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November 17, 2006

Mozart, Maths and Tom Wakefield: Piano Recital by Thomas Wakefield at the Cambridge Music Festival

Posted by David Conway

Piano Recital by Thomas Wakefield
The Auditorium, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
11th November 2006
as part of the Cambridge Music Festival

The theme of this year's Cambridge Music Festival (continuing until November 25th) is "Mozart, Maths and Music". Mozart seems to me one of the least "mathematical" of composers, but the theme at least offers a different perspective from which to compare and contrast his work with that of others, and Thomas Wakefield's recital took advantage of this. The (typically) idiosyncratic choice of programme and the incomparable technique and communication of this great, but elusive, bravura performer made for a remarkable evening.

We began fittingly with a pair of Bach Preludes and Fugues (no. 3 in C# major and no. 15 in G major), with a mathematical programme note informing us that the triumph of equal temperament, which enabled Bach's tour round all the keys, was to overcome the awkward fact that a perfect fifth, in the natural sequence, occurs not at 7 semitones above the keynote, but at 7.010550008654 semitones; a fact which I must keep in mind next time I am on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

These spirited and authoritative performances however kept our minds on the flow of the music. The new (well, two years old) Fitzwilliam Auditorium, in internal appearance not much more than a concrete shoebox, has however excellent acoustics allowing the clarity and warmth of the performance to bloom. This clarity was echoed in the second half of the recital by a beautifully turned performance of Webern's Variations for Piano op. 27, a miniature encyclopaedia of dodecophany (like so much else of the composer's work)

Following the Bach, Mr Wakefield left the stage for Mozart's Sonata for Piano Duet (K. 497) to be played by two Fitzwilliam undergraduates, Alex West and Charles Curry. Both of them are reading mathematics, so here was the Festival's theme incarnate. The sonata conceals, beneath its suave surface, a number of tricky corners and these were carefully negotiated to produce a performance which will have brought a smile to the shades, not only of Mozart, but also the two composer-pianists, who, as the programme informed us, performed the same work in public in 1875, Camille Saint-Saens and Charles-Valentin Alkan - for the concert was also supported by the Alkan Society, and Alex West had won the previous day the Society's Piano Scholarship award, (in competition with Mr Curry). A triumph then, not only for music, but for sportsmanship and for rapport between the Two Cultures.

Of Wakefield's rediscovery of George Pinto I have written before in this journal, and he presented the pastoral Sonatina op 4. no. 3 and the haunting, posthumously published, Minuetto as testaments to this lost genius. But he is an even more redoubtable exponent of the Alkan repertoire, and took the opportunity to present during the recital two rarely-heard, and one virtually unheard, examples of the works of this great master of the keyboard who is only now coming to assume his deserved status.

The transcription for solo piano of the central movement of Mozart's D minor Piano Concerto ingeniously integrates the orchestral parts by way of spread chords and crossed hands, retaining the delicacy of the music despite the difficult technical constraints.

More lurid is the ultra-romantic piece Aime-moi, descending irresistibly by thirds into ever more distant keys. As it starts off in A flat minor (key signature of seven flats) it is inevitable that eventually, to quote Mr Wakefield's notes again,

clusters of double-flats dangle like over-ripe fruit from trees
- something which he suggests risks looking like "genetically-modified harmony". Add to this that the melody is embellished by grupetti increasing at each return from two notes to seven and we have a musical-mathematic ensemble that somehow summons to my mind Drer's similarly intense and mathematical Melancholia. But Mr Wakefield's performance entirely justified his statement that, despite the superficial mechanics, "it works".

The most startling of this group of pieces - and of the recital - was Alkan's op. 34 Scherzo focoso of 1847, long thought to be completely unplayable and being given, I think, its first public concert performance in Britain (the young pianist Lloyd Buck having given a great shot at it earlier this year at the Royal College of Music). Until now we have had to rely on Anders Rdn's pioneering electronic version (click on the sheet music on the site to download the mp3 played by computerised piano) to get much idea of what this extraordinary music might be like; there are (as yet) no recordings played by humans.

Generously proportioned - and containing before its final bars one of the longest pedal points in history, a bass note sustained and repeated over an immense number of bars until one is almost begging for release - the work is a compendium of every intricacy of speed, fingering and configuration known to keyboard virtuosity, delivered on this occasion impeccably. True to the work's title, we hear fire in every one of its forms, from deep heat glow to roaring flames, and if it is indeed a scherzo, then the joke is diabolic in the extreme. At the end the audience was prostrated, although Mr Wakefield was as collected and inscrutable as ever. An absolutely heroic performance on every count.

The final work of the recital was another reminiscence of Mozart as conjured up first by Liszt, who left his Fantasy on arias from The Marriage of Figaro incomplete, and then Busoni, who took up the challenge of completing it and adding a few extra fireworks. Not musically a patch on Liszt's better known reimagination of Don Giovanni, the piece is a good old-fashioned barnstormer, although by this time we had no need to be convinced of Tom Wakefield's capacity. A nice touch was the Prokofiev encore, in folk-tale mode with a downbeat, throwaway ending. Let us please hear more of Mr Wakefield, and more often - we have, after all, few enough British keyboard players who can convey so convincingly both the music and the thrills of this repertoire.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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