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A Feast of Russian Dreams

Feature

Last year’s London Piano Festival was such a hit that Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva return this October for a second edition with a distinctly Russian flavour. Jessica Duchen finds out more.

When Kings Place opened the doors to its first London Piano Festival last year, some concertgoers might have wondered where it had been all their lives. Piano festivals are surprisingly rare in the capital, despite the perennial popularity of the instrument and its almost limitless repertoire. The piano duo Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva decided to put that situation right – and sure enough, the festival went so well that now it is happening again.

Between 5 and 8 October Kings Place will resound with the piano: four solo recitals, a concert for children, an evening with Owen and Apekisheva, a grand two-piano marathon with six star pianists and finally jazz from Jason Rebello.

The range of music extends from a Baroque recital performed by Lisa Smirnova to a new commission from the South African composer Kevin Volans, included in Melvyn Tan’s concert alongside Weber and Ravel. The children’s concert includes Poulenc’s L’histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant and an unusual arrangement for piano four-hands of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Argentinian pianist Nelson Goerner offers high Romanticism and the  Russian pianist Ilya Itin – an all-too-rare visitor to Britain – presents two sizeable sonatas by Schubert and Rachmaninov.

‘We’re focusing on big names and artists of the highest calibre who rarely perform in Britain’

‘We’re trying to focus not only on the biggest names, but on artists who are of the very highest calibre but rarely perform in Britain,’ says Owen Lisa Smirnova and Ilya Itin are prime examples. Smirnova studied with Anna Kantor alongside Katya Apekisheva in Moscow: ‘She’s a very interesting, individual musician,’ says Katya, ‘and has a huge career in America and Europe, but not in the UK. Her Handel recording was wonderful and received fantastic reviews.’

Itin, who swept the prize board at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1996, is now based in New York and combines performing with his role as a sought-after teacher. Apekisheva met him at Leeds and was bowled over by his musicianship. ‘Again,he is an absolutely outstanding artist, but hasn’t played here for such a long time. We decided we must have him back.’

The repertoire, too, is a combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar. ‘There’s an underlying Russian theme, reflecting the anniversary of the October Revolution in 1917,’ says Owen. Following the success of their Stravinsky duo recording, he and Apekisheva will play both Rachmaninov’s dazzling Suite No. 2 and the glorious Symphonic Dances transcription, and they’ve commissioned composer Elena Langer (whose opera Figaro gets a divorce was such a hit at WNO last year) to write a new work for piano duo which may draw on some Kandinsky paintings from 1917: these they hope to project onto the screen as they play.

The Russian focus extends to a significant rarity: the Sonata No. 2 by Mieczysław Weinberg, a close friend of Shostakovich whose music is currently enjoying a major revival of interest. Apekisheva learned it for the Brundibár Festival in Newcastle earlier this year: ‘I completely fell in love with the piece and very much want to play it again,’ she says. ‘It’s very exciting music, but what a challenge to play!’

Ultimately Owen and Apekisheva say their ai for the festival is to create something special together that can be enjoyed by piano fans from far and wide. Both regard Kings Place as the perfect venue in which to realise their vision: ‘With all these wonderful spaces, there’s room for audiences to spread out, meet, talk and chat,’ says Owen. ‘The vibe is informal and there are great places to eat and relax. We’re trying to build an audience who will trust our choices, a core audience of piano lovers. And, very importantly, we want people to have fun!’

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