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Honens Competition Again Makes A Right Choice

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
02/26/2023 -  
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas in B Minor, K. 27, & in B minor, K. 87
Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor
Valentin Silvestrov: Bagatelles, Op. 1
Levko Revutsky: Preludes, Op. 4 & Op. 7 – Piano Sonata in B Minor, Op. 1
Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise in A- flat Major, Op. 53

Illia Ovcharenko (piano)

I. Ovcharenko (© Chris Lee)

Young Ukrainian pianist Illia Ovcharenko returned to Carnegie Hall, this time to Zankel Hall after making his Weill Hall debut just six weeks earlier, as winner of the New York International Piano Competition. His Zankel Hall recital was a result of winning the far more prestigious 2022 Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary, Canada. His previous competition successes were marked by prizes at Hilton Head, Busoni, Eppan, and the 2019 Vladimir Horowitz Piano Competition in Ukraine, to name just a few.

Honens is an important competition for it demands of its contestants versatility in solo as well as chamber music repertory. The organizers look to reward someone who fits their image of The Complete Artist. Whereas I am sure that such pianist has to have a complete command of the keyboard and deep understanding of the music he or she is performing, it was less obvious in which part of the program young Ovcharenko would have shown “perseverance against adversity”, apparently also demanded by competition organizers. That being said, 21 years old Mr. Ovcharenko certainly presented himself as a thinking artist not only in his choice of repertory but also a design of the program: here he “re‑imagined”–at the present the description favored in some political discourse–performances by juxtaposing sonatas of Scarlatti with the mighty Liszt Sonata in B minor, or doing the same, albeit to a better effect, with short works by two Ukrainian composers Levko Revutsky (1889‑1977) and Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), nowadays the ever‑present/most popular Ukrainian composer, living in exile in Germany since 2022.

As in his previous recital, regrettably missed by this critic, he started with a Scarlatti Sonata (K. 87), one of the most pensive, lyrical and songful among the alleged 555 and yet marked in the program notes as Allegro. His approach was somewhat in the Romantic style, very much in the mold of that grand wizard Vladimir Horowitz, who for many, including this critic, was ne plus ultra performer of those miniatures: Ovcharenko, in a nuanced manner, found some nice inner voices and stressed the vocal quality of the melody line.

Then, a prolonged pause led us to the first, mysterious sounds of Liszt’s grandiose Sonata in B Minor. For my money, it is probably not only the greatest work by that composer but most likely of all Romantic music. What started as continuation of Schubert’s model of sonata-fantasia in the Wanderer, based in whole on one rhythmic motif, became a huge edifice with the most masterful manipulation and development of three motives that are utilized in a myriad of ways: similar to Schubert, Liszt is also one uninterrupted whole, but there are at least four distinct segments that could be interpreted as Sonata-allegro, Allegro energico, then slower meditative Andante sostenuto, followed by Scherzo-like where the original themes are transformed and combined in a Fugato manner and finally concluding part where all the drama resolves and ends.

Interpretive problems in the Sonata stem not only from the unusually challenging technical demands but also from the necessity to create the drama. It is, in my opinion, the most affected, thespian score of all Liszt and of much Romantic genre. The pianist has to adopt a role of an actor and by skillfully delivering his utterance create a palpable sense of drama: Liszt provides this score with a huge number of moods, declarations, and statements. Too often, young pianists, interested only in conquering technical difficulties leave that theatrical aspect untouched or unexplored. Mr. Ovcharenko seemed to have all of this in mind and one was impressed by the time he took between the statements and phrases. He was also very keen to demonstrate the maximum sense of clarity and his version was one of the cleanest I heard recently. With that in mind, he seemed to focus his attention on the form and architecture, more than purely reflective fragments and the purely tender moments came to fore in the second part of the program.

In his avoidance of aggrandizement or exaggeration in those moments of passion and drama, Mr. Ovcharenko kept the reins tight and there was rarely a moment of overstating or surge of tempo: this was a really superbly controlled rendition. One such moment of this unusual control came early on when the first chordal theme appears, one that often leads to pompous dynamics: with our young virtuoso, that might have been the least bombastic rendition of such a segment, a moment that made the listener aware of pianistic maturity. It was rigorously disciplined, superbly rendered playing of the score, that throughout evoked different expectations from every listener.

Mr. Ovcharenko had a vision that the Liszt Sonata should not end the first part of the program, but rather be followed by yet another B Minor sonata by Scarlatti, supposedly to evoke a hope for the future, to quote the pianist’s note. A tactical mistake, methinks... Yes, one can finish a sumptuous meal in an elegant restaurant and on the way back grab a roll from a table, but it would make sense to wait til the morning to eat it.

Mr. Ovcharenko devoted the second half of the program to composers of his own Ukrainian heritage: represented by the older Revutsky and his student Silvestrov. Music of Revutsky was a novelty to me and the first concert encounter with these attractive, often virtuoso miniatures that owe much to early Scriabin, early Rachmaninov, and a bit to Bortkiewicz. In Revutsky’s early Sonata in B Minor, I detected echoes of Tchaikovsky, but when we are confronted with the unknown we always try to find a comparison to something familiar. What struck me in the second half of the program was that he was getting out of his Steinway a much better, rounder, ringing sound, not always present in the Liszt Sonata. The Preludes from Op. 4 and Op. 7 are generally entertaining, inventive, some demanding and akin to the virtuoso etudes (Prelude in B‑flat Minor, Op. 7, No. 2).

The audience rewarded the artist with the standing ovation after the conclusion of the Revutsky played indeed with a fire, abandon and total command. I think Mr. Ovcharenko should get good mileage out of that particular work. By comparison, Silvestrov early Bagatelles from his Op. 1 are dreamy, lightweight, simplistic and borderline amateurish. Their emotional landscape is narrow and listening to them made me think that any cocktail lounge pianist would be able to imitate this kind of music without much effort. They are fine if one looks for some film illustrations of early morning country scenes or such. Yet, it is my belief that should the brouhaha over Silvestrov’s importance die out, then audiences and performers will come to realize that not everything Ukrainian has to be of the highest quality, that music should be always welcomed by movie directors for they would not find anything more suitable for some specific scenes. In this program, they were useful, for they served as palate cleansers or interludes between other short, and more effective works.

The concert ended with a nod toward Polish music and its own historical struggle with the same enemy that the Ukrainians are confronting now: it was the Polonaise in A‑flat, in English speaking nations called “Heroic.” For many, it was the symbol of defiance and pride that this indeed heroic composition demonstrated and evoked. Of course, the famed left hand octaves supposedly imitate the hooves of the approaching cavalry and here they were the influence for Liszt’s similarly patriotic composition “Funérailles.” What surprised me in Mr. Ovcharenko’s interpretation was the initial lightweight, even elegant treatment of the main theme: the majority of pianists charge into it with full force and leave themselves not much room to maneuver when that militant theme comes back again and again. Another proof that he is a thinking pianist!

We heard two encores, both by Chopin. The first was his early Nocturne in E minor Op. posth. played with unusual tenderness and a beautifully lead, operatic cantilena, the second his final etude of Op. 25, a very musical interpretation, powerful yet again devoid of bombast. It is nice to hear that piece not played as only a technical exercise but a work with a deeper meaning.

The audience was very enthused with this young musician and we should hope to hear him again before too long. It looks like the powers‑that‑be at Honens chose for their winner a pianist that has something to say and a mind of his own. In the audience, we noticed a previous winner of the competition, Nicolas Namoradze: it’s reassuring that this competition continues to recognize and reward such enormously talented and supremely gifted artists.

Roman Markowicz



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