FringeReview UK 2018
Jon Byrne played Maxwell-Davies’ A Farewell to Stromness, Sibelius’ Impromptu No. 6 and as the main item Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, the 1913 version with bridge passages from the 1931 edition.
Jon Byrne’s a Brighton-based pianist with a word-of-mouth reputation, since his profile’s slowly emerging. Suffice to say most Brighton-based pianists – many previously reviewed here – seemed present.
Byrne’s reputation is whispered around his performance of the literally iconic Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No. 2. Iconic because it’s the pinnacle of Twentieth-Century Romantic repertoire, and does indeed feature Russian bells with icons beneath.
Byrne opened with two shorts. First he played Peter Maxwell-Davies’ A Farewell to Stromness, a lilting lament to a de-populated island, a kind of slow waltz with a dragging last bar. Byrne here and in his next piece displays a contrast to fireworks with this beautifully attenuated performance.
Although we know Sibelius’ Sonatinas slightly – Glenn Gould played them for instance – his Impromptus are virtually unknown here. No. 6 is a gently minimal-sounding piece, also waltz-like, and for a moment not hearing the introduction I thought it was of far later date. Its terracing and remarkable voicings deepen and lengthen our sense of it long after it’s faded out.
The main item Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, is infamously fiendish. Rachmaninov himself didn’t publish it in 1913, and waited till 1931 when his self-doubt made him cut down complexity and length. Horowitz then decided to reanimate the 1913 edition editing through with sensible 1931 revisions, adding bridge passages, but usually in the service of the 1931’s length: about 21 minutes.
Byrne’s different. He to starts with this thorny gargoyle of the 1913 edition and bridges and fillets too; but it feels far less so. The performance is much longer, partly because only the legendary dying Joseph Villa in 1991 equalled Horowitz’s supremely cavalier way with tempi articulation and everything else. Byrne’s like most other pianists: more respectful, letting the notes speak, not blurring manic glissandi, leaving the middle notes out, or note-splintering runs.
In fact what Byrne does is sound rather like Rachmaninov – who sadly never recorded this. And the 1913 version with bridge passages from the 1931 edition might have pleased the composer. Otherwise that aureate tone’s nearest avatar is Van Cliburn. His recording – though of a different edition – is the closest analogue to this performance.
There’s grandeur, immense clarity, complete roundedness of tone, and a capacity to marry the two without either blur or desiccation. Byrne related an anecdote about a lady who hoped he’d not be playing loud, and noted she hadn’t turned up when he assured her he would! And he does. There’s no other way, but Byrne’s way is to ensure clarity through clamour.
And there’s Byrne’s intro. He points out those bells descanting we hear throughout are bells of light and dark, in the first movement, where they’re most clamorous and stunning. They’re gentler representing love in the slow movement, here very slow; and finally the bells of war in the presto finale. Rachmaninov wrote The Bells of course, a choral symphony around the same time, and this is his pianistic equivalent.
So the opening sweep down is both grand, Romantic and wholly clear. There’s a lot more tempo-slowing and elements that many won’t recognize partly because they can hear it and partly because Byrne’s personal edition adds elements we’re not familiar with if we know this work, or think we do.
The bell descant is still thrilling, and here a peal that you can imagine as authentically Russian, and because we have time to take it in, you here it repeated throughout. Byrne has the measure of speed too, and much of this first movement sashays between fast and pull-back slow, eddies of strange contemplation.
The second movement is mesmerisingly slow, with an adagio pulse that stops time. I’m not sure I could always bear it this long but when played more swiftly it’s more like an intermezzo which unbalances the work anyway. The bells of love, and rather more, come through here, and it’s again fascinating to see what Byrne’s restored and why Rachmaninov cut some things away in a more neo-classic mood.
The finale’s all heltering with its cascades and again pull-backs, and yes those agogic hesitations, those sudden reveries even in this race-to-the-finish moment. Byrne’s way with this is again full-toned, pacey and conceived as a whole. He’s proved here the work is remarkably through-composed, with repeat motifs and a consistency even greater than its obvious themes and memorability.
Byrne’s edition and performance are a revelation. Even though I quail at his deliberate marking out of the slow movement as entirely different, he utterly makes sense. There’s even more slow moments in the adjacent movements, so his decision’s one of logical contrast.
Anyway, an outstanding achievement, fully deserving of its spontaneous standing ovation. Let’s hope Byrne can commit this, his signature piece so far, to disc, perhaps with the First Sonata.