Daniel Lebhardt last played in Oxford on June 24th this year, and my expectations were high, given the quality of his performances then and on the three other times I've heard him play. Here at St John the Evangelist he made an immediate impression, appearing from the chancel, striding easily to the Steinway piano on its dais, then sitting and instantly playing the opening notes of W.A. Mozart's Piano Sonata no.6 in D major in one smooth movement. No fiddling with the piano stool, no twiddling of the fingers, no composing himself; just up and at the music.
The second movement is a 'rondeau en polonaise' rather than the more anticipated 'andante', and Mr Lebhardt graced it with a gossamer-light touch on the keys. After the briefest of pauses he launched into the theme with variations, a very extended movement for Mozart, and technically challenging, involving much crossing of hands; but the reward is great, and anyone listening unsighted might have been forgiven for imagining two players and four hands at the piano, such was the overlaid density of sound. The last few of these many variations were Mozart in top form, with an almost hypnotic quality in the music as it slowed to 'adagio' and then 'lento' pace.
We now moved from Munich to the plains of Central Poland for three Chopin mazurkas, Op. 28, the third of which played in quasi-waltz time. The second Chopin item was his Barcarolle in F sharp, a stylised version of a Venetian gondoliers' boating song, the Barcarola. It's a bit of a stretch from the Chiesa de la Madonna dell'Orto to Iffley Road, but this is Chopin in his most lyrical mode, that of his Nocturnes, and the attentive viewer, following the pianist's long fingers rippling up and down the keys, could perhaps make with him the long journey from Venice to Oxford via Paris.
The first half of the concert was concluded by Prokofiev's Sonata no. 3 in A minor. This is a short, (c. 8 minutes) virile work and fast and furious from the start, and this impression was accentuated by Mr Lebhardt's coming down on the opening crashing chords almost before he'd sat down. The people in front of me almost jumped out of their skins! The tempestuous energy was only briefly relieved by a more lyrical secondary theme, in which Mr Lebhardt showed off his delicacy of touch.
After the interval we moved to and remained in Hungary, the soloist's home country, in the company of Franz Liszt and Bela Bartok. The former's Hungarian Rhapsody no. 1, is quite brief but complex in its dichotomic structure, slipping on a sixpence from quick time and slow time and back again. Mr Lebhardt spent much of the time with his right hand at the very top end of the range. Bartok's Four Dirges are Romanian funeral grieving songs, brief and spare music but full of muted passion. The second and third had an insistent beat, and especially in the latter I seemed to detect the tolling of the bell in the churchyard belfry. For the only time during the concert Mr Lebhardt played from the score – he told me afterwards he would have felt slightly less than secure playing it from memory.
Sandwiching the funeral music was something southern and gay, Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody. The programme notes talked of fandangos and hispanophilia, but the Spanish nature of the music to my ear was covert rather than overt. That said, at the halfway point Mr Lebhardt went at the chords like a stomping flamenco dancer, if not a Turkish whirling dervish, and after a brief moment of stillness, the dancer perhaps flopping to the floor in exhaustion, he closed the work and concert in a dazzling firestorm of sound that had the audience cheering, some of them on their feet.
This was a treat of a recital from a young master. Everything about Daniel Lebhardt speaks of musical pedigree, from his unhurried presence, his still but alert demeanour at the keyboard and his command of tempo and colour. Add to this a perfectly chosen programme, and Sunday's audience knew that SJE Arts' 2017 Piano Series had concluded in scintillating fashion.