Pick-and-mix Piano Man

Malcolm Gillies analyses the rapid rise of James Rhodes, and asks how much is hype and how much is talent

January 20, 2011

What makes an artist great? Technique is part of the equation, for sure. But then there is sense of style, coherence of interpretation, and that mysterious X factor: sexy legs, godlike declamation or a vocal timbre that sends a shiver down your spine.

You could, of course, look at the question in an entirely different way. In a world of ubiquitous talent, when everyone has the ability to broadcast to the world, it is all a matter of competitive marketing; a matter of commanding global attention.

Perhaps great artists are now the mere products of successful marketing, which researches the qualities desired by the market and then presents the artist who embodies them.

So, you look at carefully crafted images on the web, watch a sample performance on YouTube, download desired tracks for some numbers of pence, write your commentary on a blog and, if you're lucky, even have a chat along the way with the artist or their alter ego. You join the online fan club and follow the idol's progress virtually, until they come to your town and a live encounter consummates your new relationship.

Such is the world of James Rhodes, the London-born "Piano Man", as he has been billed by the new Sky Arts programme showcasing him. He emerged apparently from nowhere about two years ago, already in his mid-thirties.

At age 18 he had been awarded a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama but could not take it up because of mental health problems. His press biography explains little of what followed.

But he obviously kept on playing the piano, because early in 2009 his first CD appeared, entitled Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos. Early in 2010, Now Would All Freudians Please Stand Aside emerged. These attention-catching titles disguise musical fare of a fairly traditional classical sort, and they sold pretty well.

Then, in March 2010, as James' Wikipedia page explains, he became the "first core pianist to be signed to the world's largest rock label, Warner Bros Records". While I'm not sure what a "core pianist" is, and even less sure what the attributes of a "non-core" or "uncored" one might be, James is clearly being packaged and released as a pop star rather than an emerging classical artist. He is, however, still playing a pretty conservative selection of classical repertory.

On 13 December, Bullets & Lullabies, the first product of the Warner Bros contract, was launched in the UK, with its US release following on the 28th. And his next London concert is scheduled for 7 February at the Royal Albert Hall; well, actually, in its more intimate and very pleasant Elgar Room.

James does not look like the well-manicured cute boys who dominate most up-and-coming lists of classical music. With long, straggly hair, a thinnish beard and signature black glasses reminiscent of Nana Mouskouri, he has that geeky, famished look so currently in with twentysomethings.

While James' live performances draw on that youthful informality and feature his own talking programme notes - he says he wants to create an "immersive experience" in contrast to the framed and distant experience offered by most classical artists - this Warner Bros release is, of course, strictly music. No visuals, no interspersed words, just (mainly) well-recorded music.

So, putting all the promotional hype aside, can he play? Well, yes he can. If he was your son, you'd be very proud. He has technical facility, he understands the different stylistic demands of his chosen pieces, and you cannot escape the passion and immediacy of his playing.

But let's be clear: James Rhodes is not in the top flight of the globe's pianists. By the exacting, dog-eats-dog standards of the classical musical world his interpretations have a tendency to parody; his fingerwork lacks pan-digital evenness; his timings lack split-second accuracy; his pedalling sometimes overly washes the texture.

He is not a young Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel or Daniel Barenboim, but equally he does not present a freak show or lack serious musical intent.

There are, then, good reasons why this CD set has real appeal, is placed on the right label, and may indeed sell well. Unlike Deutsche Grammophon releases, this Warner Bros set is not directed at the ageing connoisseur. Bullets & Lullabies is overtly for people who don't necessarily know their Beethoven from their Brahms, let alone their Rachmaninov from their Alkan. I mean people who like music but want it as part of a social interchange; as part of an emotional, rather than an aesthetic, experience.

This two-CD set is a mood selection of individual tracks, rather than a presentation of entire works. So, individual sonata movements or one-off musical items have been picked out and collected together according to the mood-matching principle of popular music, rather than the mood-contrasting principle of much classical music.

Bullets, James explains in the liner notes, presents "fast, furious, virtuoso pieces to jump start a foggy brain". In under half an hour we range from a well-known toccata of Maurice Ravel to a little-known study just for the left hand by the Russian composer Felix Blumenfeld. Along the way there are shortish tracks by Moszkowski, Beethoven, Chopin - all reasonably neatly, but unexceptionally, performed - before we come to an overblown, and I thought uncontrolled, performance of an arrangement of In the Hall of the Mountain King. Edvard Grieg's Norwegian trolls seem to have massively overdosed on uppers here.

The highlight of Bullets is, however, a movement from Charles-Valentin Alkan's grand sonata entitled The Four Ages. Its four movements depict a man at ages 20 (very fast), 30 (quite fast), 40 (slow) and 50 (deathly slow). Alkan is, quite unjustly, most noted in the history of music for being killed by a collapsing bookcase - at the grand age of 74. But he did write many splendid works. James has chosen the aged-20, very fast movement for this compilation, and somehow the character of pianist and the character of the piece are perfectly aligned.

Lullabies, the second disc, presents the contrasting mood: "Gentle, intense, deeply felt works to bring you down at the end of a long day." It is good for "when you've got a hot date round for dinner", his liner notes enthusiastically suggest.

This disc will prove more popular than the first because it plays to one of James' real strengths: projecting melodies. Some of his favourite composers are here again - Ravel, Grieg, Chopin - along with pieces by Rachmaninov, Debussy and the concluding Brahms lullaby which gives the set its title. These are careful, painstaking, even painful performances, where James is searching for soul.

In his desire for profundity, however, he turns too many of these slow pieces into dirges. The simple processional sense of the pavane or the lulling of the lullaby are lost amid an agonised search for beauty of tone. Dynamic poetry is sacrificed to static texture.

But do these details really matter? Probably not. The pick-and-mix nature of these discs is highly successful and will be appealing to new audiences.

Many of the new listeners to these bite-sized mood pieces will go on to enquire more, to listen to whole works with contrasting moods, on James' other discs or further afield. And if you don't like it, well, you can drop James a line via www.jamesrhodes.tv and exercise your consumer rights to influence his next CDs or television shows.

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