James Rhodes: Fire on All Sides
The London-born pianist James Rhodes has established a strong presence on YouTube and in other media in recent years. His new recording, ‘Fire On All Sides’, is meant as a musical counterpart to his eponymous book, also published this year.
Among Rhodes’s most compelling attributes is his sensuously beautiful sound, particularly in the context of legato playing. Here it is heard to greatest advantage in Beethoven’s lyrical Op 110. If a tendency to join phrases diminishes the dramatic impact of the Recitative and ‘Klagende Lied’ which set the stage for the first fugue, Rhodes negotiates Beethoven’s thorny contrapuntal writing with considerable aplomb and clarity.
In the Fantaisie and the Polonaise-fantaisie, confusion over Chopin’s harmonic implications results in misplaced rhetorical emphases. Cross-rhythms are often fudged and transitions either exaggerated or rushed. In an overabundance of enthusiasm, Rhodes is prone to anticipate climaxes, robbing them of their full impact upon arrival. Extended fortissimo passages can sound brittle and hectic. Rhodes’s somewhat limited dynamic palette is particularly evident in the two Nocturnes, which are further undermined by rhythmic instability and the occasional misreading of note values.
These liabilities are only magnified in Rachmaninov. Rhodes is not the first pianist to bang his way through the mighty E flat minor Étude, as though heroic conflict could be evoked through the remorseless application of brute force. Distorted dynamics and phrase shapes combine with an underlying rhythmic uncertainty to render the valedictory grandeur of the D flat Prelude from Op 32 almost unrecognisable.