The Manchester Mid-day Concerts Society invite artists to perform one-off concerts for them which are held, not at mid-day as the name would suggest, but at ten past one in the afternoon. These concerts have now become a regular and familiar event at The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. The advantage of an afternoon mid-week concert is that you are guaranteed a good seat. The disadvantage of an afternoon mid-week concert is that you are guaranteed a good seat! Mind you, saying that there must have been about 300 members in the audience this afternoon. I did notice however, that I was undoubtedly the youngest!
The most awe inspiring thing to strike me upon entering the auditorium was just exactly how empty the whole place looked. The last time I was there the stage held a 90-piece orchestra with four singers, and the place felt cosy and welcoming. Today however, the stage was completely bare save for a rather sad and lonely looking piano, and there was no audience anywhere except the stalls and with the whole areas of empty seating above and to the sides of the stage it made for quite an eerie spectacle.
However, I needn't have been so unnerved by this, since as soon as Richard Uttley started to play, the void was filled with transcending and sonorous melodies. A solo piano, unamplified, playing pianissimo, in such a concert hall is a wondrous thing indeed.
The concert itself lasted just over one hour without interval, and in that time we heard music from Beethoven, Pinnock, Scriabin and Chopin. All played with technical excellence and light-fingered expertise by Bradford born Richard Uttley.
The first piece on offer was Beethoven's Piano Sonata in A (opus 101), and to think that for me this was a piece of music by Beethoven that I had never heard before, how is this possible? He is my dad's favourite composer, and all through my formative years at home I was forced to listen to more Beethoven than any young man going through puberty should be exposed to! However, this was new - one that was not in my dad's collection - and so listening to it now, there was some familiarity and comfort in the structure which made it unmistakably Beethoven, and yet it was completely new too. The third and fourth movements being both very Germanic and instantly recognisable as an oeuvre of Mr. B. The recurring "cuckoo" motif and the very Germanic "Oom-pah-pah-pah" of the left hand, wanting all the time to develop into a folk dance, but all the time being diverted to pastures new by the master composer.
The second piece was a set of six miniatures entitled 'Lines And Spaces' composed in 2015 by Naomi Pinnock. This work was premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival last year and was played then by Mr. Uttley too.
I am normally a huge fan of modern classical music, but sadly these pieces left me cold completely. Mr. Uttley's passion for this music though was evident. He treated the score and the music with a reverence only normally seen by Orthodox priests kissing an icon. The six pieces alternated between Space [wide open chords and long gaps] and Lines [a single note - middle C - being banged out repeatedly rather quickly. Philip Glass, eat your heart out! ]
Next came the sweeping romantic music of the great Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. His Piano Sonata no 4 in F#. Scriabin makes the piano sound like a full orchestra and puts untold demands on the pianist to make him bring the keys to life. Scriabin is unremorseful in his attempts to create the fullest and most gorgeous sounds possible from the keyboard, and is one of the greatest, to my mind at least, Romantic composers to come out of Russia. I think though, Mr. Uttley had given most of his passion to the previous piece, because, although this was technically brilliantly played, it lacked a certain passionate input from the pianist, which made the work sound fine but not alive. It was a radio version of a live performance.
As you can probably tell, just as Mr. Uttley is a passionate exponent of contemporary works, my passion lies in late Romantic and early modern classical pieces.
Finally, a piece by the greatest composer of piano music ever, Frederic Chopin.
And as any pianist knows, Chopin didn't make things easy for you! The trick with him is to make the dastardly difficult sound melodious and sublime. Once again Mr. Uttley was technically brilliant, and this time did manage to infuse a certain amount of passion into the heavily romantic and dramatic music. A flamboyant finish to the concert, with Mr. Uttley looking just as James Bond would after a brawl - perfectly turned out with not a hair out of place and not a bead of sweat to be seen.
This was my first Mid-day Concert, and very enjoyable it was too despite not really having any idea what to expect. It was a perfect introduction to the series, and indeed to my new year's reviewing. I can think of better ways to spend an hour or so on a wintry afternoon in Manchester, but not many! I am now looking forward to next week's offering when it will be the Ducasse Trio playing music by Stravinsky, Ives and Bartok.
Reviewer: Mark Dee
Reviewed: 6th January 2016