Inaugural Musica Viva Concert in the Levinsky Hall, Plymouth. Saturday 15th October 2022 – Robert Taub, Romantic Piano

Plymouth University are lucky indeed to have the very talented Robert Taub as the Music Director of the University’s Arts Institute. He is not just a wonderful, expressive pianist who enters so deeply into the spirit of the music that each piece he renders becomes very much his own, but also an extremely knowledgeable man about the lives and works of the composers, what has influenced them and how they in turn have influenced others. Not surprisingly he has performed in major venues all over the world, from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Hong Kong’s Cultural Centre.

The evening began with a talk from Taub himself, in which he demonstrated the themes of the three works he was undertaking and what brought them into being. These small tasters of phrases and moods gave the good-sized audience a flavour of what was to come and whetted our appetite for more.

No sooner was the talk over than there was a bomb scare. Security escorted us all out firstly into the wet blustery night and secondly into, I suppose, a drama studio, while the police investigated. Though we were all pretty sure this was a hoax, nowadays no one can take a risk. I felt very sorry for Taub, who was bundled out with the rest of us. It says something for his control over his subject matter that, once we were allowed back in, forty-five minutes later, after a brief pause where he focused and gathered himself he began with no noticeable problem. Very soon we all followed him, mind and heart, into a musical world where there was no outside disturbance.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, Opus 13, known as the Pathetique. Like his majestic Eroica Symphony, which I was lucky enough to review a couple of weeks ago, the Pathetique is another ground-breaker, both works instantly popular and both leading into the new territory of Romanticism.

The first movement is full of dramatic contrasts between those huge crashing chords that are left to die to silence and the melody that follows, the portentous slow opening out of which a speedier conversation between a rumbling bass and a run-away treble, like question and answer, come to a dramatic pause to allow a thought-provoking repetition of the first theme – and then we’re off again, until the tentative question is asked again and we rattle to a stop. Taub was not rigid about the timing, giving moments expression by tiny alterations in speed and allowing slightly longer pauses than some would to emphasise the theatricality of this famous movement.

The second movement feels more peaceful and expansive and has an exploratory feel to it as right hand and then left hand explore a more wistful mood before harmoniously slotting together. Only the three chords at the end form a question – which is instantly answered by the immediate beginning of the third movement with its assertive new theme where the bass plays counterpoint to the right hand’s melody. Soon this breaks into a joyful scampering up and down the keyboard before settling back into the main theme. There are subtle changes in pace towards the end of the movement, giving it a more querulous tone, before defiantly heading for the finish with a last flourish.

Robert Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze, Opus 6 was the next offering. Written, as Taub explained in his informative opening talk, as a love -offering to Clara Wieck, the sixteen-year old daughter of his piano teacher. The eighteen pieces that make up the work reflect his feelings for Clara and his hope to marry her, stymied by her father who for two years opposed the union, though finally – reflected in the last piece of the long work – they did marry. The keys of the pieces reflect Schumann’s long agitation over his teacher’s continued opposition. I will quote here from the programme notes, written by Taub himself, which explain this much more clearly than I could: Schumann identified the key of C major, for obvious reasons with Clara, but only two pieces of the work ‘- the crucial ninth and eighteenth – end in that key’… ‘The first eight pieces yearn restlessly for C major [Clara], but the C major which is attained at the end of the ninth piece’ is not strong. The tenth piece onwards move further and further away from the goal of Clara until , finally, in the last piece – the eighteenth – C major is established and the long wait is over. ‘The quiet ending with its repeated slow Cs is moving and satisfying, the longed-for goal at last peacefully attained.’

For me, the first eight pieces were full of moments of delight and joy as he thinks of his love.

Contemplative moods with repeating phrases contrast with characteristically playful arpeggios or sudden explosions of joy like games of hide and seek between the left and right hands. These felt charmingly youthful, with impatience and doubt clouding the waters at times before hope takes over again. The teasing and the running away, with occasional tender melodies in between, of this opening grouping felt like a courtship. Then comes the second grouping, with many of the moods as before but more question and answer, more doubt and impatience, until the final tune which starts deceptively simply with a beautiful melody in the right hand which feeds into a phrase joined by the left. Beautiful deep bass notes end the piece like a prayer.

After an interval where we were treated to glasses of champagne since this was an inaugural concert we returned to finish the programme with Chopin’s Sonata in B minor, Opus 58, the last of only three sonatas that Chopin wrote.

The first movement opens majestically, less melodic and grander than most people’s idea of Chopin. A friend, a very good pianist who played Chopin almost exclusively, used to say that the composer was incapable of writing a wrong note in his exquisite melodies. Here we had a different view of Chopin as assertive chords gave way to running arpeggios and then melted into a beautiful melody, broken up by more assertive chords. As with the Schumann and Beethoven, the whole range of the piano keyboard is used from top to bottom, breaking now and again into a distinctive melody. This movement is full of mood changes and sudden changes of tempo, which was perhaps Taub’s particular sympathetic interpretation of the piece.

The second movement starts like a helter skelter, with fast runs managed assiduously by Taub’s long clever fingers, giving way to a slow meditative tune using occasional distinctive octaves in both hands. The piece winds up with fast runs underpinned by firm base notes.The third movement starts with commanding chords and pauses where we hear the end of the notes vibrating. There follows a slow and magisterial tune with a deceptively simple syncopation between the bass and the melody in the right hand. The whole movement felt contemplative as it moves to a variation of the previous melody which has a rhythm like the movement of a peaceful sea. It was a long slow movement of remarkable beauty, ending on two chords – the first unresolved, moving slowly to a resolution. Gorgeous!

The fourth movement starts with huge climbing chords which break into an urgent series of runs full of sudden trips and more runs and sudden little melodic tunes, but always, always that sense of urgency, like a river running down to the sea. This gives way to a dominant tune in the right hand against a tempestuous bass followed by scales running up and down which end, with enormous precision, in a series of huge magnificent chords.

As if that weren’t enough in a concert of such virtuosity we were treated finally to two short transcriptions of other people’s work by Liszt. The first was a transcription of an attractive Schubert song and the second of Paganini’s La Campanella – a wonderfully showy piece where the right hand, at the far top end of the keyboard, mimics the bells of the title against the catchy tune carried by the left hand. The extraordinary high register of the piece gives it a kind of ethereal otherworldliness, like birds singing high in the topmost branches – a thing of extraordinary luminous beauty – which breaks into commanding chords answered by those high notes again after which both hands chase down the whole length of the piano and back up again in a stunning finale.

Thank you Robert Taub and the University of Plymouth for an extraordinary delightful evening.

This article was previously published on Lark Reviews.