Splendid Rachmaninov from Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva

12/07/2017

Rachmaninov: Charles Owen, Katya Apekisheva (pianos) Milton Court Concert Hall, London, 10.7.2017. (CC)

Rachmaninov – Suite No.1 (Fantaisie-Tableaux), Op.5 (1893); Suite No.2, Op.17 (1901); Symphonic Dances, Op.45 (1940)

This was a lovely opportunity to hear an all-Rachmaninov recital for two pianos as part of the Guildhall School’s Faculty Artist Series. Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen are both Professors at the Guildhall; they are also co-directors of the London Piano Festival at King’s Place, held for the first time last year and returning with a mouth-watering programme in October this year. (The prospect of Weinberg’s Second Sonata played by Apekisheva, Lisa Smirnova in Baroque music, plus the world premiere of RedMare by Elena Langer as part of a two-piano marathon evening is certainly appealing.)

Rachmaninov’s First Suite (for which Owen played primo) begins with a ‘Barcarolle’ that grows, naturally and inevitably, in intricacy and complexity. Rachmaninov’s characteristic twists in his melodies were poignantly realised; linear clarity was clearly the result of much rehearsal, as was the sense of togetherness, especially at speed. The acoustic of Milton Court was well judged by the players, not only in terms of clarity but also in terms of sheer variety of response in tone in the Adagio sostenuto (a movement entitled ‘La Nuit … L’Amour’). The heady fragrance of the third movement (‘Les Larmes’) was interesting in that Owen and Apekisheva took it away from the French Impressionism it can so easily invoke, so that the closing funeral march made its full effect. The final movement (‘Pâques’) introduces Rachmaninov’s favourite device of bells to ring out a joyous cacophony. The brilliantly hard-edged touch at the opening was perfect; astonishingly, the sound just got brighter and brighter as it became more and more overwhelming.

The Second Suite contains more complex textures than its predecessor, but Owen and Apekisheva’s textures remained a model of clarity regardless. The full chords for both pianos at the opening speak of an exuberance that reflects perhaps the enthusiasm of the performers; that exuberance certainly also seemed to point forwards towards the music of Stravinsky’s ‘Shrovetide Fair’ (Petrushka). The hectic and technically brilliant ‘Valse’ that follows is marked Presto and offered a glimpse of the sheer virtuosity these players are capable of before the near-vocal dialogues of the ‘Romance’ gave some relief. The closing ‘Tarantelle’ stated its purposeful intention from the first granitic gesture; repeated notes at speed were incredibly impressive from a technical viewpoint.

After the interval, the two-piano version of Rachmaninov’s masterpiece, his Op.45 Symphonic Dances for which the players swapped parts. The structure of the first movement was superbly realised, supple lyricism perfectly complementing the sheer granitic force of the opening. The central Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) seemed at times to point towards Ravel’s famous La Valse, heady and intoxicating. Then arresting gestures, like sighs, that introduce the finale seemed to ground us, to bring us back to reality before the adventures of the saltarello, itself superbly exciting.

There was no encore: nevertheless, one cannot argue with the sense of rightness about both programme and performances.

The Rachmaninov Suites offer incredibly rewarding, superbly constructed and approachable music: those wishing to hear them (and, as was the case with this concert, coupled with the Symphonic Dances) might consider Peter Donohoe and Martin Roscoe on Naxos (see my MusicWeb review).

Colin Clarke

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