Jonathan Powell – Live Review, 30/05/14
Pianist Jonathan Powell never studied at a conservatoire. His appearance on the JdP stage strikes as
swift and strong-willed, as does his playing. Starting off quietly and thoughtful, he soon builds up the
energy for a powerful, passionate pianistic performance.
Powell presents a recital programme with pieces written during or as reaction to the First World War.
The pieces make up a disturbing tableau of composers’ shock, fear and sorrow about this humane
catastrophe. Five very different pieces express the artistic coming to terms with terror and personal
The British composer and pacifist Frank Bridge wrote his sonata in commemoration of his friend
Ernsest Farrar, who died at the Western Front. The three movements contrast in the expression of his
despair. Jonathan Powell leans into the violent eruptions of the fast framing movements. His command
of the technical virtuosity allows him to hammer out the heavy, dissonant chords that underly the
military themes. In the inwardly second movement, he produces a generous, serene sound world,
moving the tempo in a free rubato. Powell performs the rawness of this post-tonal, violent sound in an
Frank Bridge’s modernism contrasts with Debussy’s two miniatures, the Berceuse héroïque and Pièce
pour l’œuvre du Vêtement du Blessé. They are written during the war, and respond to it in a more
inward, light-hearted way. Powell displays a new array of his pianistic colours for the solemn lullaby
of the Berceuse. His rendition of the playful waltz in the Pièce reveals unsettling undertones lurking
beneath the friendly surface.
The central sonata of the recital is by Russian-German composer Nikolai Medtner, a friend of Sergei
Rachmaninov. The binational identity of the composer caused him personal distress and social
exclusion during the war. His Sonata op. 30 ‘In Time of War’ from 1914 is a one-movement tone
poem. The principal theme draws on military fanfares. Powell renders the tireless hectic texture with
hammering tone repetitions with vigour. However, the technical virtuosity proves a challenge for him;
his pianistic diction lacks clarity.
The final piece is the popular Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel. He started composing it
during the war, but suffered from his military service and the death of his mother. Ravel builds a
musical monument to the French baroque harpsichord tradition, with writing a suite of baroque dance
movements. The piece combines captivating impressionistic harmonics with baroque textures like
fugue and menuet. Unfortunately, Powell’s playing lacks in differentiation to bring out the varying
characters of the suite. He nevertheless creates an individually formed, conclusive rendition, crowning
his recital with the virtuosic perpetuum-mobile-like Toccata.
Sarah Avischag Mueller