When I said to my friends that I was going to a concert that involved a man destroying a Steinway piano, reassembling it and then having another man play it, they understandably looked confused. In fact, this seemingly gross act of instrument-related mutilation might be deemed as breaking the boundaries of musical protocol, but as many years of listening to pretentious music and reading overrated books has taught me, one must break the rules in order to be appreciated. This concert was not guilty of any pretense; as an audience, we were entertained by Gerhartz’s and Roscoe’s joking and connection with the audience. As music-lovers, we gained knowledge into the workings of the most important musical instrument of all; the piano.
Now, I had no idea what to expect from this concert. The description just seemed plain strange to me; someone who had endured eighteen years of monotonous hymns and Scottish dance music blasting from shops in a sinister attempt to lure in tourists. I was definitely ready for a new, relevant and interesting approach to music. The concert started with Ulrich Gerhartz (Britain’s leading Steinway technician) unlocking the secrets of the notoriously professional Steinway piano. I think I speak for all the other lucky people who were there in saying that this part was brilliantly bizarre. Most would concede that it is a rare occurrence to watch a man take apart a piano and teach us why Steinway & Sons use one kind of wood more than another. Some members of the audience might have found this tedious, wanting to skip past the mechanics and quite literally face the music, but as a music student, I can safely say that the intricacies of such a complex machine must be taken into account in order to truly recognise its beauty. This glimpse into the piano served as an excellent introduction for Martin Roscoe, the pianist of the night.
I’ll be frank about this; the actual performance was simply brilliant. Roscoe is an incredibly versatile and intimidatingly skilled musician, who can turn his hand to any era and instil beauty in it. Even the Haydn Sonata in D major, which upon first listening could perhaps be considered bland or just plain boring, depending on how blunt you are. He added elements of emotive, dynamic contrast, but not too drastically, in order to keep the spirit of the Classical era as prominent as possible.
The programme moved chronologically, progressing towards the ambiguous Romantic era with the Schubert Impromptu in A flat major. A short piece that travels from the sombre to the yearning, but centered on one main theme that encompasses these emotions, Roscoe highlighted this and showed how the piano can resemble the human voice. The Chopin Nocturne in D flat major followed this and expressed feelings of deep longing. Occasional silences hung over us, crying out to the room. An intense feeling of anguish was successfully crafted in this rendition; typical of Romantic music. La Cathedrale Engloutie by Debussy was written years on from this. At the end of the day, Debussy’s music is so chord-heavy, it can easily sound clumsy and sometimes out of tune, but Roscoe avoided this easy trap, producing a haunting tone to the piece as a whole.
The piano works in many different dimensions. It is obviously a keyboard instrument, but it can be described as a string instrument (each key is attached to a string that is hit, then activated to generate a sound) or in some cases, a percussion instrument. Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro is based on this concept and Roscoe developed this, using powerful and often frightening articulation. A far cry from the pretty trills and perfect cadences of the Haydn.
Lastly, Roscoe played Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11. Liszt was a remarkable composer for the piano and was once described as the best pianist that ever existed, ever. Admittedly, this is a huge challenge for a performer to live up to, especially one who uses the often demeaned technique of having the music in front of them whilst playing to a live audience. Of course this challenge was risen to, venturing across the serious to the playful and from strident shouting to whispering sorrow.
I waited for this concert in eager anticipation, hoping for an eye-opening experience, and I haven’t the slightest doubt that I received that. This was a true celebration of the piano, really showing off its feathers and proving that it is of paramount importance, being the most basic yet complicated of all instruments. On leaving the Great Hall, I caught up with Roscoe for one quick question. What the most important thing about playing the piano was to him? “The ability to focus. If you’re nervous, all you have to do is concentrate and you lose that fear. It’s just a box of tricks anyway.”