Portland Piano International review: A Visit to Planet Kamenz

Russian pianist's performance proves well-grounded, though not earthbound.


I laughed as I read pianist Igor Kamenz’s advance publicity – “extraterrestrial musicality,” said the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Surely a looming deadline or sloppy translation was involved. If I hadn’t been obliquely reminded by Portland Piano International director Arnaldo Cohen’s introduction to Kamenz’s recital last Sunday afternoon at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, I might have forgotten all about it. Kamenz began with three transcriptions from the harpsichord works of French Baroque composer François Couperin, and he played from the score rather than memory, but otherwise nothing unusual seemed to be going on. He was scrupulous about inner voices and pedaling, bringing out intricate details clearly, and he elegantly shaped each piece with flexible tempos and subtle pauses. That’s consummate musicianship, but there’s nothing Martian about it. One thing that did seem odd was the slowness of his trills in the first two works, especially when he removed any lingering doubts about his technique by ripping out any number of fast ones in the third.

Igor Kamenz performed  at Portland Piano International.

Igor Kamenz performed at Portland Piano International.

Robert Schumann’s last completed work, “Spirit Variations” – so named because the composer, his mind in a downward spiral from tertiary syphilis, dreamed the theme was given to him by the departed spirits of Schubert and Mendelssohn – is another unusual choice for a virtuoso. The theme is indeed lovely, and Schumann decorated it sublimely, but there’s not much else to it. It seems to come from a simpler time, before Beethoven and Brahms turned the variation form into something questing and dramatic. Kamenz nonetheless strove to get what drama he could out of it. Again, inner voices beautifully supported the musical argument. Tempo contrasts between later variations kept interest up. In the last variation though, he pushed the harmonic accompaniment to the foreground, nearly drowning the melody. Schumann may have tried to drown himself a few days before he wrote it, but that’s mere concept; the accompaniment was not interesting enough on its own to sustain musical interest and the overall effect was merely peculiar.

Such experiments were banished from the next work, Australian-born virtuoso and composer Percy Grainger’s homage to Richard Strauss “Ramble on Love (from Der Rosenkavalier).” There were decorations aplenty, including a generous helping of Strauss’s own otherworldly celesta riff orbiting around the home key. It would be all too easy to obscure the theme, from the love duet of his 1911 opera, in a haze of pianistic stardust. But Kamenz, using what seemed to be infinitesimal gradations of volume, gave each filigree its due and yet highlighted the theme at all times. The crowd, which seemed a bit bemused by the earlier works, gave him a big hand in recognition. But we hadn’t heard anything yet.

After intermission he strode out and, with barely a breath, launched into Igor Stravinsky’s fiendishly difficult three-movement arrangement of his own music for another 1911 work, the ballet Petrouchka. I detected a subtle wobble at first, but Kamenz steadied and took off, and we who love the work hung on tight. The first half of the program had featured the pianist’s introspective, lyrical side. Now we heard his precisely focused, irresistible power, his freight-train velocity. And yet there was still the same attention to inner voices, the same discreet and scrupulous pedaling, the same carefully distinguished volume level for each detail. It was a thoroughly exhilarating ride, and the crowd went wild.

In extreme contrast, Kamenz’s took Maurice Ravel’s early success “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (earnestly translated as “Pavane for a Dead Princess” even though Ravel said he just liked the rhyming sound) at a sedate, almost labored pace, and dry as bones at first. It’s true that the piece is evocative of a much earlier time, when the keyboard instrument of choice would have been the harpsichord. But Kamenz didn’t feel such an evocation necessary in the Couperin transcriptions, which were originally written for that instrument. And Ravel instructs the pianist, “quite sweet, but with a full sound.” It was the least engaging performance of the evening.

Not many years later, Ravel wrote his own fiendishly difficult work, “Gaspard de la Nuit,” in part, he claimed, to outdo a virtuoso test piece of the time, Mily Balakirev’s “Islamey: Oriental Fantasy.” “Gaspard” has survived the indignities of generations of struggling pianists doing the best they can, and today when you hear a world-class pianist take it on, especially from the younger generations, you can be reasonably sure of an accurate and evocative performance. “Islamey,” on the other hand, has lapsed into relative obscurity. It’s not too hard to understand why. Not only is the difficulty extreme, but the underlying form and drama of the piece is much simpler than “Gaspard” – little more than a salon piece, pumped up on bourbon, crack and steroids all at the same time. Still, in the hands of a fireworks master like Kamenz, it was a tremendously absorbing adrenalin rush. Again everything was clear, almost to a fault, as those listening closely could from time to time hear how close to redline the high-performance engine was revving. But it was another wild ride and the audience loved it. Kamenz gave us all a big smile – he had survived, and in brilliant style.

And not only that, he had put his own personal stamp, not only on the unusual program, but on each work, for the most part without causing the head-scratching which can sometimes accompany the performances of artists who are said to be “different,” if not actually space aliens. Perhaps the best description of the experience was, after all, Arnaldo Cohen’s own take on that phrase, “extraterrestrial musicality,” as he ended his introduction with “Welcome to Planet Kamenz.” I’m happy to report that life there is rich and abundant.

I’m also happy to report two new and different PPI initiatives touched on by Cohen while welcoming the audience to this first concert of the new season. The one definitely being planned includes commissions for new piano solo works to be awarded, via a process yet to be determined, to Oregon composers. Kudos to Cohen for recognizing the value of local composers, even though he hails from far beyond Oregon – Brazil in fact – and tours internationally. The other, merely being explored at this time, is a possible contemporary piano series to be added in the 2015-2016 season. There has been a resurgence of interest among established composers in writing for the piano in the last 30 years, and while PPI has been supportive especially in the summer festivals (also in less than a month Tamara Stefanovich will present a delightful sampling of György Ligeti’s watershed Études in Lincoln Hall for the first time), such a series would let local audiences hear in depth, live for themselves, how things have changed since the mid-20th century – the days of cats thumping spastically across the keys are mostly over. (What cats still do is mostly on YouTube and so impossibly cute that you forgive them.) Stravinsky’s Petrouchka arrangement sounded surprisingly contemporary in Kamenz’s performance, but that’s just a shooting star. It’s time for this world to come into full light of day here.

Jeff Winslow is a fourth-generation native Oregonian, a composer and a pianist.

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