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Ronald Smith - Concert Pianist

Old Lewesian Gives His 80th Birthday Recital

O L Webmaster

MANY of the older Old Lewesians will remember Ronald Smith (known as 'Pop' at school) who won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in 1939 (see Barbican No 14, School Notes) and who has been performing and composing ever since. He often came back to the School to give short recitals and talks to the boys. Much to my surprise he replied to our recent postal mail-shot with a letter and a flyer for his 80th birthday recital that he is to give on Monday December 16th at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

Ron Smith Ron Smith

Going out

The Guardian - Monday December 16, 2002

Classical - Monday - Ronald Smith

"I thought Alkan was just a kitchen foil, until I discovered Ronald Smith." This graffiti on an Exeter bus sums up the contribution this extraordinary pianist has made to understanding the enigmatic genius of Charles-Valentin Alkan. Since the 1960s Smith has championed his quirky and complex music, leading to the recent republication of his two-volume study and the appearance of the complete chamber music on CD. Now nearly blind, he celebrates his 80th birthday in a typically demanding recital of Schubert, Chopin, Beethoven and Alkan which makes absolutely no concession to his age.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, SE1 7.30pm,

The Performance

David Jones, an old lewesian who lives in North London, responded to my last minute email about Ron Smith's recital by booking a seat and attending the recital as OLO representative. Here is the text of the email that he sent afterwards describing the event :-

I went last night [to Ron Smith's last concert]. Although I wore a name badge indicating I'm an Old Lewesian, it provoked some interest, but no response from anyone.

The recital was brilliant, and extremely well-received by a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall. Although clearly very tired after a couple of hours playing, he gave us two encores.

I can send you a "review" if you like, although I'm certainly no expert on music. I can also send you a programme, (I bought two), if you can confirm the address to which I should send it.

It had been Ronald's intention to sign programmes and CDs at the end of the evening, but as it turned out he was not feeling well enough to meet anyone, so I couldn't speak to him, and I couldn't get a programme signed for the OL archives. However, I had bought a greetings card with "Congratulations & Best Wishes on behalf of the Old Lewesians Organisation". I was able to give the card to Ronald's wife, and have a couple of words with her. She was very appreciative, saying it was "awfully nice of us".

I am a frequent concert goer, and particularly fond of piano music, I had never come across Ronald before, and certainly not Alkan. The two CDs I bought will give me many hours of pleasant listening. It had long been an ambition of mine, to take the advantage of retirement to listen to as much music as possible and improve my knowledge of music.

Incidentally, I was seated next to an American tourist, who turned out to be eighty himself. He bent my ear with anecdotes of listening to Rubenstein playing at eighty-eight. He was so excited at finding when he arrived this week that he would have an opportunity to hear Ronald Smith playing; an opportunity he has never had in the States, and now alas not likely to.

With best wishes.

David Jones

David also found a Guardian review of an earlier recital at Bristol

Monday March 25, 2002 - The Guardian

Ronald Smith is a very ordinary name for a rather extraordinary man. The pianist is best known for his campaign to give the French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan his rightful place in the canon of 19th-century keyboard giants; and yet he began as a composer, the piano only his second study. Those who champion others sometimes get neglected themselves, and Smith's 80th birthday year is a good time to make amends.

Smith was not alone in hailing Alkan: Busoni did too. Alkan himself - Chopin's contemporary and neighbour - championed the then-unfashionable late sonatas of Beethoven. All came together here in what Smith, with endearing immodesty, described as "a cunning programme". As he sat down at the piano, someone wished him many happy returns. For a moment Smith looked nonplussed, but any doubts of diminishing power were instantly dispelled as he attacked the Bach-Busoni Chaconne in D minor, its dancing delicacy every bit as convincing as the grand Italian theatricality with which Busoni invests the most elaborate variations.

Smith cuts a curious figure, sitting low at the keyboard, face impassive but the long, scrawny fingers leaping everywhere, agile and animated. His hands were mesmerising in the 12 Chopin Etudes, Op 25. When today's young lions rattle through these they sometimes make light of the music as well as their difficulty. Not Smith. Though there were quirks of emphasis and some very muddy pedalling, he managed the rippling passagework with ease while arguing the case for Chopin as the great poet of the keyboard. Similarly in Beethoven's final Piano Sonata Op 111, it was not his mastery of the transcendental technique that created the impact, but the sense that in the awesome simplicity of the slow arietta, Beethoven transcended human achievement.

Clearly neither retired nor retiring, Smith introduced his three Alkan pieces and showed just why this remarkable music deserves to be heard more. It was by turns lyrical, harmonically challenging and, as the final octave study No 12 Op 35 proved, diabolically demanding. Perhaps, a century hence, someone will do for Smith's compositions what he has done for Alkan's.
Rian Evans

A Review From The Independent 19-12-02

Sent in by Eddy Wood

RONALD SMITH at the Queen Elizabeth Hall London

Ronald Smith is the Alkan man - the pianist who pioneered the revival of this dark and dazzling pianist-composer, Chopin's neighbour in Paris, who famously died beneath a toppled bookcase. Smith also wrote a definitive study of the man and his music, which is still in print.

Smith's 80th birthday recital last Monday was a half hour longer than your average programme, yet when he introduced the last few items - by Alkan, naturally - he put heart into us all with his charm and humour He must be a champion after-dinner speaker

Nor did his playing run out of juice, though when he began the evening with Schubert's gruelling Wanderer Fantasy, it was immediately obvious he couldn't command the sonority he once did. He sat unusually low at the piano, his elbows actually lower than the keyboard, wrists very loose, so that his lanky fingers reached over the keys like the legs of a spider But if his tone was subdued, one adjusted to it, and his sense of timing and the way he shaped and separated paragraphs, were assured. Besides, his refusal to press himself beyond his reserves of strength allowed the music to breathe. If you heard Smith on Radio 3's In Tune a few days earlier, you might have feared the worst before his performance of the whole set of Chopin's Op 25 Studies. The QEH evidently gave him a lift that the BBC studio hadn't, and he rose to the occasion. Smith has always had a certain detachment as a player, to the point of appearing matter-of-fact. Yet he never madethese poetic pieces sound like technical exercises, and his relaxed phrasing and singing highlights offered moments of eloquent poetry.

Not content with two Everests of the pianist's repertoire, Smith went on after the interval to tackle Beethoven's Op 111 Sonata. Though tackle is not quite the word for a player of such long experience. It began extremely well: clean and decisive. Again, as in Schubert earlier, Smith didn't push his tone, but maintained his concentration in the rugged mental struggle of the first movement. His simplicity and singing quality in the variations of the second movement won their case, and if, at the momentous point when the two hands are at the keyboard's extremities, he created less tension than he should, his perfect trills were a joy to relish.

Two of Alkan's most evocative short pieces, "Le tambour bat aux champs" and "La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer" - described with a few well-chosen words beforehand - didn't quite finish the evening, because Smith took us for a hair raising ride through Alkan's Octave Study, Op 35, and then added another Alkan Prelude and Chopin's "Black-key" Study as a thank-you for a bunch of flowers so big he could hardly carry it off the platform.
Adrian Jack