Awesome Technique 

LAWRENCE BUDMEN listens to Romanian pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa and to other artists at the Miami International Piano Festival Master Series

The enigmatic history of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is often mirrored in his music. After returning to Russia (after nearly two decades in the West) and the outbreak of World War Two, Prokofiev divided his creative work between patriotic (some would say propagandistic) scores and pensive, disturbing works that were grounded in the perilous milieu of the times. His three wartime piano sonatas are towering works in this genre and remain a formidable challenge for any keyboard artist. Romanian pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa took up the challenge of Prokofiev's Sonata No 7 in B flat Op 83 at her stunning recital on 20 March 2004 at the Steinway Concert Hall in Coral Gables, Florida, USA -- the culmination of the Miami International Piano Festival Master Series.

Ms. Ursuleasa is an extraordinary musician. Her technique is awesome. Every bar is imbued with a level of creativity that makes familiar music resound in a new, freshly minted manner. Prokofiev's daunting cluster chords and rapid fire pianistic flourishes held no terrors for her. Rarely has the bitter humor of the Allegro Inquieto been drawn so strongly. Ms. Ursuleasa is an artist who is not afraid to take interpretive risks. The Andante Caloroso has never sounded so beautifully dreamy. Ms. Ursuleasa's melting tonal palette seemed to redefine the music. It was as if she was composing the score as she played -- remarkable! The concluding Precipitato was a brilliant display of pure pianistic pyrotechnics. Ms. Ursuleasa took this fiendish movement at a rapid clip and triumphed. This score was written for Sviatoslav Richter and was introduced to America by Vladimir Horowitz. Ms. Ursuleasa was their equal in every way.

The remainder of her concert was no less impressive. In Seven Fantasies Op 116 by Johannes Brahms, Ms. Ursuleasa captured the sensitivity, lyricism, and surprising quirkiness of this late opus. Her ability to capture sentiment without sentimentality was the mark of a true artist. And what glowing tone and beautiful playing! In Beethoven's rarely played Eroica Variations Op 35 she brought tremendous musical imagination and fleet fingered brilliance -- playing the composer could have only dreamed about! Her ability to find the grand line between the theme and the total variation structure was truly impressive. Ursuleasa's crystalline tone and incisive clarity defined great Beethoven playing. Her encore of Ravel's Alborado del Gracioso had languid Spanish atmosphere, impressionistic tonal hues, and brilliant fingering to burn. She has the spontaneity, musicality, and instrumental command of Martha Argerich. (Like Argerich, Ursuleasa is a free musical spirit and a force of nature.) Mihaela Ursuleasa is a talent on the genius level!

Earlier in the Masters Series (on 12 March 2004 at the Amaturo Theater in Fort Lauderdale, Florida) the commanding Russian virtuoso Konstantin Lifschitz premièred a striking Sonata Ricercata by the contemporary Russian composer Boris Yoffe. This post-Shostakovich work is music of despair and desolation -- encapsulated in a strikingly original creative voice. Only a pianist of Lifschitz's gifts could meet the score's unforgiving technical demands. Lifschitz also offered lovely, beautifully shaded pianism in the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's atmospheric suite The Butterflies and Birds of Paradise. It was Lifschitz's Schubert (the Wanderer Fantasie) and Beethoven (the visionary Sonata No 29 in B flat Op 106 -- the Hammerklavier) that reminded the listener that he was in the presence of a master. Lifschitz probed the heights and depths of sublimity in the Adagio sostenuto -- Appassionato e con molto sentimento movement of the Beethoven. Never has the concluding double fugue been played with such clarity and musical sensitivity. The Schubert was likewise a weaving of wonderful tonal colors and pianistic power. Remarkable playing by a great artist!

On 13 March 2004 Russia's Ilya Itin and Italy's Francesco Libetta teamed for a moody transversal of the austere two piano version of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. They perfectly captured the dark, brooding quality of the music. Libetta's transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral showpiece Scheherazade Op 35 is a work of pure genius! (Libetta is a veritable musical renaissance man -- pianist, conductor, composer, musicologist, and educator.) Libetta accomplishes the near impossible. All of the orchestral color and variety of the original has been encapsulated in his version. The poetic beauty of the 'Prince and the Young Princess' movement was striking. What a feast of color Libetta created in the episodic final movement. Itin's rolling chords and glissandos were thrilling. The Itin-Libetta duo played the work con amore. Two brilliant musicians created a coloristic keyboard feast!

The opening concert on 11 March 2004 featured the unique violinist Gilles Apap. This French-Algerian musician plays the most exquisite Bach (the Sarabande from the E Minor Partita) and bracing, fiery Enesco (the Gypsy inspired Sonata No 3 in A Minor Op 25 -- a technically daunting score that Apap made child's play of). Yet this same musician played the Blues movement of the Ravel Sonata with the jazzy verve of a Stephane Grappelli. He can play country fiddle music with zest and his jazz violin is a delight. The Kochansky transcription of Manuel De Falla's 6 Popular Songs and Dance from La Vida Breve were played in a gutsy, almost folk vernacular manner. Pianist Eric Ferrand-N'Kaoua provided sensitive support and offered a poetic Debussy Prelude as a solo turn. Gilles Apap is the kind of unconventional artist the music world needs. His brilliant playing and sympathy for diverse musical styles are a real treasure! A wonderful feast of music making!

Copyright © 30 March 2004 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA

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