This double-bill concert was a fantastic success at Cheltenham’s Town Hall. It had been moved from the main stage to a smaller side-room, but rather than this being to the detriment of the performance, this enhanced it. The performers were up close, which created a personal recital in an intimate setting. The double bill did feel more like two hour-long concerts than one big concert, where the artists were divided by the interval. But despite being very different in style, both halves complemented each other. James Rhodes decided to play “a set list”, as he described it, of shorter pieces each musing on a different type of love. This was inspired by the shorter pieces played earlier on, by Arthur Jeffes and Oli Langford, who together call themselves Sundog.

James Rhodes © Dave Brown 2012
James Rhodes
© Dave Brown 2012

The evening was not only engaging but also informative. Arthur Jeffes, known principally from the Penguin Café Orchestra, was very careful to explain his pieces thoroughly, going into detail about where time signatures changed, the techniques used with electronics within the piano, and why each piece had been written. Jeffes and Langford created their soundscapes with a violin, a piano, a dulcitone, some electronics, and a pair of loudspeakers. Refreshingly, the volume on the speakers was just about right for the intimate venue – sometimes technicians tend to swamp the room, making the music more invasive than enjoyable. This time, however, it was pleasant, although the lighting took things a step too far. Where moments of the music got fairly intense, the lighting would change colour. The colours varied from red to four separate shades at the same time. This was toned down to one spot for James Rhodes, although he did find himself talking in the dark a couple of times. One can only presume that the concept behind this lighting was to add a further depth to Arthur Jeffes’ compositions.

Sundog’s soundscapes take influences from various styles. There were obvious references to minimalism and folk music that were undercut with more subtle references to composers such as Yann Tiersen and Steve Reich. The effect was simple and atmospheric, leaving a warm, fuzzy glow in the air, and not just because of the issue with the lights.

The James Rhodes approach to piano playing is heartfelt but also relaxed. He is not crude with the notes, but applies the right force for the dynamic and the mood of each phrase to great effect. He wasn’t always accurate, but the richness and heart of his playing completely overtook the need to be note-perfect. You could see the passion in his face and the way he identified with each melody he played. He likes to challenge himself as a performer by, as he put it, “not pussying out”. He put it upon himself to play the last movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in an arrangement for solo piano, which he described as having around thirty notes per second. We were also treated to a number of Rachmaninov, Chopin and Schumann pieces, rounded off with a Toccata from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, which Rhodes described as “probably the hardest piece” he has ever played. Climax after climax made an extra impact for the final piece of the evening; it may have been the hardest piece, but Rhodes approached it in a cool, collected way.

Rhodes has a good rounded knowledge of the pieces he plays, and before each piece he recounted its individual social and historical background. It made the music more engaging because it allowed a connection and identification with a piece of music that some audience members might not otherwise have had. He also earned respect from the audience this way, gaining their trust as a reliable source. James Rhodes is a passionate man. On his theme of love, he told the stories of Rachmaninov’s “teenage angst”, Schumann’s wishful obsession with Clara, and Chopin’s nightmare holiday romance.

Undoubtedly, Rhodes was the highlight of the concert. Arthur Jeffes and Oli Langford were good musicians and their performance was enjoyable, but Rhodes gave a great performance. He is a rounded musician with a way of relating to an audience. Through attempting to humble himself and make himself seem more ordinary by dressing casually, he only makes himself seem more fantastic, and his talent more profound.