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His dark materials

a review by Julia Meredith

When Tom Hicks conceived of putting together a programme of Nocturnes, it was during the sombre days of the Covid lockdown… particularly anxious times for a performer.
In this very special concert, Tom seems to have taken the confinement and introspection of that grim period, to transform his seclusion into something extraordinarily soothing: a meditation on how, by removing us from the frantic pressures of the world, stillness can enhance life and restore some sense of timeless priorities.
Solitude seems to have inspired an unusually intense joining-together of audience and musician, in the intimacy of shadows, candlelight and music of the greatest tenderness and calm. I felt as though we’d been wrapped in a warm cloak of velvet.
Hard not to see magic in this act of creation.
In the fascinating ‘Meet the Artist’ session the previous evening, Tom had talked to Mervyn Grand about getting into ‘The Zone’ while performing: that rare feeling of perfect accord with an audience, in which the barriers between performer, music and listener are dissolved. I don’t think I was imagining that in this concert we all experienced something unique.
The evening opened with four Nocturnes by Chopin: Opus 48, C minor and F# minor. These are works of great serenity, and made even more so by the thoughtful way Tom paced them, using the sustain pedal to lull but not blur, in a way that highlighted the crisper notes. The effect was luminous and caressing. Going back to ‘the Zone’, Tom seemed to exist in a private world where no distractions could penetrate. Having heard of his busy schedule, including a Master Class shortly beforehand, it suggested an ability to subsume himself in the moment.
The two Nocturnes of Opus 55, F minor and Bb major, flowed on seamlessly – spreading peace with restraint and sensitivity, so the sustain pedal acted almost as the glow around a candle flame. The stroked pianissimo at the end was heartbreaking… nobody stirred – or breathed, I suspect! – for what felt like five minutes.
At the age of twenty, Scriabin injured his right hand (through excessive practice!), and while it was healing, he composed his Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand, op 9. Had I not seen Tom’s right hand lying idle, bizarre in itself, I’d have doubted that the virtuosic, keyboard-spanning phrases were being produced with only half his available resources. The tonal range he conjured from the piano was phenomenal: an artistic as well as a gymnastic tour de force.
Debussy’s Reverie was taken the most languidly I’ve heard it, adding an almost hypnotic quality to its dreamy delicacy… fingers brushing skin, hardly felt but intensely sensed. It was followed by a far less familiar piece – a Nocturne – interestingly the least restful of the trio, it seemed conversational rather than atmospheric.
We got the latter in spades with the much-beloved Clair de Lune. As the first notes sounded, there was a slight rustle as people softened into their seats. You could almost
smell the dew-scented air. The reined-in power of his deep chords quietly proceeding up the keyboard into a blaze of dazzling glory was the way I’ll always hope to hear it. The audience was so still in the silence that followed I thought they’d forgotten the bar was open… and then the applause.
After interval Tom told us to expect a change of pace in the German second half: an element of fantasy, explorative and adventurous.
Clara Schumann’s Notturno op.6 speaks so eloquently for itself, it deters interpretation. Highly tuneful, it felt less a texture of feeling than an expression of an opinion, certainly compared with the nocturnes which preceded it. One suspects an insomniac who couldn’t switch off her brain…
Fanny Mendelssohn’s Notturno H.337 also suggests an exceptionally articulate musical intelligence, which communicates in sentences, not gestures. This piece persuades us of her viewpoint: passionate and unmistakably feminine. The way Tom did justice to these last two composers is a tribute to his empathy.
Such versatility was crucial in taking on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. This is one of the most famous works by one of the most famous composers ever. A towering, uncompromising figure, this piece is so well known as to daunt far older pianists than Tom.
He started very calmly and undramatically – simply laying down the groundwork, allowing Beethoven’s perfection to speak for itself without interceding between the work and the listener. It takes a certain kind of humility to remove yourself from the equation and just let the music ’be’ rather than give it your own personal spin. It suggests a mature confidence, that you will be enough as a truthful servant rather than an egotisical maestro, full of performative tics and flourishes.
But – not to be fooled by his cleancut, apparently conventional image – all this polite restraint had to vanish once the charming Allegretto was followed by the last movement: Presto Agitato. The clue is in the title. This is a movement full of exclamation marks – it charges like a fighting bull, swivels on a sixpence and returns to the fray, pitiless and magnificent. What courage does it take to face so fearsome a beast and hope to emerge unscarred at the end?
We’ll never know what was going through Beethoven’s mind, to follow the melting lyricism of the first movement with these bolts of lightning and thunder. Perhaps to jolt us from the tranquilizing effect of the Moonlight. All I can say it that it was an utterly riveting performance, controlled but passionate, and with it, Tom has entered a different league.
Bravo! I profoundly hope that this doesn’t limit his visits back to his homeland; I imagine his performing schedule must be ferocious, and about to become more so.

Everyone in a packed St James will appreciate that an unforgettable evening like this has a cost way beyond the ticket price. Thank you again, Guernsey Arts and the Swallow 2018 Charitable Trust, for making it so accessible.

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