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Stephen Coombs, Frederic Chiu, Piers Lane, Vladimir Ovchinikov, Artur Pizarro, Jonathan Plowright and Kathryn Stott
Blackheath Halls
, London SE3, 20 -24 October 1999

The second pianoworks festival at Blackheath Halls has established this annual event as unique, and as one of the most worthwhile international piano festivals, well worth the attention of visitors from Europe (City Airport is only a quarter of an hour away!). It is masterminded by Stephen Coombs, a quiet man and undemonstrative but brilliant pianist, who recruited this year an impressive array of master pianists, several of them regular recording artists for Hyperion. They included two Leeds first prizewinners. All the concerts were shared, and there were no solo recitals.

This scheme provided socialising for the artists, which they very evidently relished, and for listeners the special enlightenment which resulted from the unusual opportunity to hear different players in immediate succession on the same Steinway. The pianists also took their turns in duet and duo piano, in chamber music with instrumental ensembles and in concertos with orchestra, and there were public masterclasses for advanced conservatory students, a quiz, a silent film with improvised piano accompaniment, a demonstration of recording studio procedures and Brian Kay's Sunday Morning (the entire festival was recorded for BBC Radio 3, and there will be a week of broadcasts early next year). A feast indeed!

The chosen repertoire ranged widely, avoiding standard works in the recital and concerto canon. The programme book did not tell us who would be playing what, and there were some surprises. (It was widely rumoured that the players themselves sometimes did not know what they were going to be asked to play until very late in the day!)

I enjoyed (mostly) a dozen of the score of events. Some performances were under-prepared. Attendances varied, perhaps because there is still a 'Thames barrier' for people who live north of the river, and I regretted that many more did not taking advantage of so marvellous an opportunity to combine pleasure with illumination.

Mention here of just a very few of the highlights may whet readers' appetites to catch the broadcasts in the spring, and to book for pianoworks2000 next autumn.

Stephen Coombs and Artur Pizarro were uncannily synchronous in duo, whether on two pianos in Mozart, Bartok (with percussion, Pedro Carneiro and Matthew Rich) and in Malcolm Arnold's attractive Concerto for Three Hands (composed for Cyril Smith after his stroke), or as duettists on one piano in Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherezade, delicious! In that spectacular Saturday morning recital, Jonathan Plowright joined Stephen Coombs, after a short pause, for the duet version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. It was extraordinary, and quite unpredictable, what a well-balanced programme these two orchestral showpieces made, and how little we missed the orchestral colours.

Chopin's death 150 years ago was reflected in variations on his themes by Balakirev, Busoni, Mompou and Rachmaninoff, and by his 2nd Concerto, played, to everyone's delight including his own, by Artur Pizarro, who combined bravura with delicacy in the wholly successful version with string quintet (Vellinger Ensemble). Many listeners preferred this to Chopin's always problematic orchestration.

There was a whole evening concert, which I had to miss, devoted to contemporary British piano music. David Wordsworth writes for S&H about Kenneth Leighton's piano quartet, and similar good impressions were left by that composer's Fantasia on BACH for viola and piano (Yoko Inoue with Jonathan Plowright) and his Alleluia Pascha Nostrum delivered with commanding authority by Raphael Wallfisch (cello), always a welcome visitor to Blackheath Halls.

The Saturday night concert in the Great hall, in which seven pianists took turns with Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Concert Orchestra accompanying, was not quite the promised experience of a lifetime. Kathryn Stott gave a nice account of the Faure Ballade and Piers Lane reminded us of Gerald Finzi's talent in reviving his Eclogue. Jonathan Plowright (left) (a sterling pianist and musician who had given a memorable Brahms recital at pianoworks98 but is generally not much heard in UK) played the worst music we heard marvellously. Prologue, Scherzo and Variations by Zygmunt Stojowski (d. 1946) is over the top, but seemed just the thing for an occasional airing in a festival. Unfortunately, it proved to be extravagantly high tosh, (probably from fairly early this century - no date given, and the composer is not mentioned in New Grove) and this UK premiere may well be its derniere too, despite the programme note writer's surprise at Stojowski's 'almost total neglect'. Frederic Chiu clattered his way through Saint-Saens' empty Wedding Cake caprice-valse and Vladimir Ovchinnikov was masterful in the Rachmaninoff 1st Concerto, but did not quite give the concert the lift at the end which it needed. Perhaps time was restricted for orchestral rehearsal? Next morning, however, he delivered the outstanding single performance that I heard, Rachmaninoff's Corelli Variations, one of my favourites, and a piece which many present did not know.

Sunday morning offered an opportunity to relax and enjoy coffee and Sunday papers in the company of Brian Kay, giving his regular morning broadcast from pianoworks99 in the Great Hall at Blackheath. Coombs & Pizzaro, with their two percussionists, played from Michael Daugherty's witty Lounge Lizards and, for 'something completely different', Radio 3 brought in the popular Jewish music ensemble The Burning Bush to sing and play traditional music of the middle East, and quickly had everyone clapping to the rhythms of Yiddish klezmer music. Many of the pieces they gave us can be enjoyed on their CD Best of Yiddish, Klazmer & Sephardic Music (ARC EUCD 1375), of which my only (unfair) criticism is that they don't always manage to kick over the traces of their classical training!

I was able to hear parts of two master classes, which are always rewarding to take in. Coaching two young women students in Prokofiev sonatas, Vladimir Ovchinnikov helped to enhance their communication skills by broadening dynamic range and tonal colour, "- - a kaleidoscope, different characters, more colours in one moment, the whole orchestra in the piano - - ", "- - more rubato, less speed, breathe between phrases, a human voice not hammers - - ". Artur Pizarro, in his class, warned one of his students that with her small hands she was "not genetically equipped" for Scriabin's Sonata No 3. Its physical demands would be bound to damage her hands, a painful but pertinent lesson. He helped another both to respect Brahms' notation "an explicit phrasing writer, more than other composers" and to free herself emotionally (I had heard Lord Menuhin describe his method of preparing a performance in very similar terms) "- - don't be scared to wallow, go for broke, don't be afraid of excess - - start by exaggerating, then pare it down". That was a good thought to take away from pianoworks99.

Suggested recordings:

Stephen Coombs demonstrates his virtuosity in the sort of richly romantic music in which he excels: Bortkiewicz (1877-1952) Lamentations and Consolations, Andersen fairy tales and Preludes (Hyperion CDA66933)

Stephen Coombs with Artur Pizzaro have tremendous fun with a generous selection of Milhaud's music for two pianos - I loved it! (Hyperion CDA67014)

Raphael Wallfisch includes Alleluia PaschaNostrum in a CD of Leighton's chamber music, CHAN9132 ,

and I can strongly recommend Jonathan Plowright's Brahms recital on Kingdom KCLC2016.

Peter Grahame Woolf