‘…le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile’ wrote Maurice Ravel at the head of his manuscript to one of his most enduring piano works, Valses nobles et sentimentales in 1911. These are the words of the symbolist poet Henri de Régnier and this description of the ‘delicious and forever-new pleasure of a useless occupation’ is perhaps something we can all relate to – the deferring of the task at hand to something ultimately far less relevant, but seemingly of utmost importance in that moment. However much a ‘useless occupation’ Ravel may have found his book of waltzes, there is nothing remotely useless in the composition and even less in Christopher Baxter’s performance of them at Inverurie Town Hall last Saturday night amidst a recital of real panache and musicianship.
Baxter’s theme for the concert was dance, conceived during the Covid-19 lockdowns as a celebration of movement and live music – something that was denied to many of us during this challenging period. Alongside the quixotic waltzes of Ravel were the equally characteristic and colourful Danzas Argentinas (1937) by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), mixing dissonant twentieth-century textures with flowing melodies and sultry dances from the composer’s homeland. Baxter obviously relished playing these pieces, particularly the third ‘Danza del gaucho matrero’(‘Dance of the Cunning Gaucho’), which culminated in a frenetic blur of notes, fingers and gestures and began the recital in real style. The Ginastera was followed by Bach’s French Suite No.6 in E major, introduced with clarity and warmth by the pianist (who was equally at home discussing the repertoire as performing it) and then presented with precision and elegance, the filigree textures and ornamental embellishments placed with unerring poise at all times. There was a transportive quality to the performance, with the subtleties of Baxter’s Galant playing for all to hear. The Bach was followed by Valses nobles et sentimentales in a powerful and idiomatic performance marred only by the occasional percussive interjection from an errant sustaining pedal. The epilogue of Ravel’s work not only bringing his composition to a satisfying conclusion, but the first half of the concert as well.
The second half found dance forms in the hands of Schubert and the first of his late trio of keyboard sonatas, the Piano Sonata in C minor (1828). This intense, dramatic and grave work would challenge any pianist, but Baxter rose to the challenge with aplomb, wrestling the stormy and unpredictable opening movement to his will and eliciting as much pathos and serenity from the following adagio as possible. The dark-hued dance of the minuet suited both piano and pianist, and the finale gave the final opportunity for Baxter to show his mettle in one of the cornerstones of the piano repertoire. The atmosphere in the hall after the final c minor chords had drifted away was electric and no more than the pianist deserved. This monolith of Germanic piano repertoire was then followed by an encore of an entirely different cast, a delicate and poignant miniature by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (1937-) entitled Nostalghia (2001). This wistful and fleeting coda a moment of repose and tranquillity after the exertions of the Schubert and a fine end to a wonderful concert.
There was little rest for Baxter though, as he was in action less than 24 hours later in a fundraising recital in the beautiful King’s College Chapel of the University of Aberdeen. This short recital was in aid of the Inverurie Music Award Scheme and the small, but discerning, audience were treated to an intimate performance in a resonant and beguiling setting. Baxter reprised the Bach, Ginastera and Silvestrov from the previous night, here recast in an entirely different acoustic and atmosphere. Alongside these pieces was the second performance of a selection of university composer Phillip Cooke’s Folksongs (2021), with the sustained sonorities and plangent melodies finding a natural home between the precision of Bach and the exuberance of Ginastera. A fantastic weekend of live music making.
31st March 2022
© Phillip A Cooke 2022