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Exceptional Gifts

LAWRENCE BUDMEN reports from the
2009 Miami International Piano Festival


The Miami International Piano Festival has presented many impressive keyboard artists over more than a decade of its existence but the twelfth annual edition on 14-17 May 2009 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, Florida, USA proved the most impressive yet. Not only was each of the performing artists an interpreter of exceptional gifts but every single performance on the highly varied programs carried its quota of visceral sparks and insightful revelation.

German born Severin von Eckardstein took the opening night honors on 14 May. Von Eckardstein made an impressive American début at the 2007 Miami festival but that concert did not prepare the listener for the remarkable display of breathtaking digital command at lightning speed combined with extraordinary intensity that permeated his diverse recital. (Von Eckardstein's European career has soared in recent years. His 2008 performance of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Kirill Petrenko has been broadcast internationally.)

Opening with three Nocturnes by the pianistic poet Frederic Chopin, Von Eckardstein's sensitive, elegantly conceived performances held listeners spellbound, each phrase seemingly improvised and liberated from the routine note spinning of so many glitzy competition winners. In Alexander Scriabin's Poème-Nocturne, Op 61 and Two Poèmes, Op 32, the pianist cultivated the widest possible dynamic range (from a hushed whisper to power pounding chords that seemed to crash from the keyboard's inner pulse). Scriabin's wild romantic mysticism found expressive voice in Von Eckardstein's taut, stormy interpretations; yet he brought vigor and fleetly articulated charm to the Piano Sonata No 4, Op 30, the final Prestissimo volando highlighting Scriabin's less severe compositional style.

Edward Grieg's Ballade was one of the Norwegian composer's most ambitious keyboard works. With its dark, foreboding aura and pianistic heroics, this surprisingly dramatic and moving score is imbued with the grandeur of Franz Liszt; a far cry from the folksy prettiness of Grieg's piano vignettes. Von Eckardstein exuded bold impetuosity and scintillating lyricism in a mesmerizing performance of this extraordinary, rarely played Scandinavian milestone.

For the second half of his program, Von Eckardstein contrasted sacredly reverent and demonic impulses in music. Regard de l'Eglise d'amour from Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus by French master Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) defines the composer's ethereal sound world encompassing bird song and rapt spirituality in a uniquely original musical language. Von Eckardstein's idiomatic performance captured Messiaen's seminal vision with playing that rose to another level, other worldly as if time had stopped. By contrast the pianist gave one of the fastest performances ever attempted of Liszt's Sonata in B minor. Von Eckardstein emphasized the music's devilish forward thrust, vigor and fire driving the performance with headlong abandon. After repeated standing ovations, the pianist offered rollicking Chopin and tempestuous Prokofiev vignettes as encores. Von Eckardstein is a musician of dazzling ability, combining super technique with probing, incisive musicianship. His concert proved memorable in every respect.

At his recital on 15 May, Stephen Beus, First Prize winner of the 2006 Gina Bachauer Competition, exhibited flawless technique wedded to patrician musicianship and discerning artistic taste. J S Bach's English Suite in G minor, BWV 808 emerged lithe and transparent, rendered with speed and verve. This was big boned pianistic Bach rather than an attempt to emulate the sonic palette of the harpsichord (for which the score was written). Beus' sense of Bach's structural mastery was clearly delineated, at once grand and festive.

Samuel Barber's Sonata in E flat minor, Op 26 was written for Vladimir Horowitz who gave the work its initial performances. In recent decades few contemporary pianists have ventured this piece. Technically the sonata is a finger breaker. Much more harmonically adventurous and astringent than most of the usually conservative Barber's scores, this work requires the monster technique and musical intellect of a Horowitz. Yet the third movement Adagio mesto is one of those memorable slow movements that were Barber's signature (ie the famous Adagio for Strings -- originally from the String Quartet in B minor, Op 11 -- and the slow movements of the composer's violin, cello and piano concertos). Beus brought lightning pace, musical depth and dazzling technical aplomb to this tour de force. He produced a panorama of tonal colors and hauntingly beautiful phrasing in the gorgeous interlude that forms the sonata's third movement. Beus' interpretation of this pensive, darkly ruminative sonata was riveting.

Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody was rendered at breakneck speed, Beus exhibiting virtuosity to burn. The pianist displayed a lighter side in Mendelssohn's Sonata in E major, Op 6. The four brief movements overflowed with feathery lyricism in a beguiling performance. He plumbed the depths of the grandiose Forgotten Melody, Op 39 No 5 (Sonata Tragica) by Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951). In recent decades, pianists have returned to the music of this commanding Russian -- a creative artist of exceptional power and pathos. While Medtner's harmonic language was steeped in the nineteenth century, his thematic invention is surprisingly ambitious. Beus captured the dramatic power and melancholic undertones of one of the composer's most profound scores.

In many ways the 16 May recital by Hungarian pianist Balázs Szokolay was the sleeper event of the festival. The singing line and rapturous lyricism of Szokolay's pianism, buttressed by absolute precision of technique, proved special indeed. (Several high profile recordings by this exceptional artist on the Naxos and Hungaroton labels have received rave reviews from European critics.)

Appropriately, in the first half of the program, Szokolay celebrated the Mendelssohn anniversary. His hugely varied, distinctive color palette produced sounds of dulcet, shimmering beauty in ten Songs Without Words. The clarity of Szokolay's inner voicing and rigorous structural coherence, mixed with bursts of pyrotechnical brilliance, brought Bach like splendor to the rarely played Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op 35 No 1. The pianist's deft touch ignited a delightful traversal of the charming Rondo Capriccioso in E major, Op 14. Mendelssohn's piano and chamber works are infrequently played. Kudos to Szokolay for devoting part of his program to some of the composer's underrated keyboard gems.

The warm romantic lyricism of Schumann's Papillons received plush treatment in Szokolay's sparkling rendition, always supported by strongly syncopated rhythmic underpinning. This remarkable musician was equally at home in the moody turbulence of Liszt's pianistic oeuvre. The Harmonies du soir (Transcendental Etude No 11) was appropriately stormy, yet leavened with graceful bursts of song, almost operatic. Power pounding brilliance consumed the Legend No 2 in E major. In the suite Venezia e Napoli, Szokolay unfurled Italianate passion in a charming Canzonetta, produced a glowing stream of multi-colored, finely nuanced hues in the Gondoliera and went for broke with an incendiary Tarantella, a stunning display of this artist's rock solid technical acumen.

The musical answer to 'Where do you go from Olympus?' was found in Szokolay's encores. The pianist transmitted the wit in Haydn's Sonata No 54 in G major, a performance that was light as a feather, cascading off the keyboard with the verve and fizz that makes great musical champagne sparkle. A Dohnányi vignette was a dazzling display of pianistic firepower, spiced with Hungarian paprika. Szokolay brought rapt beauty to Liszt's Consolation, producing tone of incredible sweetness. The entire recital was a vivid demonstration of patrician artistry and mature musicianship.

The 2009 festival concluded with Beyond Tango, a joyous evening showcasing the multi-faceted talents of Pablo Ziegler. For over a decade Ziegler was pianist and arranger for Ástor Piazzolla's New Tango Quintet. Indeed Ziegler was the instrumental voice that brought Piazzolla's reinvention of the Argentinean tango to life. Ziegler is one of the world's foremost experts on Spanish and Latin American music. A respected musicologist, he has written numerous articles for major periodicals and magazines on the diverse strains of Latin pop and classicism. Above all Ziegler is a formidable keyboard technician who can spin virtuosic flourishes and hold his own with the likes of Emanuel Ax and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. (He has made distinguished recordings with those artists.)

For all his harmonic astringency and New Age creative touch, Piazzolla had a tendency to be repetitive. His best compositions (ie The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, Libertango, Tangazo) are bracing, rhythmically pungent concert pieces, light years away from the dance floor. Many of his other works, however, are carbon copies that can wear thin; a little Piazzolla goes a long way. Ziegler's original scores, on the other hand, are the output of a Latin Renaissance artist. His synthesis of tango, jazz, classicism and Afro-Cuban elements is wonderfully eclectic; the work of an original creative voice. This composer's scores can traverse angular rhythms or finger snapping syncopation or languidly romantic melodies. Alternately performing works by Piazzolla and himself, Ziegler vividly illustrated the difference between his mentor's cinema tinged themes and his own inspired recreation of Latin musical traditions, spiced with 21st century modernity.

Ziegler gave a dizzying demonstration of pianistic bravura, joined by a first rate group of collaborative musicians. Misha Dacic, a keyboard firebrand, was an inspired collaborator in two piano duets, particularly Ziegler's Maria Ciudad and Elegante Canyenguito -- suave pieces that mix brio with riveting harmonies. Dacic and Ziegler's two pianos glistened in robust, energetic rhythms. Violinist Alexis Cardenas brought rich, sweetly ruminative tone to Ziegler's Muchacha de Boedo and Places and jazzy pizzazz (à la Stephane Grappelli) to Piazzolla's quintessential Libertango. Ziegler's stellar quintet is deeply steeped in this music. Hector del Curto's bandoneon (although over-amplified) rang true to the soul of the Argentine muse. Jisso Ok's cello provided firm support and occasional melodies rich in tonal warmth. Pedro Giraudo was the hard working, first class bass player. For his final set, Ziegler welcomed a group of excellent South Florida musicians. Violinist Misha Vitenson and violist Michael Klotz (from the Amernet String Quartet), along with Cardenas, brought lush, sonorous colors to haunting melodic lines. Dynamic flutist Nicolas Real shined in agile, brilliantly vociferous solo opportunities. With Brian Potts providing rhythmic impetus on percussion, clarinetist Alejandro Lozada and bassoonist Janet Harris were strong in supporting roles.

Ziegler concluded the evening with Fuga y Misterio from Piazzolla's opera Maria de Buenos Aires. This piece finds the composer at his most dauntingly complex, recalling his study with the rigorous, demanding Nadia Boulanger. Ziegler's exciting pianism capped a celebratory evening of music of the Americas and festive conclusion to 12th annual Miami International Piano Festival.

Copyright © 24 June 2009 Lawrence Budmen,
Miami Beach, USA




















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