American Record Guide - November/December 2017 - Written by James Harrington
Two Weeks of Annual Piano Heaven
Where, in the heat of July in New York, could you hear Vladimir Feltsman take you on a ride with Baba-Yaga to the Great Gate of Kiev for only $20? Now in its 19th year, the International Keyboard Institute and Festival (IKIF) presented two weeks of masterclasses, lectures, and concerts by renowned pianists and students at Hunter College. Founded and directed by pianist Jerome Rose and Festival Director Julie Kedersha (Rose’s wife), the institute draws students from all over the world to study and compete. New York area audiences who appreciate world class pianists in recital come every night for the bargain price of $20 to the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse. During the day these same pianists give masterclasses that are open to the public and all the students, usually in Hunter’s Lang Concert Hall. A two-week pass that covers every event is only $200.
It is the dual nature of this event that sets it apart from other festivals or summer educational programs. The recitals are performed with all the skill expected across town at Carnegie, Alice Tully, Avery Fisher, and Merkin Halls. I have reviewed CDs in ARG by at least eight of this year’s pianists, and all concert performances were at an exceptionally high level. Nearly 100 students from all over the world came for the two weeks; each had several piano lessons a week with the distinguished faculty, and they got to attend all of the evening concerts. They have the option to compete for scholarships, with the winner invited back for a main stage recital next year.
The list of pianists who have performed and taught at IKIF over the past 19 years reads like a who’s who in the piano world: Wild, Entremont, Sandor, Janis, De Larrocha, Ts’ong, Hamelin, Goode, Pressler, Keene, Laredo, Oppens, Frank, Katsaris, Bavouzet, Howard, and of course, Rose himself. Other pianists who have records regularly reviewed in ARG are also IKIF performers: Kobrin, Kern, Swann, Suk, Wang, Li, Bax, Burleson, Demidenko, Kristenko, Gavryluk, Yakushev, and Baczewska. Some have been performing at the festival for 15 or more years, and there is a growing number of home-grown artists and teachers. In the case of Baczewska, now one of the brightest and best of IKIF’s performer-teachers, she began as a student 19 years ago and was a competition winner.
At pre-concert talks, program notes are discussed and performers are interviewed. Two or three of the performers gather at a small table stage right between 7 and 7:15 each evening for at least half an hour. One of the participants is the scheduled pianist for the following evening’s recital, which works as wonderful advertisement for both the artist and the program. There is a discussion of both the current and next evening’s programs, often with examples on the piano and the opportunity to ask questions.
Rose gave the opening concert on a Sunday evening, as he has done each of the past seasons. He is present for every event over the next two weeks. Indefatigable even at 79, his gregarious personality coupled with a still impressive big romantic piano style and over 50 years as a teacher make it easy to understand his success with IKIF. I was reminded of learning a lot of Liszt repertoire back in the 1970s from his Vox Box recordings, and then attending his all-Liszt recital back in 1986 on Liszt’s 175th birthday at Alice Tully Hall. This year he played Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18, Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces Op. 12, and Liszt’s Sonata—a demanding program for someone half his age. I remember Liszt’s Sonata as the high point of his recital 31 years ago, as it was again in July. There is so much in this piece that can distract the pianist’s overall conception, but Rose is a master with Liszt’s music, and I heard all the motivic transformations clearly. Yet the work moved right along, keeping my attention so well that all of a sudden we were at the fugue, then the presto octaves, and then the final heavenly pages. He offered no encore; only his heartfelt thanks to the audience for their attendance and his hope that they would return all through the festival.
For the next 13 days, the place to be in New York for all things piano was IKIF at Hunter College. The repertoire was quite varied but centered on Beethoven (eight sonatas, Diabelli Variations, and Bagatelles), Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann. I also heard earlier music (Bach, Scarlatti, Rameau, Mozart, and Haydn), plenty of Russian (Moussorgsky, Balakirev, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Prokofieff), French (Debussy, Ravel, SaintSaens), and even a group of Chinese pieces. Of the nearly 200 works programmed in the main evening recitals, there were only five duplicates: Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dumka’, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (with different cadenzas), a couple of Rachmaninoff preludes, and Scriabin’s left-hand Nocturne.
Each of the main recitals could justify a full review. That said, here are some of my most memorable moments looking back over the two weeks. Ilya Yakushev substituted Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata for the originally programmed Appassionata. Sonata No. 17 is not heard anywhere near as often as it should be, and the performance was clearly in the mold of the later work, full of great contrasts and unusual power and excitement. Nikita Mndoyants played Beethoven’s second set of Bagatelles and Schubert’s great Sonata, D. 958, on the first half of his recital. The second half was Prokofieff’s Sonata No. 8 in perhaps the most riveting performance of the entire festival. Though I was very sorry to have missed Magdalena Baczewska’s recital, I did get to hear her play gorgeous excerpts the night before (Debussy’s Images plus Chopin’s Scherzo 2 and some nocturnes).
Young Vladimir Rumyantsev gave the most technically demanding recital, which included both Balakirev’s Islamey and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit—on the first half! At his Saturday afternoon recital the overflowing audience was seated in the aisles and standing along the back. The second half was a big group of great Rachmaninoff preludes followed by Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 with Rachmaninoff’s huge cadenza. The following evening, Feltsman’s masterly Pictures at an Exhibition was preceded by some of Brahms’s ballades and rhapsodies.
Later in the second week, Jie Chen opened with a gorgeously played D 894 Sonata by Schubert and then dazzled the audience with Four Seasons of China and Schulz-Evler’s Beautiful Blue Danube. Dmitri Rachmanov performed Schubert and Schumann (Vienna Carnival), followed by a Russian second half: Blumenfeld, Liadov, Scriabin (including a great Sonata No. 6), and another big group of Rachmaninoff preludes.
Alexander Kobrin closed the festival for the second year in a row. His recital (Beethoven’s Sonatas Nos. 27 and 28, Schumann Symphonic Etudes) brought us full circle from Rose’s opening program, which began with Beethoven and Schumann. Of all the pianists I heard, Kobrin was the most understated, but very much in control; and his soft playing, even in very fast, complex passages, was quite amazing. He included four of Schumann’s five posthumous etudes and brought the recital series to a rousing conclusion.
IKIF’s website (www.ikif.org) is worth investigating. Based on prior years, I expect many of the performances from this year to be available online in the near future. From 2016 backwards, there are over 200 five- to ten minute performance excerpts from past festivals, with Earl Wild, Philippe Entremont, Gyorgy Sandor, Marc-André Hamelin, Leslie Howard, Jerome Rose, and Ursula Oppens.
IKIF’s 20th anniversary is scheduled from July 15 to 29, 2018. It will be a time to celebrate how the event has grown from its first 16 years at Mannes School of Music to its recent years at Hunter. Pianists already scheduled include Vladimir Feltsman, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, George Li, and Jerome Rose. There will be some recognition of the 100th anniversary of Debussy’s death and the 75th anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s. If you love great piano music and live in or near New York, or are looking for excuse to visit, put those dates on your calendar now. You won’t spend a lot of money, but you’ll be richly rewarded for as many evenings as you can attend. After this past summer, you will find me at these events for many, many years to come.