Stunning Maturity

Martin James BartlettIf policemen seem to be getting younger, so do world-class concert pianists. Word had obviously got around, and Milverton Parish Church was packed for last Friday’s concert presented by the Milverton Concert Society. Three years ago at the age of 17, Martin James Bartlett stunned the audience and viewers when he won the BBC Young Musician competition in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. He has gone from strength to strength since then, and his appearance in Milverton is shortly before he goes to the United States to take part in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Texas. Based on what we heard last Friday, he has a darned good chance of winning!

His programme was very varied, covering a huge timespan and widely differing styles of music. He opened with the famous Partita No. 2 in C Minor by Bach and he had the audience gripped from start to finish. Originally for harpsichord of course, this piece translates well to the piano, especially at the hands of someone so totally inside the music as Martin was. The opening was sonorous, his articulation was crystal clear, nowhere more so than in the two-part fugue which concludes the first movement. In the Sarabande his playing was calm and controlled, yet it flowed freely and the melodic lines were beautifully crafted. Time and time again I was struck by the clarity of line, precision coupled with bravura in the final movement and the way in which he demonstrated the humour in the writing with real vigour. If he had played nothing else that night, this performance marked him out as a superbly mature artist with a huge talent.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 18 Op. 31 deserves to be more popular than it is, especially if it is played as well as it was last Friday. The first movement was joyous, and Martin’s very restrained use of the pedal continued the clarity and precision of sound which had characterised the Bach. In the second movement the gruff, bumbling figures in the bass line were beautifully played and he made the most of the joyful outbursts and leaps which this movement contains. The Menuetto was gentle and heartfelt – he was absolutely at one with the composer, his soul was obviously in the music. The joyful and prancing finale, with its moments of drama, was played in great style and this was again a stunning performance.

The first half ended with a very different musical genre, the lush and grandiose music of Granados, when Martin played the ‘Love and Death’ movement from that composer’s 1911 ‘Goyescas’ Suite. This is rather an episodic piece, but Martin managed to give it a coherence which lesser players might not have managed. The texture of this music is very rich and thick, but even in the loudest and most declamatory passages the sound was never muddy or congested. Martin’s articulation was wondrous, and the emotional middle section with its mixture of passion and bleakness was superbly played. Phew! We needed that interval.

After a glass of red, I was ready to face Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca Op. 104, a very familiar piece but which was made to sound new and exciting again. Martin once more showed his astonishing ability to span genres. This was Liszt in the grand romantic manner. The playing had all of the flamboyance one would expect but with a steely control and firm grip on the tempi and dynamics. The unexpectedly tranquil ending of the piece was played exquisitely.

Tranquillity fled the building with the harsh, sardonic and angular opening of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, sometimes called the ‘Stalingrad sonata’. This is dissonant, disturbing music and even if the second subject was in a more reflective style, it still contained a feeling of unease and desolation, perfectly realised in Martin’s playing. The second movement is very emotional, also uneasy in places, but also very passionate, almost frenetic in the later passages. Its slow theme is loosely based on a song by Schumann and that tune recurs at the end, bringing the movement to a resigned conclusion.

In the finale Prokofiev unleashes an insistent, menacing theme at the start. In character I was reminded of Bernstein’s music for the ‘rumble’ (gang fight) in ‘West Side Story’ but the whole thing was very Russian. Martin played it with fingers of steel, and the colossal climax of fortissimo octaves brought the house down. The applause was thunderous and long – there was no way that he was going to get away without playing an encore.

This he did – after the raw power of the Prokofiev we were treated to an exquisite performance of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 Number 3 – a wonderful antidote to the previous starkness. If any proof were needed, this showed once again what a fully-rounded musician Martin Bartlett is. He has a long and wonderful career ahead of him, and to hear him play was a real privilege.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 07/05/2017