REVIEW: A brief encounter with piano perfection

As a young man growing up in West Sussex, Michael Boxford’s father would play Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto on an ancient gramophone.

Michael Boxford
Michael Boxford

The recording was to inspire a life-long affection in Michael for the work of this extraordinary classical composer.

On Saturday (November 23), at a charity piano recital in Coldwaltham, Michael recalled that childhood connection as he explained the inclusion of two of Rachmaninoff’s preludes in his wide-ranging choice of composition.

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Since 1947 Mr Boxford has lived in the greater geography of the Wildbrook Churches – initially in Watersfield and currently for more than 20 years in Amberley.

His recital reflected both a personal journey as well as his enduring love with this unique segment of the rolling South Downs countryside.

In addition to Rachmaninoff – a composer so popular his music generated more worldwide royalties than any other 20th century contemporary while Michael was at the helm of publisher Boosey and Hawkes - the recital also featured the iconic Amberley Wildbooks.

John Ireland’s local masterpiece, published in 1921, captures with enduring vitality the bubbling of the brooks, the circling of the Canada geese, the lazy progress of the cattle, the sheer expanse of the vista, and all that comprise the Wildbrooks.

This was an almost mandatory piece for the evening in the Music Room at Champ’s Hill – as the event was in aid of the four Wildbrooks churches of Amberley, Parham, Wiggonholt and Greatham.

The recital opened in bold style with Beethoven’s The Tempest – a work underpinned not by storm but isolation, Michael recounted in his introduction.

As the composer faced up to the penalties of deafness he explored artistically the parallel abandonment of Prospero is Shakespeare’s play - in a plot which saw the rightful Duke of Milan abandoned to the seas by his usurping brother Antonio.

The programme concluded with three fabulously contrasting minor masterpieces from Chopin – chosen we were told on the basis that Michael’s wife Pilar, who had assisted with the organizing of the event, should enjoy the pleasure of Chopin after the pain of being subjected to the sounds of all the practise!

Michael modestly understates his extraordinary accomplishments and skill as a pianist; and disguises with urbane nonchalance the enormous investment of time and effort that must surely go into his almost faultless recitals.

Michael swept through the programme with a passion and sensitivity that transforms mere piano playing to an art form.

Musically, the evening was a triumph.

For the Wildbrooks churches too it was equally sublime. As one of the concert organisers Jeff Feakins explained, the evening raised an overwhelming £27,500-plus towards a three-year maintenance target of £100,000.

The scale of the success of the evening owed most to the musical genius of Mr Boxford.

But nor would it have been possible without considerable support from the community who attended, who sponsored, who organized – and finally who hosted.

Mary and David Bowerman generously gave home to the event – and the artwork in their Music Room, not least Harold Harvey’s The Young Ploughman, was the perfect accompaniment to this rural Sussex event.

But the support of Mr and Mrs Bowerman came as no surprise. They are not only beacons of arts patronage in the county but their generosity and kindness over many decades remains an enduring and potent force for the good of both Art and Community across West Sussex and beyond.

Many cinema historians will best know Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto as the soundtrack for the 1945 movie Brief Encounter.

On Saturday it proved the inspiration for our own brief encounter with two hours of sublime piano perfection.

Gary Shipton