When the virtuoso pianists of a bygone era made the crowds rave, it was because they played the hero so well, in addition to being fabulous musicians. The greatest of them, Franz Liszt, strode onto the stage, the Sword of Saint Stephen dangling from one hip, and masterfully took off his white gloves. The ladies would pass out, then pick up his cigar butts to keep as heirlooms.
The virtuoso pianist who made his UK debut last night at the Barbican Hall made a very different entrance. He didn’t move forward, in fact for several minutes he didn’t appear at all. As a waiting electronic drone and distant recorded piano sounds filled our ears, the stage was awash in smoke and a mysterious blue light. An eerily flat, expressionless voice, similar to the one from Heathrow telling you your flight has been delayed, informed us that we were off on a magical musical world tour beginning with the pyramids of Egypt.
In the back of the stage loomed a huge metallic face with tinted lenses, eyes gleaming with a sinister light. Eventually, the human model for that robot face appeared, a tall figure in a flowery kimono, wearing the same tinted glasses. He flew to the piano, where he played the whole concert with his back to us, like a priest engaged in sacred mysteries.
It was piano virtuoso 21st century style, a mixture of mysticism and sweet romanticism, pleasant and totally unsexy. The performer was Sofiane Pamart, well known in France as the reference pianist for rappers who need a chic musical background, and he gives an impression of “nervousness” that appeals to the leaders of musical companies because she is totally harmless. “I don’t care too much about classic codes. What I like in rap is precisely to break the codes, “he said in an interview for Radio France, but there was not much evidence of code breaking in this sequel. 75 minutes of solo pieces, all composed by himself.
Pamart won top piano prizes at the Lille Conservatory where he studied, but the virtuosity with which he regaled us – ribbons of arpeggios, right-hand melodies wrapped in shimmering ornaments – is one that any student in piano in a conservatory could gather. When it comes to musical style, the biggest influence has been Chopin. Time and time again we have heard a rhapsodic melody in the right hand, over a circular pattern in the left hand that might be called Chopinesque, if Pamart had not repeated it so often. It was the less chopinesque numbers that were the most interesting. One had the charming romanticism of 1960s French film scores from composers like Michel Legrand, another had a higher harmonic palette akin to Grieg.
From time to time, the drugged voice echoed through the loudspeakers again, informing us that we were now going to move to Seoul or Lapland or somewhere else. For Lapland, Pamart offered us pleasant silver jingles, for Seoul, we were offered a very slightly oriental-sounding melody, harmonized with a direct flight of Arabic dance in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (Pamart is perhaps “edgy”, but he clearly has no qualms about plundering classical music for Orientalist clichés).
The audience sat in utter silence, until the moment finally came when Pamart felt it was time to let loose with a thunderous climax, aided by the over-massive amplification. The robot’s head on the back wall glowed alarmingly, dry ice swirled, lights pulsed, and the audience suddenly woke up and went wild with excitement. It was a strange moment, because it was really hard to discern what was driving them crazy. Maybe it was that robot head. HI