Saturday, 16 November 2013

We Remember English Pianist BERNARD ROBERTS (1933-2013)

We are saddened to read about the passing of English pianist Bernard Roberts (1933-2013) on 7 November 2013. He was best known as a Beethoven interpreter par excellence (the sonatas of whom he recorded on the Nimbus label), and a founding member of the Parikian-Fleming-Roberts Trio (playing alongside Ian Fleming’s half sister) which was regularly heard over the radio during the early 1980s.

I had the fortune of having had a single lesson with him in August 2007 at the Chetham’s Piano Summer School. It was a quite unforgettable and humbling experience. Here’s an excerpt of my diary entry:

I played through all of Mozart’s Adagio in B minor, feeling quite pleased with myself. And then he said, “Good. Good. Good…good, but what was all that about?

Thus began the most gruelling piano lesson of my entire life. Roberts was ever so patient. He worked on every detail, including phrasing, pedalling (or the absence of it), timing, dotted rhythm and achieving the right tonal colour. For an entire hour, witnessed by a small group of observers, we worked on just the first five bars of the piece (one of Mozart’s sparest and most modernistic creations). He was aiming at achieving something pure, something beautiful, which seemed to be eluding me at every turn.

Look, we even have the same hair-style!

Then he remonstrated on the edition that I was using, exhorting me to only use Urtext in the future. Now I felt like a midget (hoping for the earth to open and swallow me whole), or to put it less brutally, like Christian Slater’s novice in the presence of Sean Connery’s William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose. 

I am totally grateful to the avuncular, kindly and saint-like Roberts for totally exposing my pretension of being a pianist, even for a day. There is so, so much that I have yet to learn about piano playing, an a life time’s worth of hard work awaits whoever decides to call himself a pianist. Humility begins now.

What was Bernard Roberts like in performance? Here was my short review of his recital at the Whitely Hall of Chetham’s School on 19 August 2007:

Roberts strikes one as a friendly, grandfatherly figure (with a “tonsure” that recalls Franciscan monks of old), and whose playing conforms to that congenial image – sincere, hale and hearty, not always note-perfect but ultimately honest-to-goodness musicianship.

In Beethoven’s Sonata in D major (Op.10 No.3), he probed and unearthed the true essence of early Beethoven – emotional turmoil, unease and agitation alternating with moments of calm and repose. The slow movement unfolded like a sermon, revealing a darkness of mood that might have influenced Schubert’s Lieder. The jocular Minuet and final Rondo were full of earthy Haydnesque humoue, the latter obsessed with a three-note motif, a device that would be applied with poignant effect in Beethoven’s last string quartet. The composer’s humanity again shone through in Roberts’s reading, and one would sooner hear him in this music that many accurate young pianists who will inevitably speed though aimlessly.

Roberts’s immense experience counts for everything in Schubert’s Three Piano Pieces D.946, making most of the music’s dynamic shifts – from sunshine to dark clouds and back again, much like a Manchester summer sky. The second piece alternated between achingly beautiful lyricism and throes of discomfiting gestures. And when one expected a return to the former, a completely new theme is thrown in to complicate matters. There is no silver lining without dark clouds in Schubert, it seems.

Roberts fully understood what made Schubert tick, his hopes and disappointments, joys and failings. The encore, Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No.2, with its chorale-like subject, completed the picture.

Finally, I am now listening to a recording of a full live recital by Bernard Roberts which he gave in 2003 (Dunelm Records DRD0212). It is vintage Roberts at his best in music by Haydn, Schubert and Brahms, direct to disc and without editing. His playing is never showy for its own sake, only playing to reveal the composer. This is true music-making in its best sense.  

Bernard Roberts was more than happy to autographs his CDs,
including those made-in-China copies which have
his name mis-spelt as Betnard Roberts.

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