A most impressive tour of six recitals, played by Russian pianist Ilya Kondratiev, has sadly come to an end. I would have loved to hear 6 or 60 more! This will be a long review, very
much deserved so by a unique pianist.
His programme comprised
Schubert – Four impromptus op. 90 (1827),
Chopin – Polonaise in A Flat op. 53 (1842), Liszt – Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H (1871),
Liszt – Sonata in B Minor (1852/53).
Ilya Kondratiev is indeed one of those pianists that should be in the limelight of worldwide attention – a masterful, profound musician who to me certainly is one of the best Keyboard Trust pianists I have met. He played at venues in Berlin (Representation of the City of Hamburg, with support by Steinway & Sons, Berlin), Hamburg (Bechstein Centre for the first time, New Living Home and Steinway & Sons), Munich (Steinway & Sons), and Frankfurt (Bechstein Centre).
All six programmes that Ilya played were at highest level, one after the other, and I do indeed have the impression that with Ilya Kondratiev, the tradition of the grand art of piano playing is being continued, if not revived in the most noble way, in a long-awaited way, in an astonishing and overwhelming way. He is far from being a superficial poser, far from being a showman or a vain actor who happens to play the piano, as so very many young ‘pianists’ nowadays are. Ilya Kondratiev’s appearance on stage is noble, elegant and modest, yet an aura surrounds him immediately, and the halls became silent in awe from the beginning to the end, wherever he performed.
Ilya Kondatiev chose to open his intelligently and beautifully chosen recital with the certainly too rarely played Four Impromptus op. 90 by Franz Schubert, composed in 1827 at the age of 30, the year before Schubert died. The opening Impromptu in C Minor, Allegro molto moderato, which Ilya views and interprets as a funeral march, was played in a somber mood, melancholically throughout, yet never losing tension or rhythm. In Hamburg’s Steinway Hall, a gentleman from New Zealand, a music- and piano teacher himself, later told me that he was crying right from the beginning. The funeral march resounded under Ilya’s hands like an apodictic epitaph, moving forward with determination, beautiful in sound and moving everyone in the hall. Ilya adhered very closely to the music, giving special attention to the non-legato rhythm which deepend the impression even more. He then transformed the modulation to the Major key into a promise of salvation, an incredible, magic momentary illumination during this first impromptu, before bringing it to a silent ending. What a beginning!
Impromptu op. 90 No. 2 in E Flat, Allegro, was an example of Ilya Kondratiev’s immaculate Jeu perlé, the joyful triplets of the right hand executed by him in absolute clarity, with scarce use of the right and absolutely no left pedal, and with excellently sustained left hand – thus leading to an exciting, dancing and rhythmically even flow of music, that all of a sudden gave way for the dramatic, rhythmically unstoppable modulation into B Minor, ben marcato. Schubert’s sadness and mourning, seemingly a relentless invocation, were powerfully performed by Ilya Kondratiev who allowed space for breathtaking increases in drama and tension before turning this phrase into a pianissimo prayer, finally returning subtly to Schubert’s seemingly joyful triplets. However, these were not to last, there is indeed no redemption, no salvation, and Schubert cannot evade the B Minor darkness any more – with dazzling accelerando through Schubert’s haunting modulations, Ilya Kondratiev brought this Impromptu to its uncompromising end in E Flat Minor. I rarely heard greater silence in a concert hall than at the very moment after Ilya Kondratiev had ended – what a Schubert player! What control, what rhythm, what a multitude of colours and dynamics!
Impromptu op. 90 no. 3, in G Flat Major, Andante, is an elegy that enabled Ilya Kondratiev to use his perfect finger legato, allowing him in the accompanying triplets under the steady flow of enchanting melodic lines to form a rhythmically firm ground, crystal clear and yet mellow in musical language. Again, Schubert’s modulations into Minor keys bring in a dark atmosphere, hauntingly beautifully interpreted by Ilya Kondratiev, but this time, the Impromptu has its inherent salvation, and the ending in G Flat is at least for now reconciling, under Ilya’s hands a lasting one.
Impromptu op. 90 No 4 in A Flat, Allegretto, another one of Schubert’s late masterpieces, brought out all of Ilya Kondratiev’s virtuosity (which he never uses for superficial shine), inseparably linked to his highly developed taste for tonal quality, musical development and inner structures of the work. The cascades of semiquavers, in downward movements dropping over a strict and immaculately executed ¾ rhythm, are leading toward a Trio in C Sharp Minor – and there it is again: Schubert’s melancholic vision of our inescapable unhappiness, of his own early death lurking behind his illness. This last of the Four Impromptus concludes majestically in A Flat, a somewhat last demonstration of strength and determination against all foreseeable destiny. Ilya Kondratiev understands all this to the deepest, he understands Schubert, his life, his adversity. Ilya Kondratiev understands – and this makes him such a compelling, convincing pianist and musician.
Next in Ilya Kondratiev’s programme came Chopin’s Polonaise in A Flat, op. 53, which Chopin wrote in 1842, at the age of 32. Ilya Kondratiev started the introduction in E Flat, set by Chopin as Maestoso. There was absolutely convincing expression in Ilya’s approach, which was not only achieved by his exquisit tonal quality and sublime phrasing, but also -again!- through a strict adherence to rhythm right from the beginning – a rarely realised aspect of interpreting Chopin’s music, as some of Chopin’s pupils have stated (I am
quoting the following passage from
Carl Mikuli, one of his pupils, categorically asserts that in the matter of time Chopin was inexorable. “It will surprise many to learn that with him the metronome did not come off the piano,” Mikuli adds. Mme. Friedericke Streicher, another pupil, tells us that “he required adherence to the strictest rhythm, hated all lingering and lagging and misplaced rubatos, as well as exaggerated ritardandos.” George A. Osborne, who resided near him in Paris, and heard him play many of his compositions while still in manuscript, has left it on record that “the great steadiness of his accompaniment, whether with the right or left hand, was truly remarkable.”
This was one of the many strong qualities of Ilya Kondratiev’s interpretation – his rhythm! Not talking about is beautiful and majestic sound and Chopinesque expression – perhaps the most ideal interpretation I have ever heard, because Ilya Kondratiev was avoiding all kitsch, all sweetly sugar coating that many pianists try to use in order to make this beautiful music sound more “romantic”. The rapid, rotating octaves in the middle part in E Major, swirling round in the left hand, were simply breathtaking, never destroying the delicacy of the melody played by Ilya Kondratiev’s right hand. The return to the main theme then was marked towards the end by a triumphant, truly heroic and never exaggerated tonal language that brought the audience to frenetic and roaring applause. They did not know what was to come.
For the opening of the second half, Ilya Kondratiev had chosen Franz Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on
B-A-C-H, S.529, originally composed in two versions for organ (S.260/1 and S.260/2) in 1855/56 (as Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H for the consecration of the organ of the Dome in Merseburg) and 1870 resp., and transcribed for the piano by Liszt himself in 1871, when he was almost 60 years old. A gigantic homage to Johann Sebastian Bach, Ilya Kondratiev clearly evoked the reverberating sound of a large, romantic church organ right from the beginning. The constant presence of the
B-A-C-H (sounding: B Flat – A – C – B) theme in complex chromatic and polyphonic structures lead up to the Fugue. Massive chords, always orchestral and never hard or beaten, resounded the theme afterwards, before a sudden turn brought up a difficult passage of glittering scales and mystic tonal flakes which took this glorious piece to an end under Ilya Kondratiev’s glorious hands. Many composers (amongst others, R. Schumann in ‘Scenes from Childhood’, F. Chopin in his Etude in C Minor op. 25 no. 12, and J. Brahms in his motet ‘Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Mühseligen?’) have paid homage to J. S. Bach by using the B-A-C-H theme, but no one has ever laid out a tribute as tremendous in sound and musical architecture as Franz Liszt has here. Ilya Kondratiev fully lived up to the gigantic challenges here, bowing only briefly to thunderous applause – what was to follow is almost beyond words:
Franz Liszt completed his Sonata in B Minor, S.178, at the age of 41 in 1853, the year which also saw the founding of the piano companies C. Bechstein in Berlin as well as Steinway & Sons in New York – a beautiful coincidence as Ilya played only wonderful Bechstein and Steinway pianos during this tour! Liszt dedicated his sonata to Robert Schumann (who had, in 1839, dedicated his Fantasie in C Major, op. 17, to Franz Liszt).
Ilya Kondratiev played this sonata, one of the most difficult pieces of the piano literature, with an allusion to Goethe’s ‘Faust’, as he explained in Munich, where Mephistopheles and Gretchen appear in musical allegories, expressed in thematic phrasings, and with this explanation, understanding this extremely complex work became more transparent.
Ilya immersed himself into the music as a servant to Liszt’s compositorial and pianistic audacity and presented the listeners with an unforgettable encounter of a clearly concentrated, highly musical and deeply intellectual performance that left anybody in all six halls breath- and speechless. It is not possible for me to go through the entire sonata, or even attempt to analyse it. What matters is Ilya Kondratiev’s view, his approach, and his performance. He mastered every pianistic nuance of the chilling challenges with obvious ease. It was impossible to divert one’s attention from the diabolical colours and chasing raptures as well as from the elegiac, inward moments of pensive beauty that Ilya realised at all times. The fugue, yet another homage to Johann Sebastian Bach, was then leading to even more darkening moments, before heavenly tranquility in Major surrounded each and everybody in the hall at the end. The final ‘B’ in the bass, standing alone as a single note, reminded us of the beginning, and everybody’s sensation was that it seemed imminent to hear Liszt’s sonata again, such was the tension.
The precision of Ilya Kondratiev’s fingering and his enormously winning use of both pedals, combined with his technical skills and omnipresent control of sound and dynamics allowed to hear a translucency of inner structure that is rarely present in concert halls where Liszt’s sonata is played.
Ilya concluded his recital with beautifully chosen encores: Schubert’s ‘Gretchen am
Spinnrad’, again after Goethe’s Faust, in Liszt’s piano transcription – ideally bringing together the two major composers of the evening, and a beautifully crisp piano sonata by Domenico Scarlatti. He can do all of this!! At the end of the evening, Ilya Kondratiev still seemed indefatigable despite the huge programme he had played twice on three subsequent nights within a fortnight.
What a great musician, what a wonderful pianist and what a modest, educated person Ilya Kondratiev is! He reminded me of Wilhelm Kempff and Edwin Fischer in his Schubert, of Arthur Rubinstein and Alfred Cortot in his Chopin, of Lazar Berman and, yes, Leslie Howard in his Liszt! Ilya clearly gives major credit to The Keyboard Trust and shows very amazingly on what level of supporting pianists we are working. BRAVISSIMO, ILYA!!
His performances were astounding, and I would like to emphasise my strongest recommendation that Ilya Kondratiev, amongst other options,
– be sent to play at our most prestigious venues in the US, notably Lorin Maazel’s estate
– be considered for our next available ‘Prizewinners’ Recital’, formerly (and hopefully also in the future??) held at Wigmore Hall.
– receive further KT support as available
It is thanks to Sibylle and Patrick Rabut that through their meticulous and enthusiastic organisation, the Bechstein Centre in Frankfurt was once more completely sold out. MANY THANKS, dearest Sibylle and Patrick, also for a very generous dinner invitation to your home afterwards.
For the first time ever, I had the pleasure of organising a recital at Hamburg’s Bechstein Centre – a most wonderful, friendly and warm welcome by its director, Mr Axel Kemper, who presented us with a completely sold out hall (65 seats so far, but refurbishment and thus enlargement is on its way!). MANY THANKS to Mr Kemper for opening up another beautiful venue to the Keyboard Trust!
Sadly, the new management at Steinway Hall in Munich (new director: Mr Joe Plakinger), had failed completely to do anything for this recital apart from uploading it to their store website 2 weeks before the recital and to their Facebook site about 5 days before the recital. We always used to have between 70-100 people there. Mr Plakinger, in an email addressed to me, had actively refused to send out any newsletter for this recital, and so we were left with an audience of 4 people (!!), three of them friends of mine, one a gentleman who happened to play at one of the Steinway pianos, and I had notified him about the upcoming recital that evening. Mr Plakinger himself was not present that night, but the two staff, a Mrs Pütz and a Mrs Li, were the most unwelcoming, unhelpful, disrespectful and disinterested people I had ever met at any venue. At this moment, I will only contact Steinway Munich again if I can be sure if their active and happy support. I will also have to have a word with one of the senior directors in Hamburg.
But this is a small aspect to an incredible tour that Ilya Kondratiev has completed with greatest artistic merits.
With love and best wishes to all of you,
Dr. Moritz v. Bredow
Trustee, The Keyboard Charitable Trust
– Internationale Klavierstiftung –
Schirmherr: Sir Antonio Pappano