Review: Digital Mastery

JOE CONWAY had a fantastic evening of cheap booze and fabulous fingering.

Classical Fitz Music Piano

Digital Mastery, Piano recital by Thomas Wakefield, 20th February 2010 7.30 at Fitzwilliam College Auditorium, free

Only the prospect of another in the excellent series of Fitzwilliam College chamber concerts would have induced me to venture along the arctic wastes of Storey's Way on a dark winter's evening. The good news was that at least fifty other people, including a sprinkling of undergraduates, felt the same way and turned out on Saturday night for a piano recital by Thomas Wakefield.

Tom is a virtuoso pianist with an international reputation and in London – at the Wigmore or South Bank – you'd expect to pay around £20 to hear him. In Cambridge concerts like these are free. And, even if you're not a classical music fan, with interval drinks at a pound, it's worth going along just for a glass of red! (Oops, did I just write that?)

Okay, as I've said, the Fitzwilliam Auditorium is a bit off the beaten track, but once you've found it there's a lot to be said for it. As soon as Thomas Wakefield sat down at the six foot Steinway grand and played the opening flourish of Liszt's second polonaise, it was obvious that the auditorium's acoustics were going to be perfect for the job. Probably because of the ubiquitous plaster surfaces there is clarity but plenty of resonance too.

This meant that once the concert got underway every detail of Tom's playing was crystal clear and yet warm and generous in tone at the same time. In fact, from the opening piece by Liszt to the same composer's Tarantella di Bravoure which ended the programme, the audience was treated to a succession of glittering and cascading pianistic pyrotechnics that were positively awesome. Tom's right hand travelled up and down the keys with lightning speed and, in a piece by the French composer Alkan, his left hand – equally strong – followed suit.

The odd thing was that although Thomas Wakefield's fabulous fingering at the piano reminded us what the word digital used to mean, there was no sign of showmanship in his playing. Can you be a virtuoso instrumentalist and yet modest with it? Perhaps because Tom has been an acknowledged master of this kind of piano repertoire for well over twenty years he seems to be just that.

And in a more lyrical group of pieces by Chopin it was his ability to project sustained melodies on the piano which came to the fore. In particular, the opening of the F minor Fantasy was as perfectly realised as you will ever hear it, but at the same time it was suffused with reflective and soulful qualities that only come with experience and maturity.

For his encore Thomas Wakefield played a quirky little throwaway piece by Prokofiev that was neither virtuosic nor lyrical. Perhaps he felt he had nothing more to prove.