Review: Fire On All Sides / James Rhodes

James Rhodes latest release on Instrumental Records International is a lovingly curated sequence of fiercely intense performances. The gratifyingly unfussy pianist has concocted a treat that demands listening from beginning to end uninterrupted.

I am at risk of sounding like a fanboy. That would never do. Anyone who leaves their objectivity behind will be sneered upon so the writing guidelines state.

But with Rhodes’ Fire On All Sides its difficult not to do anything else. His 2016 recital tour programme of Chopin, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff is electrifying stuff.

Much of this enthusiasm is I wonder down to the autobiography he released a couple of years back. Instrumental gave us the pianist in all his vulnerability, positioning his musical talent as a miraculous product of his mental suffering.

Well no. The music is part of that suffering – part of the healing process. Read Instrumental and discover the passion he has for his art. Then listen to any recording of him play. It’s impossible to separate James Rhodes’ personal story from the music he’s playing. Perhaps reconciling the two is the answer instead.

By doing so, there’s an unequivocal and irresistible authenticity to his performances. And perhaps its that which creates the necessary link between audience and performer when listening back to a recording.

Because that’s what happens here. That’s what has happened every time I’ve listened to Fire On All Sides in its entirety, all in one go. It’s as though I’m there in the Britten Studio in Snape where it was recorded, in the space feeling the emotion as the music is played.

The prompt efficient storytelling of the first prelude in the ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ prepares us for an exquisite rapid fire range of modulations in Chopin’s monumental F Minor Fantasie – what at times feels like passport to an intensely intimate and self-reflective domain.

The subsequent Chopin Polonaise felt more difficult to get absorbed in, but the comparatively easier melodic material in Beethoven’s A Flat Major Sonata No.31 made the personalities James Rhodes commanded at the keyboard more easily discernible.

After a fierce allegro molto the pianist demonstrates remarkable facility to extrude the raw beauty from Beethoven’s melodic material in the final movement adagio ma non troppo. The harmonic transitions in the run-up to the recapitulation in the allegro ma non troppo are delicious.

Later, Rachmaninoff’s E Flat Minor Etude has an unwavering human focus to it that makes the work a hypnotic.

Come the final release in Yvar Mikhashoff’s arrangement of O mio babbino caro tears start to flow. Little wonder. James Rhodes is a a remarkable communicator, one who wants his audience to love the music he does.

There is a tiny rub. Inside the CD cover, one sentence sets the whole thing to self-destruct. In explaining the link between the CD and the book he’s written about the tour he embarked on in 2016 he says, “Like every other area of my life, it’s heavily based on fantasy.”

It raises a tantalising question for me. Have I been hoodwinked by him? Is this self-deprecation, subversion, or a defensive technique? Is he laughing at me when he says that? Or is he keeping me and countless others at arms length, protecting himself from feedback he thinks he wouldn’t be able to process.

Maybe that in itself is his James Rhodes’ intention, to focus attention on what matters most: the music.

The answer, of course, is to read the book – billed by Instrumental Records as “an intimate exploration of what it’s like to be a celebrated pianist embarking on a world tour, when you have multiple voices jostling in your head, sabotaging your happiness and sapping your confidence.”

Right now I’m approaching the book with trepidation. I don’t want anything to damage this quite unexpected listening experience.

  • Fire On All Sides‘ is released on Friday 12 January 2018
  • The book ‘Fire On All Sides’ is released on Thursday 11 January 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon

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