Piano Men

Pianofest, presented by Music Academy of the West

At Abravanel Hall, Saturday, June 17.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter

Pianofest opened bombastically with eight extraordinarily talented hands banging out Ernest Guiraud’s arrangement of Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre. Despite marvelously deft performances by Orion Weiss, the next two pieces — some Mozart “Variations” on a theme from a Paisiello opera, and a bauble called “Sparks” by Moritz Moszkowski — did little to improve my expectations.

Then Konstantin Soukhovetski strolled onstage in white, looking like a character in a Chekhov play, gave us a gloriously lugubrious rendition of the “Love-Death” from Wagner’s Tristan (as arranged by Liszt), and my spirits perked up. Wagner is such a perfect symptom of the late 19th-century European malaise. Then Soukhovetski played a wonderful “Piano Rag” by George Rochberg that sent me, after I returned home, into my record collection with a renewed interest in this New Jersey native.

To close the first half, Weiss and that wild man, Alpin Hong, played yet another set of “Variations” on that theme by Paganini — this one, for two pianos, was by Witold Lutosławski, and considerably more forceful and jittery than Rachmaninov.

Although the second half began with Jerome Lowenthal and Soukhovetski giving an exquisitely irresolute reading of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, it was Hong who made the most powerful impact, with his hilarious impressions of Lowenthal addressing his students, his ineffably sweet performance of what is virtually Lowenthal’s signature piece, Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song,” and his furiously controlled rendering of Ginastera’s three Argentine Dances, Opus 2 — the second of which was gorgeously lyrical, yet harrowing.

After Lowenthal gave a sensitive reading of Wagner’s prelude to act three of Lohengrin, the four pianists returned to the stage, each to his own piano, and played a Milhaud travelogue called Paris Suite. For an encore, the Maestro recited a Paul Verlaine poem, and then all four pianists played Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” It turned out to be a very nice evening.

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