Wednesday 27 April 2016

Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring

Katya Apekisheva, Charles Owen
Katya Apekisheva & Charles Owen
Stravinsky Rite of Spring, Poulenc, Rachmaninov; Katya Apekisheva, Charles Owen; Rhinegold Live at the Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 26 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Brilliant pianism and physical dexterity in Stravinsky's piano duo version of his ballet

Pianists Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva, established duo partners, launched their new CD of Stravinsky's piano duo versions of this ballets with a concert at Rhinegold Live, Rhinegold's free rush-hour concert on Tuesday 26 April 2016 at the Conway Hall. They played Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Francis Poulenc's Sonata for Piano Four Hands and three of Rachmaninov's Six Morceaux, Op 11. The evening was rounded off with a short Q&A with Owen Mortimer, editor of Classical Piano magazine

Poulenc's Sonata for Piano Four Hands is an early work, written in 1918, revised in 1939 and not to be confused with his later Sonata for Two Pianos. In three movements, Prelude - Moderé, Rustique - Naif et Lent and Final - Très vite, the piano duet sonata seems to have been written under the influence of Stravinsky's harmonies and rhythms but the work is clearly Poulenc's own. Owen and Apeksheva made the opening movement full of energy and colour, all the familiar Poulenc tropes writ large. The work flowed easily from one idea to the next, with some finely bravura rhythms. The middle movement was poised and stylish, and we could admire the pianists sensitivity of touch, but also their brilliant attack too. The final movement was all perky animation.

Rachmaninov's Six Morceaux is another early work dating from 1894 and we heard three movements, Barcarolle, Scherzo and Slava. The Barcarolle was a lush, rocking boat with a seductive atmosphere, whilst the Scherzo was skitteringly vivid with some nice witty touches. The final movement used motifs from the Coronation Scene in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov to create a brilliant texture full of noisy bells.

Finally we heard Stravinsky's own piano duet version of The Rite of Spring, a work which Stravinsky and Debussy played through together (a wonderful image). Charles Owen in his introduction to the work commented that you 'loose something and gain something'. Despite not have a bassoon, the famous opening was wonderfully mysterious and we could admire the colours which Owen and Apekisheva brought to the piece. It was fascinating to experience the harmonic and rhythmic freedom of the work without its lush orchestral dress, and it came over as a superb example of early 20th century pianism.

The players brought a combination of lyricism and brilliantly incisive rhythms to Stravinsky's score, with both the spare, more austere moments telling as much as the famous pounding chords. What was a revelation was quite how intimate the performance is with the two players constantly intertwining arms (luckily Apekisheva was wearing red and Owen wearing black so it was easy to spot whose arm was whose). There were moments when Owen's hands glided over the top of Apekisheva's, the whole was not only a technical challenge but a logistical one. But with your eyes closed, none of this mattered as it was the sheer brilliance of Stravinsky's score which came over.

We were treated to an encore, to restore the balance in the French/Russian programme, the Laideronette movement from Ravel's Ma mere l'oye.

Afterwards there was a short Q&A with Owen, Apekisheva and Owen Mortimer, editor of International Piano Magazine. We had already learned, from the programme, that Owen and Apekisheva had first met back in 1987 when Owen was a youngster at the Yehudi Menuhin School and Apekisheva was  a member of a group from the Gnessin School in Moscow. Their present partnership started thanks to the legendary teacher Irina Zaritskaya.

During the performance it was noticeable that the two swapped roles, rather than one always playing primo and the other secondo. When asked about this Apekisheva laughed and said that they usually toss a coin and that it was nice for the brain to take the challenge of changing roles in a piece. Their musical partnership is a remarkably even tempered one, evidently, as Owen said that they hardly ever disagree. It helps that they usually come to a piece both sight-reading it so that they learn together. When asked about the ideal piano duo partner Apekisheva said that it was like a marriage, it has to feel right but it has to be someone who listens. Owen adds that you need to admire and love the other person's playing. Owen added that there was no power struggle in their relationship, neither was trying to out do the other.

When it came to playing Stravinsky's piano duet versions of his orchestral ballets, Apekisheva said that it was essential to have the orchestral score too so that they could bring out the orchestral colours in the piano playing.

This October, Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva are curating the London Piano Festival at Kings Place, their first piano festival and one which is all about the joys of the piano. Owen explained that for this festival they have invited people they know personally, and the events will include a two piano gala with seven pianists. Further information from the London Piano Festival.

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