Julian Clef has a quirky sense of humour. You perhaps wouldn’t guess it from his onstage presence, or even if you met him backstage. But a short video filmed by him “Classical Musician: Dream vs Reality” has been picked up and shared by the Facebook page of Classic FM, the most popular classical music radio channel in the United Kingdom.
The video clip has deservedly gone viral. It is a sardonic comment on the yawning gap between the standard of living classical musicians aspire to, deserve even, and the stark reality of their everyday existence. I must remember to ask him how he and his two friends (also musicians, one a fellow pianist, the other a violinist, and both, like Julian, graduates of the Royal Northern College of Music Manchester) managed to commandeer a number 36 London double-decker bus to create this hilarious two-minute film.
Those of you who attended Clef’s performance at the Kala Academy on 17 October will agree that he deserves all the acclaim life can possibly shower upon him.
It is a measure of the broad expanse of repertoire that this twenty-something pianist already has “under the fingers” as it were, that even at very short notice of barely about a week, he was able to offer a formidable programme that in fact had to be shortened for time constraints. He flew in directly from morning rehearsal with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, and with very little rehearsal time, played the concert in Goa the same evening.
Clef began his recital with Brahms’ Intermezzo in E flat major, Opus 117, no. 1. The three Opus 117 Intermezzi, all in three-part form, are among Brahms’ last compositions. The first Intermezzo is prefaced by the lyrics of a Scottish lullaby “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament”: “Baloo, my babe, lie still and sleep; It grieves me sore to see thee weep.”Brahms poignantly referred to some of his late pieces as ‘the cradle songs of my sorrows.’ Clef played this solemnly but with intimacy.
Next we heard six of Scriabin’s 24 Preludes Opus 11. Pianist Simon Nicholls and Scriabin expert termed the composer ‘a musical Fabergé’, and Clef’s playing of these preludes made us understand what he meant. Clef gave us a glimpse of the poetry within the miniature masterpieces. If there is one thing Clef does not do (and Heaven be praised for this), his playing is never mere technical showmanship.
But some drama and virtuosity were necessary (and Clef rose brilliantly to this occasion) in the Preludes (no. 1 to 5) of Rachmaninoff’s Ten Preludes, Opus 23. Prelude 4 was an oasis of calm before the relentless energy of No. 5 was unleashed.
Clef is partial to the jazz-style piano compositions of Nikolai Girshevich Kapustin (born 1937), and his Reverie & Intermezzo (etudes 2 & 7) from 8 Concert Etudes, Opus 40 were a refreshing palate-cleanser. Reverie, despite its dreamy title, had an air of perpetual motion about it, while Intermezzo could have been the soundtrack to a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pas de deux. One could almost see “jazz hands” as it concluded with a flourish.
The second half began in similar vein, with George Gershwin’s 3 Preludes. They ooze New York from every pore, and were in fact first performed by Gershwin in that city’s Roosevelt Hotel in 1926. One hears echoes of his 1924 composition Rhapsody in Blue in the first Prelude.
The final segment of the programme was given over to Chopin, with at first his Etudes Opus 10, numbers 3 and 7, and then his Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, opus 35 ‘Funeral March’. Chopin himself was often called ‘Poet of the Piano’, and some might think it too lavish to apply this title to Clef. But those who heard him play especially Chopin that evening would probably agree with me.
The third etude from Chopin’s opus 10 has a much-loved, familiar tune. Chopin himself is believed to have said of this Etude: “In all my life, I have never again been able to find such a beautiful melody.” But is not easy to play: The right hand has to have a lyrical, rubato quality while also contributing to the accompaniment. It is termed a “tone poem for piano”, and Clef breathed life into the Kala Steinway piano, making the instrument “sing” in an intimate way it rarely gets an opportunity to. Etude 7 was another ‘perpetuo mobile’ piece, with a singing line in both hands.
But the pièce de resistance in the whole programme for me was the last and longest work in the programme, Chopin’s mighty second Sonata. Here we heard Clef the colourist at his best; there are brief contemplative episodes in the otherwise stormy Scherzo and particularly in the Lento Funeral March whose melodic lines Clef shaped and spun with such beauty and sensitivity and dynamic control that it brought tears to the eyes. I later met another member of the public who told me this was her experience as well at the same point, so it wasn’t just me. The great Chopin himself is believed to frequently have this effect on his audiences through his playing and improvisation. Comparisons are odious, but I will say this: the Kala Steinway has hardly been played by a pianist with as much magisterial technique and with as much poetic lyricism, and despite all the abundance of these gifts with as much humility and honesty as Julian Clef. The instrument pines for his return, which we hope will be soon.
Chopin graced the encore as well, with an elegant offering by Clef of his Minute waltz (Waltz in D flat major, Opus 64, no. 1).
(An edited version of this article was published on 20 November 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)