Martin James Bartlett

Concert date: 5 February 2019
Reviewed by: JRC

Nadsa concerts achieved another coup this month by bringing Martin James Bartlett to Newton Abbot’s Courtenay Centre. His programme was largely based on a soon-to-be-released CD, the theme of which is Love and Death, a great challenge you might have thought for one so relatively young. But Martin, winner of the BBC young musician of the year competition, and memorable Proms performer, easily encompassed this breadth of interpretation.

Another aspect of the programme, which is remarkable, is that it contained so many very familiar pieces. We all have our pre-conceived ‘gold standards’ for familiar music, which means the performer has to work that much harder to win our hearts. And it was hearts, particularly in the first half, that this concert was all about.

The majority of Bach’s compositions were for use in church, and Busoni’s arrangement of Choral Prelude BWV 639 is part of that output. As the opening piece of the concert, we were enveloped by a structure of security and serenity. Next was Myra Hess’ ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’ arrangement from Bach’s Cantata 147, so well known that I feared ‘Oh, that hackneyed tune again’. But somehow I was carried along with a sparkling melodic line that flowed to a satisfying conclusion.

Two pieces from Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op 15 followed. Neither is technically demanding. However, to evoke the nostalgia of childhood memories from such beautiful simplicity, particularly in the familiar Traumerei, is a rare skill that Martin possesses.

The three Petrarch Sonnets 47, 104 and 123 by Liszt were riveting. As an expression of unrequited love, we had tumult, pulling back to calm pianissimos and contrasting grandiose statements with the most delicate of filigree. A rich tapestry of love was there. Liszt’s Liebestraum is so well known, one wondered what Martin could do with it. The answer was that he ‘just lived the music’, making even the diminuendos come to life.

Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s Widmung closed the concert’s first half; and what a way to go. Martin did not allow Liszt’s flamboyance to overshadow Schumann’s song. The melodic line grew and shone: his emphatic declaration of love. Just inspirational!

The second half brought us distinctly nearer death, whether sombre with dissonance in Granados, Wagner’s only ultimate beyond passion, or Prokofiev’s brutality of war.

The audience was engaged with anecdotes regarding contexts of compositions and composers, none more so than that Granados had died in 1916 from drowning. Returning from New York his ship was torpedoed and he jumped overboard to save his drowning wife. He had just performed ‘El amor y la muerte’ or The Ballad of Love and Death. This piece of improvisational style gave us forte passions and poignant delicacy that indeed plumbed sombre depths.

Most of us are probably familiar with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde-Liebestod as a full operatic extravaganza. Liszt’s transcription for piano would seem to be attempting the impossible. I’m still of the opinion that Liszt was only partly successful. However, whilst still having an orchestra in my head, Martin’s surging crescendos and tender diminuendos brought me out in goose pimples. Bravo.

After Wagner’s ‘desired death in love’ we came to Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No 7, written in World War II. Here we faced death in the hugely different context of militaristic violence. We also experienced sections of introspection and the insistence of a tolling bell. The final tumultuous movement with its superb virtuosity and drama brought rousing acclamation from the packed audience.

With his polished technique, passion, pianissimos, and audience rapport, Martin really has got it all.