The Happy Return

Martin James BartlettLast May I wrote a glowing review of the first concert in Milverton by pianist Martin James Bartlett, BBC Young Musician of 2014, and I commented on the maturity of his playing for such a still young musician. Later in 2017 he took part in the prestigious Van Cliburn piano competition in the US, and it was with great pleasure that we all looked forward to a return visit, which has just taken place. The variety of his programme was striking, and it indicates that his career should avoid the type-casting which affects so many players. How often do we hear of so-and-so being ‘a Chopin player par excellence’ or a ‘great Beethovenian’? While there is no shame in being credited as being a great interpreter of a particular genre, Martin is already demonstrating that he is a well –rounded artiste to whose hands the full gamut of the piano repertoire can be safely entrusted.

Scarlatti worked in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when the piano was still developing and the harpsichord was still widely played and composed for. To play his works on a modern concert grand piano with its massive colour palette and resonance is a skill which not all pianists have in full measure. Horowitz did, and so does Martin. He played three of Scarlatti’s sonatas, the first being the familiar E Major work of 1754. I was immediately struck by his crystal-clear articulation, and his very restrained use of the pedal, which kept the sound beautifully transparent. Harpsichords and early pianos had a limited dynamic range and Martin similarly was very subtle in his variations of dynamic which were just right. Far from restricting the interest, he made the three works sound varied and rewarding to listen to.

A jump to Schumann plunges us into the romantic era, and the ‘Kinderszenen’ (Scenes from Childhood) Op. 15 has the added provenance of being written when the composer was in the deep throes of love for Clara Wieck who later became his wife. These are all small, compact works, not terrifyingly difficult technically, but calling for an interpreter who can bring out the subtle depths and nuances contained within them. This Martin did – in his opening remarks he said that the pieces reflected an adult view backwards to childhood, and that they were not in any way ‘childish’ music. His playing of these 13 miniatures was a revelation. This is a familiar set of pieces, yet he brought them alive, fresh and new, even the sometimes hackneyed ‘Träumerei’ and made of them a coherent whole. The moods ranged from frolicsome , through reflective and turbulent and the last of the thirteen seemed to be more a look forward to old age and decline – he played this so beautifully that it seemed to offer resolution and solace rather than fear or resentment.

After the interval we jumped again to the late 19th and early 20th centuries where Romanticism reached its peak before leading into more aggressive and astringent regions. Rachmaninov’s Op. 32 Preludes are complex, technically advanced and look pretty terrifying on the printed page. Martin’s playing in the B Minor (No. 10) was impassioned, and yet for all the power he brought to it, the whole thing was under perfect control. I really enjoyed his limpid playing of the melody over stunningly accurate left hand arpeggios in the G Major (No. 5).

He then played No. 12 in G Sharp Minor – this is a key which gives a stark, bleak quality to the sound, and this particular piece is stuffed with Rachmaninov’s characteristic melancholy to boot. I’m making it sound like ‘music to hang yourself by’ but in fact Martin’s playing softened the harshness and the Russianness came through beautifully.

Martin then repeated an item he played in his first visit to Milverton, the Liszt ‘Sonetto del Petrarca’ 104, a very familiar Liszt piece. He was totally immersed in the music and again his perfect pedalling allowed us to hear the full colour range of the instrument without any loss of clarity even in the most dense musical texture.

The concert ended with Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4 in F Sharp Major. The first movement sounds like a love-child of Wagner and Liszt, and the second is decidedly ‘bluesy’ with jazz-derived chords and rhythms. Martin stormed through with great aplomb and really cut loose in the finale. This movement is jubilant in character, but it’s a sort of relentless joy! The cascades of repeated chords in complex rhythms would be a nightmare for any amateur pianist but Martin was obviously relishing every moment and romped to a stunning conclusion.

He was obviously not going to get away without playing an encore! We were treated to a wonderful fusion of two of the evening’s composers – the magnificent transcription by Liszt of Schumann’s evergreen lied ‘Widmung’. Liszt’s transcriptions of other composers’ works can sometimes be emptily showy, but not this one. It’s beautifully written and Martin played it to perfection.

What a glorious night. The icing on the cake was that Martin has agreed to become the Youth Patron of the Milverton Concert Society, and we look forward to a Young Persons’ Concert later in the year.

Review by Harold W. Mead