daniel Lebhardt, once of Budapest and now at age 25 firmly established in Britain. This was derived from Mr Lebhardt's previous appearances in Holywell St.
We began with Drei Klaverstucke [three piano pieces] D946 by Schubert from the 1920s and what a beginning it was. The outer movements of No. 1 were aptly described in the programme notes as "having a galloping rhythm" and Mr Lebhardt was straight into the tempo, passing on to the 'andante' which had a lullaby-like quality. The principal melody of No. 2 was in 6/8 barcarolle time. A barcarolle was a folk tune once upon a time sung by musical gondoliers in Venice as they punted up and down the Grand Canal transporting moneyed young 18th century Englishmen doing their Grand Tours. Just last week in Chipping Norton I saw Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty make his pompous entry to a barcarolle in HMS Pinafore. This piece is a testament to the way in which Schubert is the most compassionate and companionable of composers; a cherished friend through life's ups and downs.
Mike Wheeler's programme notes talked of a prevailing mood of 'concentrated pathos' in the second item work of the concert, Mozart's Rondo in A minor (replacing a Rachmaninov piano sonata). I didn't pick up this summation of the tone in Mr Lebhardt's playing here. Perhaps he kept the tempo a little higher than is usual in respect of a rondo, that's to say a piece where the principal theme recurs several times, each repetition being embellished by decorative or explanatory episodes. Or maybe I was seduced by the twofold happy circumstances as he played of the sun coming out, beaming in thorough the high windows of the Holywell Music Room, together with the bells from New College chapel across the road commencing their muted pealing. Be that as it may, the soloist's playing here was spontaneous and free, closely approaching a feeling of improvisation.
Mr Lebhardt is a stylist at the keyboard. Quiet and unfussy, he positions the stool well back from the piano, while the movement described by his left hand is notably graceful. Like the best cricketers he always seems unhurried, even when at full tilt and the music is hectic or stormy. In Bartók's Piano Sonata, Sz80, BB88 he now proceeded to show what he could do with dissonant music. The queer, syncopated rhythms of the opening 'allegro moderato' seemed to inspire him to bring out its percussive requirement, especially the noisy build-up towards the end. The central movement is marked 'sostenuto e pesante' [heavy] and here he pushed on hard, setting up an inexorable rhythm. He played throughout from memory; in February he told me he can find the presence of the score and page turner a little distracting. The finale came upon us at frenzied pace, though our soloist seemed entirely unruffled.
Mr Lebhardt told me afterwards he is shortly off to fulfil engagements in China. In my view he is, together with Tom Poster, perhaps the best of the many pianists I've heard in the dozens of coffee concerts I've attended. I suggested to him afterwards that in years to come, on hearing that I'd met Daniel Lebhardt in Oxford on the morning of 25th June 2017, people will swoon away in surprise and envy, just as if I'd claimed to have breakfasted with Joan Sutherland or played cards with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. We laughed; but I was only half-joking.