Russian Music Thrillingly Performed by Alexander Karpeyev


Prokofiev, Medtner, Grechaninov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky: Alexander Karpeyev (piano), Kings Place, London, 13.2.2017. (RB)

ProkofievVisions Fugitives Op.22 Nos. 1, 3, 8-11, 14-15, 18-19
MedtnerSonate-Ballade Op.27
Grechaninov –  Pieces Op.78 and Op.61
Rachmaninov –  ‘Nyne otpuschayeshi’ from All-Night Vigil Op.37; Fragments; Étude-Tableau Op. 39 No.7
Stravinsky – Three movements from Petrushka

Alexander Karpeyev has been a major prize winner at a number of international piano competitions.  This programme was a celebration of works written by Russian composers in the years immediately prior to the 1917 Revolution.  All five composers represented on the programme were to leave Russia after the revolution.  These works therefore represent a final flowering of the music which blossomed from the composers’ association with their imperial motherland.

The concert opened with a selection of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives which were written between 1915 and 1917.  Prokofiev played them for the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont in August 1917 who in turn wrote a sonnet about the pieces.  One of the lines from Balmont’s poem provided the inspiration for the title of the pieces.  I was impressed with the highly vivid and varied ways in which Karpeyev characterised these miniatures.  He conjured a gorgeous luminous tone from his Steinway from the outset and I enjoyed the imaginative tone painting and poetic lyricism he brought to the set.  Prokofiev’s subversive humour and diabolism were also there for example in the pieces marked Ridicolasamente and Feroce.  Occasionally, I would have liked a slightly harder, drier sound in some of the more spiky, trenchant material but this is a minor quibble in what was a first rate performance.

From Prokofiev we moved to Medtner’s Sonate-Ballade which was written in 1913-14.  This work is in three movements which are played without a break and it has a brooding, improvisatory quality.  Medtner was influenced by ideas around temptation and redemption and he littered the score with unusual directions – very much in Scriabin mould – designed to reflect extreme shifts of mood.  Karpeyev was awarded a doctorate on the music of Medtner and his close study of the composer showed in this performance.  He brought a wonderful elasticity and freedom to the melancholic opening melody allowing it to blossom and flow.  He navigated his way through Medtner’s dense virtuoso textures with consummate ease capturing the fluctuating moods and using a highly imaginative palette of colours.  I was struck by the way Karpeyev made the movement sound highly spontaneous – almost as if newly imagined – while at the same time injecting the music with such a firm sense of structure.  The slow movement, which is marked Mesto, opened in the realm of Stygian gloom and Karpeyev did a wonderful job projecting the pitch-black sepulchral shadows in the score.  I loved the vivid colour change in the middle section when right hand figurations irradiated the shadows.  Karpeyev brought a mercurial lightness of touch to the finale and the playful, effervescent quality of the music shone through magnificently.  The fugal material was controlled beautifully and the voicing was admirably clear.  This was an absolutely superb performance of this sonata and a great way to end the first half of the recital.

The second half opened with a series of miniatures by Grechaninov and Rachmaninov.  The Grechaninov works were not substantial but were nevertheless played with great care and beauty of tone.  In the Rachmaninov selection, Karpeyev captured the serene spirituality of composer’s arrangement of the ‘Nunc dimittis’ (Nyne otpuschayeshi) investing the melodic line with weight and depth.  The jagged chords in the opening section of the C minor Étude-tableau were stylishly characterised while the final pealing of bells was euphonious and uplifting.

The final work on the programme was Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka which the composer wrote for Rubinstein.  This is one of the most technically demanding works in the repertoire requiring enormous stamina and technical agility.  There are a number of very fine exponents of the work and I have heard exceptional live performances by Pollini and Kissin so the bar is necessarily set very high.  Karpeyev showed himself an adept interpreter of the work and he was clearly on top of the extreme technical demands.  He took the opening Danse russe at a cracking pace, bringing out the vibrancy of the dance and investing the shifting rhythms with great propulsion and energy.  At one point he did not appear completely secure technically but this was a minor blip in a highly exhilarating performance.  The scene in Petrushka’s cell was depicted admirably with Karpeyev capturing brilliantly the dejected song and angular movements of the puppet.  The acrobatics of the final section were dispatched with virtuosic gusto.  The bustle and vibrant colours of the Shrovetide Fair were portrayed well in the final movement and Karpeyev worked up a real head of steam, playing the constantly shifting rhythms with great relish and tackling the technical demands in an unbridled way.  Occasionally, the playing in this movement was a little too hectic and I would have welcomed more attention to the shaping and pacing of the movement.  Having said that, it is good to see young pianists not holding back in this way and the audience clearly lapped it up as Karpeyev was greeted with a standing ovation.

Karpeyev performed one of Medtner’s Novelles from Op.17 as an encore.  This was a first rate recital from a pianist who has not featured nearly enough on our concert platforms so I hope there will be many more opportunities to hear him in the not too distant future.

Robert Beattie     

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