Review of the IBLA Grand Prize Winners

by Maryam Moshaver

Weill Recital Hall

at Carnegie Hall April 16, 2000

On April 16, the IBLA International Music Foundation presented the Grand Prize winners of the IBLA International Competition, held annually in Ragusa-Ibla on the island of Sicily, in a Gala concert at Weill Hall. Since its founding in 1992, the IBLA Grand Prize organization has been dedicated to discovering new talent from around the world, and to assisting its winners in establishing concert careers by facilitating their access to performance venues and professional contacts. The concert at Weill Hall was one of a series of events organized for the presentation of the winners, and featured solo and duo pianists and opera singers.

Opening the program with a Scherzo by Paul Steegmans were Eleni Iroidou and Ave Nahkur, duo pianists from Greece and Estonia. There was a great complicity between the pianists in their close interaction in the four-hand texture; their clear sense of the formal articulations of the piece, and the clearly defined contrasts of the dissonant percussive opening, the tensely quiet middle, and the return, after an impressive crescendo, of the opening material, made for an excellent and well-rounded performance.

The Russian pianist Svetlana Gorokhovich then presented four movements of Bach's Partita in C minor in an outstanding performance that perfectly balanced the lyrical and dynamic resources of the piano with the stylistic constraints proper to Bach's idiom. The three sections of the Sinfonia catalogued the range and depth of Gorokhovich's approach, with a majestic and reserved French overture opening, a beautifully phrased 'aria' that had a lyrical, almost narrated quality, and a crystal clear fugue in which no contrapuntal detail was lost. The Allemande was likewise played with great subtlety of phrasing and sensitivity to detail. Gorokhovich's concentration and control were remarkable in the Sarabande, delivered almost entirely within a soft mezzo-piano dynamic range, and in which she realized the elisions of the long phrases to perfection. The accumulated tension was released in the spirited and powerfully delivered Rondeau that followed. Gorokhovich is a profound and almost self-effacing interpreter whose mature subtlety and controlled pianism add a welcome dimension to Bach interpretation.

Tamara Sanikidze from Georgia presented "Scarbo," the third poem from Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. Described by the composer as a piece of "transcendental virtuosity" it demands almost impossible extremes from the pianist, from a barely perceptible lightness of touch to a virtually frenzied fortissimo, played out at a furious pace from end to end of the piano. Ms. Sanikidze's performance brought out the spectacular, darkly coloristic world of Scarbo with its deep rumblings, brilliant glissandi, and diffused percussionistic effects. The performance, however, was not without short-comings, namely a tendency to lose, in the flurry of detail, the overarching, albeit difficult to track, phrasing on which the continuity of the piece depends.

Soprano Yana Besyadinskaya from Russia presented the lovely Cavatina "O luce di quest' anima" from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix with great charm. Though slightly hesitant in the beginning, Besyadinskaya quickly captured Linda's infatuated dreaming in the accompanied recitative. She delivered the Cavatina at a very measured tempo, and performed the glissandi, grace-notes, and difficult ascending scales and arpeggios of the coloratura passages with elegance and style.

She was expertly accompanied by the Russian pianist Milana Strezeva.

Martina Walbeck and Burkhard Kerkeling, duo pianists from Germany, followed with the first and last movements from Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole. The stasis and mystery of the "Prelude a la nuit" eluded the pianists somewhat. In the concluding "Feria," however, the spectacular kaleidoscopic layering of rhythms, textures and Spanish colors came out in sharp relief. The slow middle section was played with a moody lyricism and finely nuanced rubato, and the gradual reintroduction of the ostinati and thematic fragments from earlier sections was carried out seamlessly, with an accumulation of momentum, a dizzying crescendo, and a spectacular ending.

Satik Mkrtumyan, mezzo soprano from Armenia, delivered a dramatic performance of "Condotta ell'era in ceppi," the gypsy Azucena's horrific account in Verdi's Il Trovatore, of her mother's death at the pyre and of how she, in a delirium of vengeance, throws her own infant into the flames, believing it to be the child of her mother's accuser whom she had earlier kidnapped. Mkrtumyan possesses a sensuous, rich, and powerful voice, and she performed this difficult and demanding aria, with its many changes of tone and style of narration, with gravity and great dramatic presence.

Luis Fernando Perez Herrero from Spain delivered an energetic and exuberant performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. He fully exploited the random-seeming juxtaposition of the contrasting sections and the artful discontinuities with which, as Alfred Cortot described it, Liszt added to the mere pianistic employ of melodies from Bohemian songs and dances, the theatrical dimension of a mimetic representation of a Bohemian gathering. The frank and robust tempo giusto opening dissolved unapologetically into the liquescent glissandi that serve as transition to the presto peasant dance with its quirky off-beat accents. The declamatory and dramatic andante was delivered with a splendid eccentricity, and Herrero was unstoppable in the final allegro, accelerating to a furious and rollicking presto finale. Herrero charmed with the exuberance and wit of his performance.

Soprano Maria Ciccaglione, soprano from Italy, presented "Sola, perduta, abbandonata," the tragic peak of Puccini's Manon Lescaut when, having escaped with her lover form a New Orleans prison, she waits in the desert for his return from a desperate search for water. Despite occasional uncertainty in intonation, Ciccaglione's substantial spinto voice was ideally suited to portray the Puccinian heroine, and wove convincingly with Milana Strezeva's accompaniment as she expressed Manon's delirious pathos and frenzied despair.

Alessandra Macellaro La Franca, a young pianist from Italy, performed Prokofiev's Toccata opus 11. Although the sharp exactitude of the mechanical demon that runs through the piece was occasionally blurred by excitement or heavy pedaling, her performance was nonetheless quite impressive. It will be interesting to follow her development as a pianist.

The concert ended with a magistral two-piano performance by Jerry Wong and Stephanie Shih-yu Cheng of Ravel's La Valse. Their interpretation captured the three phases of illumination suggested in the brief programmatic text that accompanies the choreographic poem, to perfection. They conveyed the impression of dark churning clouds with which the opening is described, and through which isolated couples appear dancing in faint ghostly streaks of light, with a perfectly blended, veiled quality of touch that slowly, almost imperceptibly lifted and dispersed in the massiveness of the ballroom interior and the intoxicated circling of the waltzing crowd. The impression, as Ravel described it, of a "fantastic and fatal whirling" ran uninterrupted throughout the piece to its culmination in the garish brightness of the Imperial Court. The perfect symbiosis and polish of Wong and Cheng's playing, their elegant rubatos, and the strength of their interpretive imagination as they conveyed the other-worldly quality of the emerging, blending, and fading textures and themes within an overall programmatic design of emergence from a softly veiled obscurity to a barbarous and dissonant brightness, made of this performance a memorable and sumptuous affair.