Charl du Plessis took the stage donning a sparkly suit jacket and a winsome smile, ready to show off the Baxter Concert Hall’s refurbished Steinway in action. He didn’t look the least bit ruffled, not a shiny hair out place, so it was somewhat startling when the opening notes of Bach’s ‘Chaconne in D minor’ (arr. Ferrucio Busoni) betrayed a bad case of the jitters. It was an aptly chosen piece, as the Chaconne is a rich, dramatic work meant to give due diligence to the glorious range of musical tones and dynamics. However, traversing the piano’s ivory keys were leaden fingers which produced notes as though it were a chore, the precision required for highlighting Bach’s exquisite counterpoint techniques and theme variations all but lost to an unfortunate show of lazy hands. A missing note here, a wrong note there – this went on for quite some time before it gradually became clear that it wasn’t a case of the jitters we were witnessing. I’m sorry to say du Plessis clearly had not practised enough to deliver the ambitious programme at hand.
The concert was intended to be an innovative and interactive event involving performer, piano technician, and audience. The second event in the Cape Town Concert series – following Anton Nel’s memorable inaugural performance on this very Steinway – this was the first of ten concerts on du Plessis’ ‘Ten Chair Tour’ schedule. Conceptualised as a creative collaboration between Charl du Plessis and Ian Burgess-Simpson Pianos, the programme for the tour is aimed at showcasing a tour de force of the Steinway’s musical range as well as a Q&A session featuring the instrument’s technical inner workings.
Unfortunately, this concert was proving to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. Beyond the blatant errors in execution, interpretation also proved to be a glaring issue. While du Plessis was able to convey more expression with Rachmaninoff’s ‘Sonate No.2 in B-flat minor (Op.36)’, he also managed to meet the composition’s brilliance with sloppiness and its intensity with gushing flippancy. Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ was – for all its emotive melodic lines – imparted with the subtlety of a marching band, a feat we endured in morbid fascination. As for the Chopin pieces, they lacked fluidity altogether, and that’s not even considering the intermittent skipping of notes in the performer’s scales and arpeggios.
The breakneck speed at which du Plessis presented ‘Waltz in C# minor’ (Op.46, No.2) was indication enough that he possesses the technical dexterity with which to perform these pieces, if not with finesse then at least with accuracy. In fact, I have no doubt that had he so chosen he could have given a fantastic recital with ease. Sadly, this only served to emphasize the fact that he was grossly underprepared on this occasion. There’s no denying it was a challenging programme; each piece is difficult to pull off in its own right, and the repertoire covered a broad spectrum of eras. However, only a blatant disregard for the audience could be cited as the source of such inexcusably poor execution.
Thankfully, the evening was saved by an engaging Q&A session with piano technician Ian Burgess-Simpson himself on the anatomical components of the Steinway. The instrument, a beauty dating back to 1963, has been lovingly restored over the course of many months so that its deep, warm notes can continue to grace the Baxter Concert Hall. Unlike a Stradivarius violin for which the sound quality endures over time, a piano and its many parts can only deteriorate if it doesn’t receive prompt, meticulous maintenance. Furthermore, the Steinway standard means that only original parts from the company’s factory can be used to fit each new hammer and key and string. The crowd broke out into appreciative applause when the piano technician unscrewed and pulled out the Steinway action (the tray which holds the hammers and levers) on the stage.
We were then invited to gather around for close viewing during the interval, while Burgess-Simpson answered a string of questions ranging from, “Are these keys made with real ivory?” to “How much longer can a Steinway like this remain in good concert condition if it’s properly maintained?” When asked whether the climate could affect a piano’s sound, he said, “Absolutely. Pianos are particularly susceptible to humidity and this can affect their sound as well as their overall condition. Now, a piano in Namibia, for example, will have dryness problems. A piano in Durban will have humidity problems.” With a chuckle he added, “And a piano in Joburg has all sorts of problems.”
Charl du Plessis also proved to be a humorous character when speaking to the audience. Though his musical performance had been lacking, he demonstrated a deep appreciation for the piano’s technical composition and is clearly heartfelt in his aim to bring recognition to a good instrument’s value. His easygoing demeanor and occasional quips in Afrikaans won over the audience, and his rendition of Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ perhaps brought him closest to his niche – a playful jazz tune laced with sophisticated classical elements.
“For those of you who are married,” du Plessis said as he pointed to the refurbished Steinway between songs, “you know it’s the inside the counts, because what’s outside will change over time.” I certainly hope he takes his own observation to heart as he embarks on his nine remaining recitals this year.
Charl du Plessis gave this recital as part of his Ten Chair Tour and the Cape Town Concert Series on 22 February 2014 at the Baxter Concert Hall.