PRE-EMINENT among Australian concert pianists, 75-year-old Roger Woodward has an impressive biography. Apart from his extensive concert career, he’s worked with some of the world’s greatest, orchestras, conductors, chamber ensembles, and contemporary composers, he’s made innumerable internationally-lauded recordings, and he’s received a string of international gongs, including a CBE and an AC.
I’ve never really warmed to Woodward’s playing, thinking it, especially in his earlier career, rather too heavy-handed. He still has a firm touch, with the occasional heavier relapse, but the intervening 40 or 50 years have softened his style; today he is much more expressive, although his firmness of touch sometimes robs him of a lightness when it is really needed.
Playing the entire recital from memory, Woodward mounted the stage, sat at the beautiful Steinway and began immediately to play; there was no sitting interminably, gathering thoughts.
The first half of this recital was devoted primarily to the music of Debussy. His four-movement “Suite bergamasque” includes, as the third movement, the famous “Clair de lune”, a piece requiring very expressive playing. Woodward played it beautifully, but the rest of the suite seemed almost “dashed off” as something second-nature to the pianist.
Then followed “L’isle joyeuse”, probably Debussy’s most demanding and virtuosic piano piece. It was no match for Woodward’s virtuosic technique. Despite his no-nonsense on-stage demeanour, Woodward gave a spectacular performance, drawing “whoops” from the audience.
The rest of the program was devoted to Chopin, beginning with another virtuosic piece, the Ballade no. 4 from op. 52. Again Woodward met the challenge head-on, delivering a splendid performance of extraordinary technical and expressive ability.
To finish the program, Woodward took on Chopin’s 12 Etudes from op. 25. These Etudes, or Studies, are technically demanding, each with its own personality.
For me, the pick of them was No. 9 – a short, very lively piece with rapid, skipping octaves and chords that requires a lightness of touch to achieve clarity and motion. Woodward played it superbly, really proving that his firm touch can give way to nimble keyboard dancing.
After the audience’s very warm reception, Woodward graciously expressed thanks for the hospitality afforded him during his stay in Canberra, and then delighted his audience with an encore.