I'm going to be hanging out at Kings Place a lot over the next few days as the London Piano Festival swings into action tonight, led by the dastardly duo of Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva. Turning piano concerts into celebrations of the range, colour and full glory available to pianists, they've programmed a total feast and brought in some amazing artists to deliver it. Here's a piece I wrote originally for Kings Place's magazine to trail the festival. The full programme is online here.
When Kings Place opened the doors to its first London Piano Festival last year, some concertgoers may have been wondering where it had been all their lives. Piano festivals are oddly rare in the capital, despite the perennial popularity of the instrument and its almost limitless repertoire. The piano duo Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva decided to put that situation right – and sure enough, the 2016 festival went so well that now it is happening again.
Between 5 and 8 October Kings Place will resound with piano music: four solo recitals, a concert for children, an evening with Owen and Apekisheva, a grand two-piano marathon with six star pianists and finally jazz from Jason Rebello.
The range of music extends from a baroque recital performed by Lisa Smirnova to a new commission from the South African composer Kevin Volans, included in Melvyn Tan’s concert alongside Weber and Ravel. The children’s concert includes Poulenc’s L’histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant and an unusual arrangement for piano four-hands of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf - Simon Callow is the narrator. Nelson Goerner from Argentina offers high romanticism (Friday 6th, 7.30pm), and the Russian pianist Ilya Itin presents two sizeable sonatas by Schubert and Rachmaninoff (Saturday 7th, 4pm).
“We’re trying to focus not only on the biggest names, but on artists who are of the very highest calibre but rarely perform in Britain,” says Owen. “We are very keen to bring several of those musicians to reconnect with British audiences.” Lisa Smirnova and Ilya Itin are prime examples: “Lisa is someone I studied alongside in Moscow, with Anna Kantor, and I always admired her,” says Apekisheva. “She’s a very interesting, individual musician and she has a huge career in America and Europe, but not in the UK. Her Handel recording was wonderful and received fantastic reviews.”
Itin, who won first prize, the audience prize and the contemporary music prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1996, is now based in New York and combines performing with his role as a sought-after teacher. Apekisheva met him at Leeds and was bowled over by his musicianship: “Again he is an absolutely outstanding artist, but hasn’t played here for such a long time. We decided we must have him back.”
The repertoire is a combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. “There’s an underlying theme of Russia, coinciding with the anniversary of the October Revolution in 1917,” says Owen. “Katya and I are playing both the Rachmaninoff Suite No.2 and the Symphonic Dances for two pianos and we’re giving the world premiere of a new commission from Elena Langer, inspired by some Kandinsky paintings from 1917 which we hope to project onto the screen as we play.”
The Russian focus extends to a significant rarity: the Sonata No.2 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a close friend of Shostakovich’s whose music is currently enjoying a major revival of interest. Apekisheva learned it for the Brundibár Festival in Newcastle earlier this year: “I completely fell in love with the piece and very much want to play it again,” she says. “It’s very exciting music, but what a challenge to play!”
Ultimately, Owen and Apekisheva say, their aim for the festival is to create something special together that can be enjoyed by piano fans from far and wide. Both regard Kings Place as the perfect venue in which to realise their vision: “With all these wonderful spaces, there’s room for audiences to spread out, meet, talk and chat,” says Owen. “The vibe is informal and there are great places to eat and relax. We’re trying to build an audience who will trust our choices, a core audience of piano lovers. And, very importantly, we want people to have fun!”