Chamber Music, Recital Feature



Focus On... the Russian Romantics

June 10, 2006 - Greensboro, NC:


pianophile n. - one that loves, likes, or is attracted to the piano, its history, or its literature

These are curious creatures indeed. Engorging themselves with all things piano, they make their way around the world searching for something to satiate their hunger for anything involving their beloved instrument. But, alas, a true pianophile, constantly searching for something more rare, more electrifying, more beautiful, never gets full. And so, when the University of North Carolina at Greensboro announced, albeit subtly, that they would have a weekend full of piano recordings, lectures, and recitals, the call was heard far and wide. The focus of this year's Focus On was the one thing that is irresistible to this rare breed - the Russian Romantics. And so they came from 28 different states - 264 individual registrants could not suppress the urge. Some were professional pianists, others were teachers, still more were amateurs or simply listeners. They were all pianophiles. And for three days, thanks to Andrew Willis and his team at UNCG, they would be satisfied.*

The fun began on Thursday, June 8, at 2:30 p.m., with a well organized registration process implemented by a helpful group of students who were to appear throughout the weekend in other accommodating roles. After they had guided everyone into the well appointed recital hall, Andrew Willis, director of Focus On, made a few welcoming remarks and launched into an enlightening lecture on the music of the Russian Salon (Liadov, Cui, et al.). As with most of the lectures to come, there were live performances interspersed throughout. Willis performed lesser known works by composers such as Glinka, Borodin, and Cui. These pieces were well selected and sufficiently demonstrated the Russian miniaturist style. However, this was also our introduction to UNCG's Kawai grand, which had a dreadfully tinny upper register and some other tone problems as well. Willis, being an accomplished fortepianist, tamed the beast as well as anyone could. (I might add that the other piano in the hall was a beautiful Steinway with a rich even tone; most of the other pianists on the program used it.) Paul Stewart then gave a talk on Anton Rubinstein which was erudite and surprisingly comprehensive; his foibles with the microphone system lightened the mood a bit.

All this and more led up to the evening's main event, a UNCG School of Music Faculty Concert. Professor Georges Kiorpes opened the recital with pieces by Tchaikovsky. One could sense that he had a particular fondness for this music. While not note perfect, the melodic lines were impeccably infused with the rich harmonies, especially in the two pieces from the The Seasons, Op. 37b. Dumka, Op. 59, was given a clearly defined reading, and it was evident that he had spent many long years with this piece. He was confident in his sound, knowing exactly where he wanted to go with the work. His playing was golden and, though not the most virtuosic that we would hear, it was certainly among the most uplifting. I was reminded of the recordings of the late Artur Rubinstein.

Following Kiorpes came Associate Professor Joseph Di Piazza. His segment featured music by Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin. He, too, was very sure of himself in these works and, as this reviewer is always skeptical of any pianist who doesn't miss a note, it was pleasing to hear him take risks for the sake of the sound. One interesting thing about all of these teachers is that their playing is anything but pedantic; this certainly holds true for Di Piazza. His performance of the Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9/2, of Scriabin was at once exquisite and emotional. The searing passion that Scriabin's music exudes was depicted with amazing truthfulness. While Di Piazza's eloquence in Scriabin outweighed his understanding of Rachmaninov, it too had some colorful moments, especially in the Prelude in E-Flat, Op. 23/6, where the lilting line was well crafted and the movement from piano to forte was seamless.

The recital closed with guest cellist Martin Storey and resident accompanist Inara Zandmane playing Rachmaninov's Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19. What a performance! Zandmane was incredible, pouncing deftly across the keyboard and bringing all sorts of colors to the piano part while cultivating a strong bond with the cello. Never overpowering and yet not to be denied prominence in her role, she pushed forward with Dionysian vigor and, when necessary, held back with Apollonian restraint. Not to be neglected, Storey, too, played with the brooding romanticism that characterizes the work. His witty reading of the Scherzo second movement was appealing and unique. This work, as a whole, gave attendees a fitting introduction to the theme of the weekend, but at the same time it was going to be a tough act to follow!


Day two opened with a most interesting lecture by Donald Manildi, Curator of the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland (IPAM). This archive contains virtually every commercially available piano recording ever made and many pirated or unpublished ones as well. He presented several rare treats from lesser known Russian romantic composers. The recordings were well selected and even the oldest one (Liadov's "The Musical Snuffbox," played by Leopold Godowsky, 1925) was clearly audible on the recital hall's sound system. After this presentation, the participants were faced with many changes in the day's events. It was announced that John Salmon, Professor of Piano at UNCG (and former Director of the Focus On series), had suffered a detached retina and would not be able to give his scheduled talk on Nikolai Medtner or to perform in the evening recital. Furthermore the baritone slated to sing in the evening recital was obliged to leave for a family emergency and had to cancel. I mention these things in part so that I can tell you about Willis' "show must go on" determination. Within hours, there was a new program for the evening including the Liberace Trio, whose 11:30 a.m. performance was bumped, due to time constraints; and a new pianist - the husband of Inara Zandmane - was engaged to fill in for Salmon. And as if he hadn't done enough already, Willis contacted a clarinetist and arranged to join her in a performance of Glinka's Clarinet Sonata. After the stress of having to patch up the program, he then took over Salmon's Medtner lecture, as well. Kudos to him for holding everything together against such bad luck!

Despite all this, the day's presentations came off without a hitch. Karen Allred’s scholarly lecture on the relatively unknown Russian composer Sergei Liapunov was engaging. She spoke of how she discovered his music while combing the stacks of the UNCG library, and how, having read through it, she was at once (justifiably) enamored with its content. Her brief performances of some snippets from his set of seven preludes only whetted the appetite for more.*

George Kiorpes delivered a lecture on the counter-melodic effects in the piano music of Tchaikovsky. His way of explaining this somewhat technical aspect of musicology was accessible, even to the novice. He related it to counterpoint, a structure of harmony familiar to the most students, which made it very easy to understand, and to listen for in his performances.*

Vladimir Viardo, the guest artist for the weekend, held an engaging and informative master class with three graduate students, Zandmane gave some more beautiful performances during a lecture on Scriabin, and the camp "trooper of the week" (Willis) brought it home with a Medtner presentation that no average person could have put together in a mere few hours.

The patchwork evening recital began with Glinka's Sonata for Clarinet and Piano featuring Kelly Burke (Principal Clarinet of the Greensboro Symphony and a member of the UNCG faculty) and Willis. They recorded this piece five years ago but neither had played it since. With that in mind, it was a good performance. There were some miscues and the dreaded Kawai was as brassy as ever. Burke was flat in some areas and nerves seemed to hamper both performers, but having decided to do it only several hours before show time, they could have rehearsed it only once or twice. My hat's off to them for a gutsy performance! Following these artists came another impromptu guest, Vincent van Gelder, the aforementioned spouse of Zandmane. He performed three small works of Rachmaninov: the Prelude in G, Op. 32/5, Prelude in G Sharp minor, Op. 32/12, and Etude-tableau in C minor, Op. 39/1. He did a wonderful job creating an eerie atmosphere in the opening prelude though his rhythmic sense worked against him, making it choppy and, at some points, incoherent. The next prelude followed in the same pattern: the emotion and conception of the piece were there, but the technique needed to make it organic was not. The Etude-tableau was played brilliantly and with ample technique.

Willis then made his way to the stage and sat at the piano. There was a long moment before he began to play. One could imagine his thoughts after the obviously trying day as he now had to perform the most difficult work on the evening's program, Glazunov's Theme and Variations, Op. 72. Yet never ceasing to amaze, he turned in a dazzling performance. His transitions were neat and his virtuosity, extraordinary. The only complaint this reviewer found was that he used the Kawai. It is beyond me why he chose to use this instrument throughout the weekend. In full control, though, Willis gleaned a vibrant sound, and his energetic personality came through in this little known work. The protracted ovation was well deserved.

The Liberace Trio then saved the second half of the program; they were welcomed to the stage of the recital hall enthusiastically. Their name may make you think that they were arrayed in sequin jumpsuits, but fortunately this was not the case. They chose their name because they were given a generous grant by the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts. Anton Arensky's Trio in D minor was given a lyrical yet serious reading. The second movement drew a snicker from the audience due to its capricious nature, and the third movement, marked Elegia, confirmed the talent of cellist Brian Hodges as he poetically led the way, weaving through the harmonies while maintaining focus on the melody. The themes of the dashing finale were brought in from the earlier movements. Violinist Gretchen Heller, currently a member of the Greensboro Symphony, cellist Hodges, finishing his DMA at UNCG, and pianist Betsi Hodges, currently teaching at Guilford College while pursuing graduate work at UNCG, ended the Arensky with gusto and revealed their full potential as a professional trio.


On the final day of this exciting weekend, there was a great deal in store. The day opened with a video entitled "Music for a Nation." It outlined the struggles of Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and Balakirev living in a tumultuous society and how that was reflected in their music. Afterwards, Joseph Di Piazza gave a lecture/performance of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto in D minor. He played the first movement with Zandmane at the second piano. It is difficult to follow the line and to pick up on all the nuances in a two piano reduction, but the playing of both performers was superb. Next was the highlight of the lecture part of this series, an audience/panel discussion involving the pianists who performed over the course of Focus On as well as IPAM Curator Donald Manildi. Most of the questions were directed to guest artist Vladimir Viardo and, as he showed himself to be quite loquacious, the majority of the time was given to him. As interesting as he was, it would have been nice to hear more from Manildi and the UNCG pianists. We were to hear more from Manildi in another listening session which highlighted Russian pianists from 1860-1960. The most fascinating thing that he shared was the only recording in existence of golden age pianist Alexander Siloti. This is unreleased, and most pianophiles have never even heard it; it was a real treat.

A most encouraging session wrapped up the daytime activities. It was a recital given by a rather large group of young students. They all played fantastically and demonstrated poise and grace under strenuous conditions - that is, playing in front of a group of adults who make piano music a major part of their lives. They stayed in the Russian tradition, performing works by Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein, Glière, Borodin, and Mussorgsky. All were outstanding young artists, but the standouts were Chris Wong and Suna Li, who gave a professional sounding four hand performance of Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers" from The Nutcracker. It is heartening to know that the next generation's players are readying themselves to become the great pianists of tomorrow.

For the conclusion of the Focus On weekend, Viardo gave a recital at nearby Greensboro College. Viardo, a native of Russia, comes with an extensive list of credentials, all springing from his studies at the Moscow Conservatory and his victory at the Van Cliburn competition in 1973. The authorities confined him to Russia thereafter and he was not released until the era of "Glasnost" and "Perestroika." He then began to perform recitals the world over. He currently is in residence at the University of North Texas where he teaches and makes recordings. His program began with two Etudes-tableaux of Rachmaninov. He veritably rushed to the piano and began to play before the audience had finished applauding. There was no wasted energy, no unnecessary movement throughout the recital. The Etude-tableaux in F minor, Op. 33/1, was dead on. It is nicely constructed and infinitely Russian in style, and Viardo found dark colors in the hidden crevices within the score. In the Prelude in B minor, Op. 32/10, Viardo failed to make the piece contemplative enough, due to the fast tempo he used. Rachmaninov once said that this was his favorite of his preludes, but Viardo tossed it off rather frivolously, doing injustice to the gravity of the work. He followed with the Prelude in C minor, Op. 23/7. He chose a suitable tempo but banged the octaves in the left hand, clouding the lyrical theme. To close the first half, Viardo chose the Sonata Romantica in B flat minor, Op. 53/1, by Nicolai Medtner. Here he was in his element, and it was glorious. Viardo displayed his big Russian sound and, in the third movement, his rapturous lyricism. The finale brought the house down with racing finger work. He proceeded to stand up, take a bow, and walk from the stage as if he had done nothing. This man is efficient!. He was there to do a job, and all the other fluff that typically goes along with presenting a recital was disregarded.

The second half opened with Mikhail Pletnev's arrangement of excerpts from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. The popular themes that have so often been commercialized were brought to new, electrifying light by Viardo. His fingers danced the waltzes and his virtuosity saturated the famous march. The ending of the "Chinese Dance" got a laugh from the crowd and, after a brief memory slip (it happens to the best of them), he closed the set with the "Pas de deux." He ended the recital, and the weekend, with music by Sergei Prokofiev, the only non-romantic composer heard during Focus On. His Sonata No. 4, in C minor, Op. 29, is perhaps his most romantic sonata, and it didn't break the Russian mood in any way. Indeed, this may be Prokofiev at his most romantic, although it also teems with the composer's signature percussiveness. Viardo did well in this vein. He even closed his fist on several occasions and literally banged the keyboard - you can't get more percussive than that! In the finale, it seemed that at any minute the piano strings would snap. Rarely are octaves played with that much intensity or pianissimos with so much finesse. There were a few brief encores, and then a bittersweet departure commenced as the pianophiles, replete with greater knowledge of Russia and her Romantics, returned to their searches for the great and rare things the piano has to offer.

*For the complete schedule as originally announced (there were, as noted above, some changes along the way), see http://www.uncg.edu/mus/community/focus/focus.html [inactive 3/10].

*Updated 6/27/06.