Saturday 24 March 2018

Classical: Maria João Pires... sparkling pianist from Portugal

Portugal pianist Maria João Pires
Portugal pianist Maria João Pires

George Hamilton

Back in first half of this century's first decade, a French footballer by the name of Robert Pirès lit up the ­English Premiership in the colours of Arsenal. He came to mind for a couple of reasons. I'd no idea until Portugal won the European Championship in Paris a fortnight ago just how many Portuguese there are living in France - well over a million.

Robert Pirès is one of those. His father, Antonio, came from Ponte de Lima, not far from Braga in the north of the country. The sportsman shares a surname with another Portuguese star, the pianist Maria João Pires, who celebrates her 72nd birthday today.

She's a fantastic interpreter of the Romantic repertoire. Gramophone magazine, describing her as "among the most elegant master-musicians of our time", nominated her recording of Chopin's Nocturnes (Deutsche Grammophon 447 096-2) as the best available.

The conductor Riccardo Chailly praised her performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra that he directs as the work of a genius.

She's known as a Mozart specialist, too. The distinguished music critic Richard Wigmore wrote of her "exquisitely finished playing", and described as "among the finest, most penetrating" her recordings of the Mozart concertos (these are available on a five-CD set from Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 4370 9 5, which also features Chopin's two and Schumann's as well).

Back in 1999, it was a Mozart concerto - or rather two - that led to one of music's most bizarre interludes. She was in Amsterdam to play the one known as the Jeunehomme, the E-flat major concerto no. 9, an upbeat, carefree piece of music that showcased precisely what the 21-year-old composer had to offer.

Lunchtime on the day, the dress rehearsal is staged as a free concert, and this one - in front of a packed house - was being filmed for a documentary. So far so good.

But what happens when the conductor - casually attired in a sweater with a towel around his neck - strikes up the band? It's not the happy-go-lucky opening bars of the Jeunehomme the pianist hears - it's the edgy, unsettling, minor-key introduction to another piece of music entirely, the Piano Concerto no. 20.

She holds her head in dismay. This isn't what I've prepared, she whispers to the conductor as the orchestra plays on. But you know it, you played it last year, Chailly shoots back. I trust your memory.

He carries on conducting. There's no score on the stand for the pianist. She composes herself and, with the introduction complete, launches into a flawless rendition of Mozart's music.

It was an episode that only underlined the wonder of the concert pianist. The music is in their hands. Maria João Pires proved it that lunchtime in Amsterdam.

These days, she lives in Brazil. A Portuguese project she'd been involved in helping underprivileged children came to an unhappy end around 10 years ago and left her in debt when government subsidies were stopped. She moved to South America, where she set up a similar project, not far from the Atlantic city of Salvador.

Still touring extensively, Maria João Pires contributes to a young musicians' education programme at the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel piano school south of Brussels, where she's also participating in a project to develop children's choirs in deprived areas.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.

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