Jack Gibbons has been playing at the Holywell Music Room since November 1977 when as a 15 year old schoolboy he happened upon auditions for Oxford students taking place there, passed the test and played in a concert under mistaken I.D. His first full recital followed in February 1978 and the rest is Oxford history. A Chopin Journey: Warsaw to Paris on Wednesday night was the third date of his 30th eight-concert summer series. Almost every seat was taken in the hall, lit for the occasion by two standard lamps and with the black blinds pulled down over the windows.
The style of the concert was established the instant Mr Gibbons emerged from a side door: one moment an empty stage, the next there he was on his stool and playing. No hemming and hawing, just straight as an archer's shaft at the music. We began with pieces of Chopin's juvenilia, a Polonaise written when he was seven, another from four years later, and three blink-and-you-miss-them Ecossaises [Scottish pieces] from five years after that. The Mazurka in A minor Op. 68 no.2 marked a stage in the composer's growing maturity and early interest in inner contemplation.
Legendary maestro Arthur Rubinstein said that these folk dance miniatures in triples – Chopin wrote 57 of them – "demand at the same time an almost naive freshness and a mature mastery". A tough dichotomy, but I think one perfectly suited to Mr Gibbons' style. A tall, slightly stooping figure in pleasingly old-fashioned long tail coat and white bow tie, he commanded the stage and the Holywell's Steinway, yet radiated waves of simple joy in the music. How different was this recital from most others where the sole channel of communication between player and audience is the music. One of Mr Gibbons' hallmarks is the commentary he provides before each piece he plays; and what commentaries they were: the mix of biographical and technical content and its length were perfectly judged for his audience. He must have given several hundreds of these recitals, yet his entirely unscripted words tumbled out seemingly newly minted. Together with his playing from memory and marshalling of the programme – never an aide mémoire in sight - the whole constitutes a formidable feat of concentration and recall.
There followed a couple of Etudes, technical piano exercises inspired by Paganini, but developed by Chopin into things of imaginative invention. The first in C major called for thumping chords at the start, with vivid right-hand arpeggios. Its companion in C minor, perhaps a forerunner of Flight of the Bumblebee, and one of the excerpts from Capitol Records' 1947 Sparky's Magic Piano, called for vigorous left-hand work at the bottom of the register. We then heard Mr Gibbons' own arrangement for solo piano of the 'larghetto' from Piano Concerto No. 1. In his playing of a few items of the programme I felt there was a slight tendency for the playing to assume a flamboyance where a little more introspection might have served as useful contrast, and this was most marked, I thought, in this 'larghetto', a tempo slightly slower than adagio, but here played more at moderato. Similarly, in the succeeding Andante Spianato, the marked andante tempo was delivered at something like moderato.
We followed Chopin's travels from Warsaw to Paris, and as he increasingly avoided playing in public, so the complexity of his compositions increased. In the Grande Polonaise Brillante Mr Gibbons ranged freely over the full width of the keyboard, giving out a full romantic effect. In the Etude in G sharp minor he provided a little demonstration of different ways of playing a few bars, then launched with relish into its fiendishly hard technical demands. Perhaps the best was left until last with the Sonata in B flat minor, opus 35. Here Mr Gibbons judged marvellously the tempestuous first movement, then taking the drama forward with the 'scherzo, before the famous and portentous 'funeral march' and enigmatic epilogue. This was a tour-de-force.
Three encores, two of self-composed pieces, a raging storm of applause and the audience streamed out, abuzz with transferred energy, while Mr Gibbons repaired to the King's Arms and thence in mid-August back to his cabin in the wilds of Virginia, USA.