Monday 9 October 2017

A feast of piano teamwork: Two Piano Marathon at London Piano Festival

Charles Owen & Katya Apekisheva giving the premiere of Elena Langer's RedMare at the London Piano Festival at Kings Place ©ICA Media
Charles Owen & Katya Apekisheva giving the premiere of Elena Langer's RedMare
at the London Piano Festival at Kings Place ©ICA Media
Adams, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Elena Langer, Ravel, Schumann, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski; Charles Owen, Katya Apekisheva, Danny Driver, Melvyn Tan, Ilya Nitin, Lisa Smirnova; London Piano Festival at Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 7 2017 Star rating: 5.0
A celebration of piano teamwork and terrific pianism

The centre-piece of the second London Piano Festival at Kings Place on 7 October 2017 was a Two-Piano marathon featuring pianists Charles Owen & Katya Apekisheva (the festival's artistic directors), Danny Driver, Melvyn Tan, Ilya Itin and Lisa Smirnova in an eclectic programme of music for two pianos, John Adams' Hallelujah Junction, Mozart's Sonata in D for two pianos, K448, Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances Op.45, Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole, Schumann's Andante and Variations Op.46, Shostakovich's Concertino Op.94, Lutoslawski's Variations on a Theme by Paganini and the world premiere of Elena Langer's RedMare commissioned for the festival. The result was a great celebration of piano teamwork, as four different pairings of pianists gave us some tremendously vital and really engaging playing, along with moments of great virtuosity.

We started with Danny Driver and Charles Owen performing John Adams' Hallelujah Junction. It opened with a dazzling, bright texture as the two pianist threw material between themselves, and throughout the multi-section piece developed this sense of continuous flow, sometimes getting outrageously dense thickets of notes. Driver and Owen played with a clear sense of enjoyment, and the two balanced each other nicely, but I have to confess that I thought the piece somewhat repetitious and, for me, it outstayed its welcome.

This was followed by Ilya Itin and Lisa Smirnova in Mozart's Sonata in D for two pianos, a work which he wrote to play with one of his talented pupils. After an introductory grand gesture, the two pianists gave us a wonderfully light and airy Allegro con spirito full of character. Though the two pianists approached the music with utmost seriousness, their playing was full of charm and virtuosic fizz. The Andante combined a graceful singing line with rocking accompaniment, as the material weaved its way between the two pianists creating a lively sense of dialogue. The playing combined a light airy texture with formal precision. The Molto Allegro finale was fast and fizzy with a real sense of vitality. The  Nitin and Smirnova had very different platform styles, he very aristocratic and controlled, she really into the music with a big smile on her face, but their playing was wonderfully balanced in terms of style, and made the performance one of the highlights of the evening.

The first half finished with Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva in Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances. Late Rachmaninov, written just three years before his death at a time when he was writing less, the work originated in its two piano form before being orchestrated. Owen and Apekisheva made the opening wonderfully mysterious leading to the well known march theme played in a controlled manner full of suppressed excitement. This was big and bold, but with a feeling of detail and quite a classical approach. This continued with the glorious melody of the second section, which had beauty and poise rather than being slushily romantic. The second movement waltz was wonderfully evocative with an underlying sense of the sinister. The clarity and character of the playing brought out the stunning textures of the piece.  The last movement continued the sense of unease, the feel of dancing on the edge, yet combined with a real vitality. The terrific final pages really drew us towards the impending catastrophe. This was a performance which really brought out the sophistication and complexity of Rachmaninov's writing, rather than simply relying on the big melodies.

After the interval Owen and Apekisheva returned to perform this year's festival commission, RedMare by Elena Langer, inspired by a painting by Petrov-Vodkin, Fantasy. An image of the painting was projected above the platform, a striking piece with a huge red horse and a rider seemingly turning away from the horse. Langer's piece was full of dramatic gestures which evaporated, and for all its virtuosic writing there was an evanescent quality to the work, full of flurries which go no where and widely spaced lyrical textures. Finally all coalesced into passages of real excitement, lots of notes creating a brilliant texture and a terrific ending, all colour and movement.

Owen and Apekisheva then performed Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole in its two piano version (Ravel sketched the entire piece out for two pianos before orchestrating it). The opening prelude was hypnotic and mysterious, with playing of great delicacy and intensity. The Malaguena was rhythmically vital and followed by a seductive Habanera which combined translucency of texture with dark hints. The final Feria combined a dazzling lightness with darker rumbling, swirls of notes making the whole infections and seductive.

Melvyn Tan and Danny Driver played Schumann's Andante and Variations, originally written for two pianos, two horns and two cellos in 1840, but re-worked for just two pianos. The Andante proved gentle but seductive, with a lovely shapeliness to the phrasing, and there was a sense of continuous flow from variation to variation.

Itin and Smirnova returned with Shostakovich's Concertino, written for the composer's son Maxim when he was a 15-year-old student at the Moscow Conservatory. It started with the two pianists in dialogue, the one making dramatic gestures, the other giving quiet responses, eventually leading to an insouciant melody over a lively texture which rather reminded you of Shostakovich's piano concertos. There were some brilliant satiric moments, fully of lively energy, and contrasting with the more lyrical material, all leading to the terrific energy of the closing pages.

Charles Owen, Elena Langer, Katya Apekisheva, Lisa Smirnova, Danny Driver, Melvyn Tan, Ilya Itin at the London Piano Festival at Kings Place. ©ICA Media
Charles Owen, Elena Langer, Katya Apekisheva, Lisa Smirnova, Danny Driver, Melvyn Tan, Ilya Itin
at the London Piano Festival at Kings Place. ©ICA Media
Finally Tan and Driver returned to give a dazzling account of Lutoslawski's Variations on a Theme by Paganini, bringing a superb concert to a close with a great sense of fun.

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