Ben Martin (piano)

Keyed-Up recital series

Octagon Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Ambrose Bierce, that most crotchety of commentators, once described the piano as an instrument played by “depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience”. But if, by some miracle of time travel, the long dead Bierce could have been present at Ben Martin’s recital, I’m sure he would have completely altered his dyspeptic view of the piano. Because, by even the most stringent of critical criteria, Martin’s recital in the Keyed-Up series could fairly be described as an uplifting listening experience.

His performance of Schubert’s Sonata in E flat was extraordinarily fine, so much so that there seemed to be far more to the performance than mere meaningful communication between musician and listener. On the contrary, the recital seemed an act of profound communion between pianist and composer – a rare phenomenon and all the more to be cherished for that.

For those who came to the recital in the hope of being dazzled by keyboard fireworks, the performance may have been something of a let down because this was a presentation devoid of conventional glib virtuosity and cheap appeals to the gallery. Instead, we heard a master pianist mining mostly quiet masterpieces for every imaginable, subtle nuance. Martin has at his disposal the means to coax a myriad pianissimo shadings from the instrument and they were employed in a magically musical way.

But there was much else on offer, too, not least a superb reading of Handel’s Suite No 1, the Prelude of which was informed by a quality of extemporisation that could hardly have been bettered. In passing: one wonders whether Saint Saens had the Prelude in mind while writing the first movement of his Piano Concerto in G minor: there are fascinating allusions to it in the keyboard’s utterance before the orchestra comes in for the first time.

Arnold Bax’s music is seldom heard. Many musicians tend to put it in the too-hard basket. Certainly, the Sonata in G sharp minor guards its secrets jealously. But, in his ability to reveal the Celtic demon that lurks behind the printed note, Martin is clearly privy to them all. In fact, the qualities of mind and heart brought to bear on the work were at such a level that it placed the critic in the pleasant predicament of having to do little other than to sit back and salute artistry of the highest order.

Also on the bill were short pieces by Delius and Vaughan Williams as well as Martin’s own Sonatine.

Copyright Neville Cohn 2006

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