By Lawrence Budmen

A cornucopia of the world’s finest young pianists gathered in Miami Beach for the opening weekend of the Miami International Piano Festival. In truly festive style some of the greatest masterpieces ever written for the keyboard were presented in world class performances. 

On May 13 Ukrainian firebrand Alexander Gavrylyuk commenced the proceedings. Gavrylyuk is the Gold Medal Winner of Israel’s Artur Rubinstein Competition. From his remarkable playing and artistic insight, it was easy to see what impressed the competition jury. His awesome technique is matched by the ability to bring musical personality and character to every phrase. Gavrylyuk’s supercharged performance of Brahms’s Paganini Variations was stunning. He commanded a remarkable dynamic range. Extremes of volume at both ends and wide ranging keyboard leaps were conjured up with dizzying magic.

Gavrylyuk evoked the ecstatic frenzy of Scriabin’s Sonata No.5 with an endless rainbow of cascading colors and tonal hues. He vividly conveyed the visionary mysticism of Scriabin’s musical language. For sheer pianistic bravura Gavrylyuk’s Scriabin evoked memories of such legends as Horowitz and Richter. His fierce approach to Prokofiev’s wartime Sonata No.6 brought home the terror that this music so vividly conveys. Yet the waltz was darkly romantic and intoxicating. In a stunning encore Gavrylyuk unleashed a firestorm with Liszt’s roulades on Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, played with astounding tonal clarity and pianistic thunder. 

England’s Leon McCawley took center stage on May 14 and offered an evening of sensitive, deeply felt music making. McCawley’s patrician musicianship and elegant pianism were indeed special. The strong profile and florid musical line that he brought to Mozart’s Fantasy in C Minor was mesmerizing. In Schumann’s lovely Kinderscenen McCawley displayed supple lyricism and delicately sculpted phrasing. McCawley played Mozart’s Sonata in C Minor with brisk, classical precision. The Adagio sang from his keyboard like a finely spun operatic aria. 

McCawley’s traversal of four sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti pulsated with rhythmic life. His lithe phrasing, idiomatic fluency and pianistic brilliance made this thrice familiar music sound new and vibrant. In Rachmaninoff’s awesome Variations on a Theme of Corelli, McCawley commanded fervent power and wonderful romantic coloration. Here was artistry of the highest order. McCawley is a great and unique musician! 

When German pianist Martin Stadfeld (originally scheduled to perform on May 15) was unable to appear due to problems with customs, the remarkable Gavrylyuk reemerged for a sampling of his highly personal interpretation of the music of Chopin and more Prokofiev. He brought stormy passion to Chopin’s famous Revolutionary Etude and subtly floating tone and romantic intensity to the A Minor Etude. In Prokofiev’s restless Sonata No.7 Gavrylyuk set the keyboard ablaze with demonic fury. His dazzling version of Liszt’s Rakoczy March (offered as an encore) was the essence of bravura virtuosity. 

Ilya Itin (winner of the Leeds Competition) played a stately, commanding version of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. Itin’s powerhouse performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition imbued a large scale canvas with huge sonorities – grand playing at a great festival!

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