A Cuban marvel
Jorge Luis Prats: the best pianist you haven't heard of
Jorge Luis Prats. The name probably doesn't mean much to most of you, but yesterday (Saturday), the 55-year-old Cuban pianist gave one of the most thrilling and joyful recitals I've ever had the pleasure to attend.
The concert, held at Verbier's parish church just after lunch, was only three-quarters full, but everyone there was in no doubt that this was the finest concert that day (it really was). Verbier audiences aren't given to standing ovations, but at the end of Prats's fifth encore, almost everyone was upstanding. Prats was visibly moved.
Why the fuss? Prats is a player who digs deep to uncover the humanity within the music he plays, his life experiences colouring his performance of Granados's Goyescas ('much harder than Liszt', he tells me afterwards). 'In Cuba, we dance with the hips', he laughs, explaining the need for this Spanish music to be rhythmically fluid. He talks of the Cuban national symbol - the royal palm tree, that bends and sways with the wind. It's a powerful image that conjures up a freedom from the notated meter that Latin music so often cries out for. And his playing has that freedom, the love between Granados's two young characters bending and swaying with their moods, even at the final movement when death threatens their life together. Prats speaks of the nightingale that gazes down on our lovers - notated pianissimo by Granados, but taken by the pianist to be a direction for expressive beauty rather than simply one of volume. It's a masterclass of interpretation and one that can be applied to music of all kinds. 'Remember that this music has been written by human beings', he implores me over our beer. I will.
Prats launches into several encores, including dances by the Cuban composer Cervantes - remarkable, spirited, virtuosic works that combine a yearning romanticism with warmth and humour, the pianist breaking off several times to play tom-toms on the piano wood. Cuban music, naturally, is one of Prats's big passions, and yet he's reluctant to talk about his home country - its terrible economy has seen to the country's culture, its colleges and orchestras either no longer functioning or shadows of their former selves.
He tells the story of Cuba's national symphony orchestra, how he helped set it up using a handful of strings, and how he played the organ at one of Havana's great churches. Returning there recently, he discovered that a plaque had been erected in his honour over the same piano he used to practise on as a young man. He now lives in Miami.
Jorge Luis Prats is an extraordinary musician, so why haven't we heard about him? He doesn't play the big UK venues and his appearance at the Verbier Festival is his first. You get the sense that Prats is happier living a life of music, but not a life in the skies. You can't blame him. His cooking is as important to him as his music, not to mention his Cuban cigars... He's too busy enjoying life.
But on 21 July, Prats plays at the Petworth Festival. If there are any tickets left, I'd urge you to go and hear him. He's playing Goyescas again. This master pianist is unlike any other.
Oliver Condy is editor of BBC Music Magazine