James Rhodes is awesome. A lot of people are going to shudder at the cover photo and the title “Jimmy,” looking like a second-rate pop album, and a lot of them are going to shudder when they find out that this live concert recording preserves all of Rhodes’ chatting with the audience. They can click the back button. James Rhodes cuts through the shroud of the classical mystique to play music for the non-specialist audience the way it should be played: with approachability, without condescension, with a great teacher’s ability to share his sense of awe with students, and without overt pandering or phoniness. In all his albums, and in his liner-notes, and on his Twitter, Rhodes is obviously being himself. It’s not a marketing image: he really is this passionate about classical music, and this passionate about sharing it with everybody even if they’re wearing jeans and platinum dyed hair and pocketing their iPhones. Plus, he is a very good pianist. And that’s awesome.
Live in Brighton is an 85-minute concert from December 2011, about 64 of music and 21 of Rhodes talking about his program. The music, lest there be any doubt, is handled well: the Marcello/Bach adagio is a moving prayer to the piano, which Rhodes says he plays to calm his nerves and which definitely works for me. The Beethoven “Waldstein” isn’t perfect, but it is very good. The slow intermezzo is handled with tenderness and the first movement flows wonderfully, but Rhodes hasn’t quite learned how to bring off the finale’s first bars with magical softness, or how hard he can attack the minor-key episodes later on. First movement repeat is omitted. Who wouldn’t want to hear such glorious music twice?
Rhodes plays the Chopin/Balakirev Romanze with tenderness and sensitivity which has made this one of his signature pieces, then turns around and delivers the best performance of the night in the Bach/Busoni Chaconne, built with the vision and unwavering power of a cathedral, but also passionately romantic. I don’t know how you combine a full plunge into the manic-depressive emotional swing of this music with an ability to make it hang together structurally, but James Rhodes pulls it off as well as anybody. The very small audience knows it. The program also includes a few smaller encores: a fiendish Moszkowski etude which comes off, for all its difficulty, as a light little after-dinner trifle exactly as intended; a lovely Schumann/Liszt Widmung, and an “In the Hall of the Mountain King” in which Rhodes has as much fun as can be legally had on a piano in a public place. There’s Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor too, but I’ve heard that so many times now that my favorite part was Rhodes admitting he hadn’t planned to play it.
Now about the talking. Rhodes himself is very modest about his chatting in the (awesome) booklet, saying, “you can very easily … remove it entirely from your iTunes library should you get bored senseless by my voice.” But “I’ve often wished that more classical musicians would take the time to communicate to their audience during their concerts, and I hope you’ll indulge me for doing so.” Indulgence granted: Rhodes is a gifted communicator, and although he comes across as rather shy and mumbly at times, this is in his favor. If he was as charming as Eric Idle’s emcee from Flying Circus, there’d be something very suspicious about it. What makes Rhodes a gifted talker is his natural ability to explain music to the audience: he compares Beethoven’s experimentation with new pianofortes to people queuing up to buy iPhones; he is hilarious on Chopin’s unrequited loves; he gets the audience in stitches explaining why Bach was “the baroque Keith Richards”; Remember, JSB sired 20 children. He’s also keen to explain what he hears in each work, and why he wants to play them.
Isn’t that a good idea? I don’t see why it’s so foreign for an artist giving a recital to turn to the audience and say, “here’s why I really love this music, and why I want to play it for you.” I don’t fully understand the philosophy of the classical performance being like an art gallery: look with awe and appreciation, and if you don’t get it, read the plaque/booklet. Art galleries do tours. They have wine tastings and eager docents and the Tate Britain has little stations where you can pick up a pencil and try to copy what you see. Classical music has James Rhodes. Actually, a lot of this century’s performers are more accessible to their audiences, especially thanks to Twitter and the rise of the after-concert reception. I once attended one where a young pianist asked Hélène Grimaud for advice and she said, “If you can do anything other than play the piano, do that instead.” It can only be a force for good, I think. That is to say, I love dressing up and staring down people who clap between movements, too, but I also love seeing an audience get really engaged with the music when they weren’t expecting to do so.
What stands out about James Rhodes is that he’s not trying to connect with his audience so much as he is trying to connect his audience directly to the music. He’s a tattooed, profane, and profoundly gifted ambassador for the music he loves. He is, in a word, awesome. If there’s someone in your life who says things like “I like hearing classical music but don’t know much about it,” give this album to them for Christmas. Trust me.
September/October 2012 Issue
James Rhodes (known here as ‘Jimmy’) is every bit the modern-day rock-star pianist; he unashamedly wears jeans and trainers on stage and – horror of horrors! – actually speaks to his audience. Past albums have boasted very un-classical titles, such as Bullets and Lullabies, and slick-but-quirky artwork (once including Rhodes dressed as a clown), packaged with the pianist’s past struggles with personal demons. This disc, recorded at The Old Market in Brighton last year,
continues in this vein, and is the first classical CD known to this writer that comes with the covering note ‘caution – explicit language’, because it includes Rhodes’s talks in between performances. Not everyone will appreciate his descriptions of the great masters (Bach is a ‘walking advert for Red Bull’, Beethoven a ‘genius tramp’, etc), but beneath the showmanship is real substance; what Rhodes has to say- and play- is infinitely interesting, pertinent and amusing, and will speak to a new audience.
For his first live solo release, James Rhodes mainly offers works he’s previously recorded in the studio, plus Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, which is relatively new to his repertoire. Rhodes speaks at length in between selections, and his remarks about the programme’s composers manage to be informative and irreverant at the same time, with plenty of expletives and sexual innuendo to grab young people’s attention.
However, it’s the music that counts, and for all his self-deprecating charm and punk-rocker persona, Rhodes the pianist largely delivers the goods. He plays the Marcello/Bach D minor Adagio a bit faster and freer live than in the studio, while the decorative passages in Balakirev’s solo transcription of the Romanza from Chopin’s E minor Concerto similarly transpire with greater animation. The studied grandeur of Rhodes’s studio Bach/Busoni Chaconne gives way to an altogether swifter, more fluid and texturally varied rendition in front of an audience. Both the Rachmaninov C sharp minor Prelude and Schumann/Liszt ‘Widmung’ feature lovely interweaving between melody and accompaniment.
However, the studio Moszkowski F major Etude and Grieg/Ginzburg ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ come off cleaner and more controlled, yet with no less bravura and surface excitement. The Waldstein boasts wonderful moments, such as Rhodes’s lyrical simplicity and subtle shading of the lntroduzione, and the variegated sonorities he conjures up in the Rondo as a result of taking Beethoven’s controversial long pedal markings on faith. My reservations concern the lack of a first-movement exposition repeat, plus little tenutos, stresses and other expressive tics that cause rhythmic momentum to sag. And why does Rhodes so crudely step on the accelerator pedal for the Rondo’s last measures, or race through the glissando octaves as if he wanted to get this beastly passage over with? Still, Rhodes obviously has it in him to be a persuasive Beethoven interpreter. Whatever persona Rhodes chooses to cultivate in terms of presentation, he certainly is a serious musician.
| August 2012
James Rhodes has a reputation for courting the controversial. Instead of outrage, recent revelations of his pre-concert-nerves drug regime received many tweets in support of his honesty from his peers. Is he a bad-boy (as he might claim), or is he too nerdy for that? His mission to take the “classical” out of classical music is on display on this live 86-minute concert recording, which includes 20 minutes of chat.
Music first, and the program begins beguilingly: a lovely performance of the Bach/Marcello Adagio with exquisitely judged rubato and a mood of melancholy conveyed with great sensitivity. Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata gets off to a rocky start (those nerves?) with a slightly heavy-handed attack and quavers that race ahead. Rhodes has plenty to say, however, and if he exaggerates things on occasion he is clearly a communicator and certainly never dull.
In the second half, his Rachmaninov C-Sharp Minor Prelude and his Bach/Busoni Chaconne are very fine indeed, but I could have done with more poetry in the Balakirev arrangement of Chopin’s Romanza. Bravura showcases end each half: a sparkling Moszkowski Etude and the witty Ginzburg transcription of In the Hall of the Mountain King.
What about the chat, then? After an awkward start, Rhodes turns out to be informative and pretty engaging, although be warned that he has a penchant for the F-word and sexual anecdotes. Meanwhile, the CD is rather self-consciously made to look like a rock album. (Is “Jimmy” more Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix?) Will this approach win new audiences to piano music? We can but hope.
The rock star of classical music, James Rhodes has brought a new edge to old composers. Listening to him play the pieces on his new album, ‘Jimmy: Live In Brighton’, evokes all the emotions and more, that you would expect from such wonderful works. What adds to the mix is the total understanding of the composers and his unique way of talking to the audience. His sense of humour, adding a few opening chords of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, keeps the audience on its toes, and allows you to enjoy the experience in a whole new way. The depth of knowledge he brings aids in a new understanding of the composers themselves.
He begins with an ‘Adagio’ by Marcello, a slow but intense opening, before moving on to Beethoven.James describes the famous composer’s difficult life; how he worked through it and had a heroic decade, and he plays Piano Sonata number 21. Moszowski’s ‘Etude’ is unfathomably fast and light yet still moving. Rachmaninov begins the second half of the concert and has a more romantic feel. Chopin’s ‘Romanza Piano Concerto’, after explaining it was written for one of the singers that caught Chopin’s eye, is like listening to a love story. James then clears up a few myths about Bach, playing ‘Chaconne’ which was written for the violin and dedicated to the memory of his wife. The next piece is much lighter, Liszt’s ‘Dedication’, written for the woman he fell in love with. The final track is possibly the best known of the whole album; Grieg’s ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’, which James compares to the feeling of a slightly obsessed twitter fan coming to get you.
James openly mocks the usual concert pianist for scowling at the crowd, the title ‘Classical music’ saying it sounds too serious, and jokes that Rachmaninov is better than Prozac. Hearing an audience laugh at a concert pianist’s jokes is a new experience, and compels me to find more, to attend actual concerts, or even to pick up my dusty old violin.