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Lilya Zilberstein's recital
at London's Wigmore Hall
impresses BILL NEWMAN


Not many people, I guess, know that the opening concert of London's Wigmore Hall in 1901 was shared by Busoni and Ysaye. Brahms' Paganini Variations was on the programme. Some ninety years later, the Keyboard Charitable Trust came into being. Set in motion on the highest recommendations among the teaching faculties, the trust started by inviting the most talented young artists to perform before the public. Eventually, those highly rated and exceptionally gifted were quickly snapped up by the international connecting links. Series of concerts together with every chance of working alongside some of the top people in the music business resulted in publicity far and wide and, if they were doubly fortunate, those 'hungry for success' were contracted to make commercial recordings and film productions for some of the record and video companies. Sound and television also provided special incentives towards performer spotlighting with interviews and promotional tieups literally happening worldwide. The latest available facility of 'downloading' promises to revolutionize the industry even further, but I will not discuss that here.

While quality music making continues to flourish in pure sound terms, the most commendable and distinguished means of demonstrating the immediate, personal excitement of the world's up and coming talent -- providing them with every opportunity of attaining distinction on the international scene -- is still the live concert, and my own 'trusting' associations and friendships remain rooted to the serious musicians and music lovers who have learnt to support what they like most and ultimately will continue to cherish.

On the reverse side, the instant atmosphere experienced when you attended many concerts during the 1950s-80s has been largely displaced by the typical family chained to their TV set or the daily speech-music machinations of BBC Radio 3 and Classic fm. Unwilling to venture into the real world with its continuing journey problems, cost of meals, etc, more outstanding events are required for audiences to change their minds. Here the law of averages dictated by the national press, to provide the most promotion to who and what sells and warrants the greatest exploitation, takes precedence. Fortunately, this did not happen for this 7 June 2009 event. The leading London papers all responded with the highest possible praise, and Wigmore Hall director John Gilhooly has agreed to adding Lilya Zilberstein to the Hall's prestigious artists list category. Meanwhile, we are still faced with the obvious questions: Are too many events at one time resulting in clashes of interests? Do magazine readers scan the essential print and rush for their diaries? Are we spoilt for choice?

Which leads me to Lilya Zilberstein. It seems a decade since I first interviewed the shy, emotional young lady who, in common with other gifted Russian performers, was forced to struggle and suffer at the hands of a stifling regime that removed many privileges, including opportunities to travel and display to the musical world her individual gifts. Happily, other musicians rallied to her support, including Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich. Now, Lilya struts confidently around with a broad smile on her face. Pianistically, she is here to conquer the world, willing and capable of amassing other young artists' appreciations and an ever-growing audience in world locations where she communicates her artistry in similar fashion to her illustrious predecessors. My musical colleague and close friend Christopher Axworthy -- all the way from Italy -- leant over and said: 'She could be another Nikoleyeva, seated on the piano stool, her arms and fingers extended about to launch into Brahms!'

Zilberstein began quietly in sonorous fashion with Brahms' three Intermezzi, Op 117. What made it so magical was the glowing bass line -- frequently ignored by other pianists -- that enhanced the glorious right-hand melodies. Because they are relatively short, some listeners -- unaware of their chosen supremacy among leading players' repertoire -- tend to dismiss their gentler subtleties in favour of the more majestic late opuses either side.

With both books of Paganini Variations, Op 35, an appreciative audience's murmurings were suddenly stilled. Here, Brahms utilizes in exploratory fashion the whole range of the pianoforte. One can easily stress each one's virtuosic content, but the pattern of his achievement should be measured by the way he contrasts his range of material to provide a challenge to all pianists from both technical and musical standpoints. I personally decry those who deliberately rush their fences in the quicker numbers to give more brash sonority and added drama to the whole. The art of showing off, still an unfortunate deterrant among some members of the younger fraternity, is the result of inadequate teachers who stay outside the boundary of great Brahms interpreters: Petri, Solomon, Backhaus, both Fischers, Edwin and Annie, Anda, Arrau, Kempff, Serkin, Lympany and Hess. One could compile more impressive listings, each of whom imparted various facets of their Art in matters of emphases, controlled rubato and the ability to phrase, pulsate and declame alternately in a Brahmsian manner -- bearing in mind the amount of notes involved and the total clarity necessary at all times. Zilberstein, the mature musical warrior, eternal pacifier and pathfinder, has plotted and evolved her course of events accordingly, her rich, ringing tones and perfectly integrated phrasework providing the ideal performance throughout.

Rachmaninov, an inscrutable, shy countenance hiding such a multitude of emotions, and his later book of 13 Preludes, Op 32 is another pinnacle to ascend, discover and conquer. One harkens back to Richter and Gilels, perhaps in his younger years to Sergio Fiorentino; in the celebrated B minor to Benno Moiseiwitsch, in a selection of Preludes with the G major as a favourite encore item by Moura Lympany. Looking at the scores, one is immediately aware of the wonderful compactness and the natural pianistic flow as the subject matter builds up from initial markings, becoming more emotionally varied as it progresses.

I came across a comparison with Chopin's 24 Preludes by Yuli Engel: Sergei Rachmaninoff. Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1956:

Rachmaninoff's Preludes differ from Chopin's in that they generally incline towards a solid and often polyphonic treatment, a broad structure, or towards clear contrasts of musically independent sections, in a word, they approach Chopin's exceptions to his own rule, as in the famous D-flat major Prelude. Instead of Chopin's two-page or even half-page works, Rachmaninoff's Preludes grow into 4, 6, or even 8 pages. This is a growth to be welcomed when it derives from the natural tendency of a musical idea to reveal itself as fully as possible, as, for example, the beautiful Prelude-March in G minor, Op 23. But when a thematic embryo whose chief interest is as a brief sketch, insists on expansion, as in the long B minor prelude, then one is sorry both for the piece and the composer.

Oh, dear!

The year 1910 marks the composition of Rachmaninov's Preludes:
Op 32 No 1: Allegro vivace, C major -- 30 August
Op 32 No 2: Allegretto, B-flat minor -- 2 September
Op 32 No 3: Allegro vivace, E major -- 3 September
Op 32 No 4: Allegro con brio, E minor -- 28 August
Op 32 No 5: Moderato, G major -- 23 August
Op 32 No 6: Allegro appassionato, F minor -- 25 August
Op 32 No 7: Moderato, F major -- 24 August
Op 32 No 8: Vivo, A minor -- 24 August
Op 32 No 9: Allegro moderato, A major -- 26 August
Op 32 No 10: Lento, B minor -- 6 September
Op 32 No 11: Allegretto, B major -- 23 August
Op 32 No 12: Allegro, C sharp minor -- 23 August
Op 32 No 13: Grave, D-flat major -- 10 September

and they were published by Gutheil in September 1911.

With a Russian artist of Lilya's sensitivity, there is that clearly definable feeling of longing and passion within the framework of the phrasing -- Op 32 No 1. According to the composer's desires to vary the complexity of the layout, see Engel's: 'This is a growth to be welcomed' (above). In Op 32 No 2, and also the marcato markings during Op 32 Nos 3 and 4, she is very pronouced and attentive while, in the Moderato dolce overlay of Op 32 No 5, even more seductive than Lympany.

Something like a wild tigress permeates the Allegro appassionato of Op 32 No 6, while a simplistic viewpoint -- with a brief Piu vivo excursion (ff-pp) colours Op 32 No 7. A vivo 'bouncing' style appeared to occupy her waist upwards in Op 32 No 8, and in Op 32 No 9 a succession of finely placed ritardandos, diminuendos, a tempos and a piu vivo characterized the undercurrents of stress. The famous B minor, Op 32 No 10 -- Rachmaninov's own favourite -- is hardly less successful than Moiseiwitsch, and ravishingly beautiful in the two-lined cadenza prefacing the return to the a tempo, come prima.

Note the shaded lightness in Op 32 No 11 with its gradations p-mf-p-pp- (and so on) as the line alternately falls, and then rises again while changing key and harmonic structure. Op 32 No 12 with the melody in the left hand and semiquavers in the right has no intentions to quicken, because of the detailed groups of 16ths and the insistence behind the a tempos. The final Prelude Op 32 No 13 resembles some panegyric oration. In a succession of Grave -- a tempo mosso -- poco piu vivo, and a final orgiastic flurry of sharps, naturals, double sharps -- all on the octave, the listener is nearly swept away prior to the final three bars that end where it all began.

Outstanding and unforgettable. If I had my way, I would have decorated the sidewalks from one end of Wigmore Street to the other with ten foot banners all leading to the Wigmore Hall.

Copyright © 24 August 2009 Bill Newman,
Edgware UK









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