Townsville 2012: Day 8 - Thoughts From The Piano Stool Part 2

Focus on pianist Jonathan Plowright & final Festival thoughts

Following on from yesterday’s focus on the piano, and in particular some specific thoughts  from Kathryn Stott, today as promised I’m focusing on the Festival’s other British pianistic lynchpin.

The man in question is the prodigiously talented Jonathan Plowright.  Like Stott, he is a northerner (although from the other side of the Pennines) and like her, he’s an engaging storyteller albeit with quite a different story to tell.  Brought up in a Yorkshire mining community, Plowright recalls playing in pubs as a young lad while his parents, both amateur musicians, coaxed him along to competitions with the lure of bonus trips to the seaside.  Alexander Kelly, his influential teacher at the RCM, never criticised him for lack of practise, but encouraged him with four hour lessons that frequently digressed into lengthy abstract discussions.  Something of a original, Jonathan recalls Kelly once illustrating a dance figure by standing on the piano lid  and performing an Irish jig!  Kelly, by the way, was the connection between Plowright and Piers Lane, ultimately leading to his first visit to Townsville.

An enthusiastic talker, I was lucky enough to collar Jonathan for a chat between rehearsals.  His Festival survival technique is clearly ‘heads down, don’t worry about  tomorrow’ - his only complaint, the size of the print on the schedule.  He clearly thrives on a challenge and relishes meeting new partners.  Piers genius, he says, is intelligent programming that never falls into the trap of simply catering for his audience.  “You’ve got to stick to your guns”, he reckons, “the audience will go with you.”

A prodigious Bach pianist with several CDs of transcritions to his credit, Jonathan’s performance of the D Minor Piano Concerto the other night was a Festival highlight.  It was a real pleasure to watch him execute the work with such an even touch, yet loaded with nuance and poetic detail.  He proved a generous partner for the accompanying Camerata of St John.  It’s the Hummel Military Septet that’s his current hurdle.  “Hummel’s always so difficult - there are so many notes”, he laments.

He has also acquired quite a reputation for Polish music, a fact attested to by his current discography.  It all began as a result of his connection with the Hyperion Romantic Piano series and the label’s piano guru, Mike Smith.  He’d been asked to do a ‘forgotten’ concerto that try as he might just didn’t feel like him.  He decided that the best thing to do was to try and find a substitute so he took himself off to the library at his old music college.  There on the top shelf, wrapped in plain brown paper (“the classical music equivalent of the porn section”, he joked) was a concerto by Zygmunt Stojowski that commanded his attention.  Hyperion were delighted and from there it was a short hop to recording works by Plowright’s all-time musical hero, Paderewski.

Mention the Polish keyboard magician to Plowright and he instantly lights up.  “Did you know he earned a quarter of a million dollars on his 1891 US tour?”, he enthuses. “And he gave it all away!”.  In the course of the next ten minutes I learn a lot.  Not only was he the highest paid musician of his day whose private train carried three or four pianos and a tuner onboard, he was Prime Minister of Poland and signed the Treaty of Versailles.  “He played to all people”, says  Plowright, “and to the heart - he always did four or five encores”.  This generosity of musical spirit is clearly part of the appeal, but there’s a family story too.  Jonathan’s grandfather, a South Yorkshire miner, walked 12 miles to hear the great man play in Leeds.  “He looked like God”, declared the old man, and promtly started Jonathan’s father learning the piano.  Many years later, Jonathan got hold of Paderewski’s concert diary and checked places and dates - it was all true.

Serendipity has also played its part.  An elderly friend and neighbour in Brighton bequeathed Plowright his piano and all of his sheet music.  Expecting to find little more than popular parlour songs, he couldn’t believe his eyes when he discovered that he had been left one of only 250 extant bound copies of the Homage to Paderewski.  This multi-composer tribute album was commissioned to honour the 50th anniversary of his first US tour.  The result was last year’s acclaimed Hyperion recording of this fascinating collection (see my Limelight review for more details).

His next CDs will be released later this year and are all of Polish repertoire.  There’s a Piano Quartet by Żeleński, a Piano Quintet by Zarebski and then he’s recorded concertos by Zarzycki - clearly a man who likes to begin at the end of the alphabet.

Again, it’s worth putting these musical chats into the context of the week’s performances.  The subsequent rendition of the aforementioned Hummel, for me at least, epitomises Piers Lane’s admirable Festival ethos.  Here is a work whose genial spirits were perfectly captured by seven musicians, each playing their part with generosity and grace.  The unusual compination of instruments makes this work a relative rarity.  It was also well behind the times when first performed in 1829.  Nevertheless, it’s a charming work, and yes, for all it’s even handed scoring, the piano never stops.  I guess that makes Mr Plowright first among equals.

I’ll wrap up my Festival blog with a few final plaudits.  The last couple of days have seen many fine moments but I’d like to single out a few.  First, the Goldner String Quartet in Westlake’s challenging Second Quartet - a work requiring, and receiving a virtuoso performance.  I’d also mention two works I’d never heard before, both of which benefitted from ideal interpretations.  Marshall McGuire captivated us all with Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ delightful Harp Sonata in a rarity outing from a composer whose current anniversary may hopefully yield other treasures.  Lorna McGhee has also been a thrilling discovery for me.  Principle Flute with the Pittsburg Symphony, McGhee has a flawless technique and a way of speaking to the heart.  Her performance of Ibert’s miniature Aria for Flute was magical.

At the end of the day, I don’t think I need to tell you that I have enjoyed my time here - I have a feeling this blog has made that pretty clear.  There are still some exciting things to come: Howard Penny and Piers Lane palying the Delius Cello Sonata, the Storioni Trio playing Schubert’s Notturno for a peformance by Dancenorth, Carnival of the Animals lead by Piers Lane and Kathryn Stott, not to mention Katie Noonan and the Festival Farewell.  My recommendation - if you get the chance, do visit Townsville - it truly is world class.

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Clive Paget
The thoughts and roamings of Music Critic and Limelight Deputy Editor Clive Paget.
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