FringeReview UK 2018
Phillip Dyson continues his 60th worldwide Birthday Year Piano Tour reaching All Saints. His repertoire embracing Chopin Debussy, Rachmaninov and Malcolm Arnold focuses on lighter music, particularly Billy Mayerl, as well as Scott Joplin Gershwin, Fats Waller, Comfrey and other popular piano composers.
This is special. And All Saints programmer Peter Morris and others prove yet again they can pull in those pianists who straddle the word of classical and film music, and here what used to be termed light piano music, blent with classical.
Chances are you might own a Phillip Dyson disc if you’re at all interested in British piano music from Billy Mayerl to Malcolm Arnold. Arriving trailing accolades from New York’s Lincoln centre, Vancouver Island’s The Times and any number of British notices, we’re exposed to an extraordinary pianist.
Philip Dyson continues his 60th worldwide Birthday Year Piano Tour reaching All Saints. His repertoire embracing Chopin Debussy, Rachmaninov, Tchaikowsky transcriptions and Arnold focuses on lighter music, particularly Mayerl, as well as Scott Joplin Gershwin, Fats Waller, Comfrey and other popular piano composers.
His style’s unique. Playing with an amplitude and expressive range few pianists till recently dared to try again, Dyson’s palate is almost orchestral, and really orchestral in his last programmed piece.
Dyson can draw out melodies from an undergrowth of harmonies that seem from another age, yet are contemporary, alert to new works, with an attractive bite. He has a habit of rolling one piece to the next is the manner of some golden age pianists a century ago; and jazz of course.
The Joplin sequence rolled from ‘The Entertainer’ memorably dispatched to the more recondite ‘Swipeasy Cake Walk’ and the wonderful ‘Bethena’ not a rag or cakewalk at all but a superb song-like piece showing Joplin’s range. Dyson pulls back some of the tempo to allow this to strike home. It does. The ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ rounds things out with another harmonically spiky calling-card from Joplin.
Dyson riffed immediately into a lovingly-drawn-out Debussy ‘Clair de Lune’ from Suite Bergomasque. Some might find this indulgent, but Dyson knows his venue and audience, the All Saints acoustic, and people who want big-hearted performances in a style they don’t often hear.
I wish we could have an afternoon of Mayerl, (1902-59) ‘the English Gershwin’ – indeed as Dyson reminds us they were great friends. ‘Evening Primrose’ is an attractively memorable piece, and if Mayerl didn’t write as many hit tunes as Gershwin, his clutch of the best stand comparison in a gentler, whimsical vein (or realistic, where the spiky 1930s ‘March of the Billboard Men’ answers the more political Gershwin musicals). Dyson knows we don’t know Mayerl any more, but with this and the later piece he might build a programme including about half a dozen. It’s incredibly refreshing to hear Mayerl played live.
Straight after another delight, Fats Waller’s ‘Alligator Crawl’ with tis syncopated strut and stride and wayward rush of harmonies, showing us how consummate Dyson is at pulling together bitonal or contrapuntal harmonies, and how rapidly he can dispatch when required.
The famous 1892 Rachmaninov Prelude in C sharp minor, Op 3/2, written at nineteen, became a bugbear for the composer. Dyson’s way is wholly different to every other pianist I’ve heard, and his riposte is that ‘I play it from the heart’ and feels it differently. Thus the portentous chiming chords at the outset and alter are softened, the tempo slowed, and the ruminant ‘six foot six of Russian gloom’ (Stravinsky’s description) gentled into melancholy and an abiding sadness. It’s worth hearing this way even if you long to hear a different take side by side. It’s satisfying on its own.
No qualms about the Tchaikowsky Nutcracker ballet pieces transcribed by contemporary (and Dyson’s contemporary) Mikhael Pletnev. The ‘Grand Pas De Deux’ Dyson proves can be slowed, rubato added, the main tune pulled to an extreme and a fabulous undertow of orchestral suggestiveness added. It really is orchestral, not strictly what Pletnev imagined, but what Dyson can do with it, and it’s rather glorious. The following ‘Trepak’ a superb contrast in rapid dance-rhythms and powerful accents. Naturally Dyson drives a fast tempo with the best.
Mayerl’s ‘Marigold’ like the Rachmaninov became his calling-card but unlike that composer Mayerl was grateful. ‘It was my bread, my butter and my jam too’ quoted Dyson. It’s as much a bottle of sunshine as any Gershwin happy piece, and most of them are. Here there’s a yellow light like the flower itself, an unfolding melodic warmth with acerbic edges only faintly greened.
Then that piece. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The solo piano version. That means getting in all the orchestra too. Dyson is supreme here, from the opening clarinet wail to the piano ‘entrance’ through the harmonic thickets of Whitman’s original jazz band sound, Dyson proves how supreme he is in conjuring orchestral sonorities from even this modest (but rather good) All Saints’ piano. Anything you might imagine in the full orchestral version was at least gestured to, the tempi exactly in keeping with a headlong powering through the work bringing affirmation, jazz-age hectics through the blood, and speak-easy liquor. the ‘dirty’ graininess of the original clarinets and wind instruments are evoked too, but most of all the sheer pianism of Gershwin spiked through the sounds of an often-evoked world.
Gershwin’s ‘Three-Quarter-Tone Blues’ and Comfrey’s ‘Dizzy Fingers’ zipped off an encore and no-one minded as Dyson promised, going home an hour late (actually about ten minutes!). A stand-out recital bringing so-called lighter classics home where they belong.