James Rhodes

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The pianist talks to us as he prepares to make his concerto debut

Over the last couple of years, pianist James Rhodes has built up something of a cult following, thanks in part to his engaging and informal style of presentation from the stage – Stephen Fry is a particularly keen fan. Self-deprecating to a fault, Rhodes’s career has so far consisted solely of solo recitals, but on 3 July he makes his concerto debut at the Cheltenham Music Festival, followed by a concert for schools the next day.

You’ve chosen Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 4, BWV 1055, with which to make your concerto debut. Why that one?
Meurig Bowen (Cheltenham Festival director) suggested a Bach one, and I felt a little bit like a school kid who’s managed to get his first date! It’s not like I’m going to be playing Rachmaninov’s Second, or even some of the Mozart, which has some terribly exposed fingerwork. Bach for me is almost like chamber music – we’re all in the same boat together, and it’s a lovely way to get into playing concertos.

Are you looking forward to playing with others for a change?
Yes. I think I’m going to love it. I’ll have someone else to blame when things go wrong! Seriously, though, it’s such a solitary thing playing the piano that having somebody else involved is something I can’t wait for – I’m convinced that I’m going to learn so much about how to play and how to improve from working with an orchestra, especially in Bach where there are so many lines, so much counterpoint.

So, is a change of career path on the cards then…?
I’m such a control freak that I don’t think I’ll ever just want to do chamber music or concertos, but it is really important to have that variety. Just today, I met up with a friend to play through the Franck Violin Sonata, for instance.

Have you played the Cheltenham’s Pittville Pump Room’s Steinway before?
I haven’t. I’ve been trying to find out a little more about the room’s acoustic, as when you’re playing something like Bach, it hugely affects the tempo you choose. If you take it too fast in some acoustics, you can really lose the music. And as for the piano, I’m not sponsored by any piano company, but if I’m honest it’s got to be a Steinway. Nothing even comes close. Many others have a good bass but are not as fulfilling across the whole register. Steinways are so much more consistently even.

And is this going to be a one-off concerto performance?
For now, yes. That said, I’m currently building up a concerto arsenal and am learning a few others. I think it’s going to be helpful to have some in my hand. And once I’ve got this one ready to go, I can take it anywhere. And I would love to as well! I don’t know why, but Sir Simon (Rattle) never seems to return my phone calls…  

As for Cheltenham, BBC Music Magazine is going to be there in force.
Awesome! Don’t you dare heckle. And don’t throw things.

Interview by Jeremy Pound

James Rhodes is appearing at the Cheltenham Music Festival on 3 July at 8.30pm