Gramophone - Friday, July 22, 2011 - Written by Jed Distler

More from the International Keyboard Institute & Festival

Discoveries at the IKIF

Hot piano playing and cool air conditioning have made the International Keyboard Institute & Festival (IKIF) an enticing proposition during these New York summer dog days. Piano mavens, professionals and students must feel the same way, since I see some of the same faces on successive nights, and have taken the opportunity to make new friends and reconnect with old ones.

For example, I caught up with Steven Mayer, whom I had not seen in quite some time. We first met 25 years ago when he had commissioned me to transcribe Art Tatum solos that he eventually recorded for ASV, and again for Naxos. Of course I’ve followed his other Naxos releases, such as the fluent, idiomatic Ives Concord Sonata, and a recent collection of Wagner/Liszt transcriptions. The latter disc is quite special, featuring performances that embody what I call the three “v”s. In other words, they are vivid, virile and variegated. Moreover, Mayer’s full-bodied tone and lyrical sensitivity are always present; it is obvious that he is as familiar with the Wagner originals as he is with Liszt’s gazillions of notes.

Steven and I sat together during Mykola Suk’s recital. Over the years Suk has cultivated a Liszt style that seems impressionistic on the surface, rounded rather than angular, with an emphasis on long lines and harmonic point rather than bravura and scintillation. He has a tremendous, effortless technique, yet he consistently channels it towards musical ends, and often throws away passages that others shamelessly flaunt. “Mykola really inhabits the Dante Sonata,” Steven said. What an apt comment for an extraordinary performance. Suk stretched out the softest passages for maximum harmonic and melodic expression and mood painting, while the endless octaves emerged with boundless colours and shapes.

For my taste, Suk’s sophisticated approach worked less well in Thalberg’s Moise Fantasy. This is flashy, empty-headed music and I think you have to play it for what it is, and be direct, flashy and drive the points home. After all, you wouldn’t accompany Elvis Presley singing “All Shook Up” with Bill Evans chord voicings! On the other hand, Suk’s style suits Silvestrov’s two-part Dedication to Franz Liszt heard here in its world premiere. The music is stark, tonal, and sad, often sounding as if Liszt’s more accessible late pieces had been submerged under water. Following the most elegant, curvaceous Hungarian Rhapsody No 12 performed on planet Earth that day, Suk similarly tossed off the F minor Transcendental Etude. Its refinement of detail and remarkable speed reminded me of television host Steve Allen’s comment about Art Tatum’s celebrated keyboard runs, and how they’re like looking at a Da Vinci painting while riding a bicycle.

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