Friday, 12 October 2012

THE JOY OF MUSIC FESTIVAL 2012 / ILYA RASHKOVSKIY with the London Chamber Orchestra Strings / Review

with the London Chamber Orchestra Strings
Hong Kong City Concert Hall
Wednesday (10 October 2012)

Hong Kong is ever so lucky to possess a music festival like The Joy of Music, organised by The Chopin Society of Hong Kong, which is an event that is more than just presenting piano recitals and chamber concerts. In the four days that I will spend in the SAR, I will attend concerts, music appreciation lectures, a reading by an author who has written a book about Glenn Gould, meet with Gould’s own piano technician, a re-performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on a Yamaha Disklavier Pro (by the late Gould himself!) and those of historical musical personalities, and if time permits, attend masterclasses. It is this spirit of adventure that encapsulates the ethos of this Festival which compels me to pay an annual pilgrimage to Hong Kong every October.

My first evening of music comes from the Russian pianist Ilya Rashkovskiy, first prize winner of the first Hong Kong International Piano Competition in 2005. He began with a Chopin set, revealing an unfailingly musicality and high polish. How clear the opening statement of Chopin’s Second Ballade in F major sounds; there is no over-pedalling to smudge the textures and when the contrasting tempestuous episode arrives, it does so with startling vehemence. The final coda is no less gripping, and his control is absolute.

The A flat major “Heroic” Polonaise Op.53 is over-familiar, but Rashkovskiy plays its straight, with neither histrionics nor extraneous effects. It comes across as fresh, and how one marvels at the evenness of that infamous left hand octave fusillade, the so-called “hoofbeats of Polish cavalry”, which began softly but built to a thunderous intensity. My favourite Nocturne, in D flat major (Op.27 No.2), is given that smooth and seamless bel canto quality, that is hard to resist.

Rashkovskiy was joined by violinist Magnus Johnston and cellist Pierre Doumenge (from the London Chamber Orchestra) for a rare performance of Chopin’s early Piano Trio in G minor (Op.8). It isn’t a great work but has many lovely lyrical moments that suggest the greatness to come. Like much of his early music, the florid filigree from the piano dominates, with violin and cello merely providing support. The opening movement attempts to make an emphatic statement, but the fussy piano part – played with great diligence and finesse nonetheless – tends to steal the show. All those accusations about Chopin’s piano concertos apply here; this is a piano vehicle, plain and simple.

The effable second movement is contrasted with a more sober slow movement, and the strings do get a look in. Like the finale of the Second Piano Concerto, the piano solo opens the fourth movement with a lilting mazurka-like theme. Here Chopin’s Slavic heritage becomes more apparent with its folk-like dance rhythms and the work closes in a spritely and spirited manner. An enjoyable and well-appointed performance all round.

As the turnout for this concert was a pitifully small one, the audience was invited to sit on the stage in order to get closer to the performers, and the music. I took up this offer and was seated to the right of Verne Edquist, Glenn Gould’s personal piano technician. This is the musical equivalent of having ringside seats in a boxing match, and what an experience it turned out to be. When seated so close, you cannot help but feel involved with the performance itself. The vibrations travel directly to your feet, and the music to your ears; the acoustics of the hall no longer becomes an issue. This is the original spirit of chamber music relived, that is music heard in a small room, where the performers are your friends and they are playing specially for you.

Rashkovskiy first played Schubert’s Impromptu in C minor (Op.90 No.1), which begins with a sad little melody first heard on the right hand, and later he builds a touching edifice around it. Heard on its own, it strikes me as an extraordinarily beautiful stand-alone number, and Rashkovskiy’s persuasive account convinces me to re-learn the piece anew.

His string partners return, boosted by violist Joel Hunter, for Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat major (Op.47). Heard much less often compared with the contemporaneous Piano Quintet (Op.44), that is certainly our loss. How Beethovenian it sounds, from the dark opening statement, which in effect introduces the emphatic four note motif of its exposition. The more I hear this work, the more I love it because it packs so much goodness in its relatively brief duration.

Is there are more vigorous scherzo as this, and that lingering melody of the slow movement is one to die for. In one particularly treasured moment, Hunter’s viola sang with such sweetness, accompanied by the violin’s hushed counter-melody and soft piano chords. This is the essence of chamber music captured in moments of sheer inspiration. The finale, based on another Beethovenian motif, erupted with great fervour. The vigorous nod of Johnston’s head for the downbeat was the signal for a most exhilarating ride where all four musicians coalesced as one, single-minded and driving to an ecstatic end.

The Joy of Music? Here it is, undimmed and unadulterated. More of the same please.   

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