The opportunity was too good to miss. When I was invited to spend a few days in Lucerne for its piano festival, I realised that the festival's Debut strand included a concert by Alexej Gorlatch, 2009 winner of the Dublin International Piano Competition. This was in the same week that Nikolay Khozyainov, the 2012 winner, was beginning his nine-venue Music Network tour. The prospect was made especially tantalising by the fact that both players' programmes included complete performances of Chopin's Études, Op 10.
Lucerne's celebration of the piano and its music began in 1998 as a four-day event. This year it ran for nine days, with a line-up that included Evgeny Kissin (in recital and concerto), Fazil Say, Gabriela Montero, Murray Perahia, Kirill Gerstein (a Dublin competition finalist in 2000) and Maurizio Pollini, as well as masterclasses and talks.
The festival spreads its wings through the city, with a team of pianists giving off-stage jazz performances in bars and restaurants, as well as in the festival’s main venue, the Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern (KKL), which is picturesquely perched on the edge of lake Lucerne. This year the venue’s foyer boasted a Ferrari- red Steinway concert grand with matching stool, as a clear message that classical was not the festival’s only flavour.
The Debut concerts take place in the city’s Lukaskirche, a clean-lined modern church with seating, on two levels, for about 500. For a piano, the sound is warm and full, with a strength in the bass and an overall amplitude that are not features of the acoustically chillier and brighter National Concert Hall here at home. The sound in the main hall of the KKL is similarly luxuriant, but with better clarity.
The impression I have of Gorlatch from Lucerne is that he is expanding the scale of his music-making, and at times bringing a magnifying glass effect to bear on the music to make his interpretative points. In Beethoven's Tempest Sonata (Op 31, No 2), it was as if he were taking the listener aside at key moments for a layer of extra explanation, and his handling of a set of Schubert dances (D783) seemed also to shy away from directness of delivery.
He is a super pianist, and the ideas he presented in both Beethoven and Schubert were always interesting. It just felt as if everything was not yet fully integrated.
His Chopin Études, on the other hand, were a knockout, pure and simple, musically thoughtful, technically masterful.
Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan, who will make her Dublin debut with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Liszt's Second Concerto on February 28th, played Bach (the Partita in A minor), Schumann (the Humoreske) and Rachmaninov (the Corelli Variations and a handful of Études-tableaux) in the grand manner. The Bach playing was so fluid that at times it seemed almost anchorless, a tonally alluring counterpoint that somehow lacked clarity of outline. It was the kind of Bach you might remember from a dream: magical, mysterious, not quite real.
Arghamanyan is a player of exceptional facility, getting around the keyboard with grace at astonishing velocity, and always conjuring unexpected colours, as if the idea of playing anything in the most direct way would be deadly boring. She was at her best in the Rachmaninov variations, a work written expressly for the kind of virtuoso technique that she so clearly knows how to use with breathtaking results.
Frenchman Adam Laloum devoted his 75-minute slot (the Debut concerts run from 12.15pm to about 1.30pm) to just two works: Schubert's Moments musicaux and Schumann's Sonata No 1 in F sharp minor.
Laloum was both the most sober of the three players and the most stressed: sober in the always considered and carefully balanced approach to the evergreen Schubert, and stressed in the Schumann, where he often seemed to drive both himself and the music to the limit, if not beyond.
The elders that I heard in Lucerne – Kissin and Montero – are both in their early 40s. But both showed what you would have to call a musical wisdom that the younger players lacked. Kissin took a straight-down-the-line approach in Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto (with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Lawrence Foster) and made the experience absolutely electrifying. Montero approached late Brahms (the Intermezzi, Op 117) with autumnal ease, the music emerging as a natural flow as if all she had to do was turn on the tap and wait.
There is no more successfully demonstrative concerto than Tchaikovsky’s First. But performances of it are full of conventions. Well-tried ways of getting around its difficulties and highlighting its opportunities for technical display have become interpretative norms. Kissin was having none of it. He doesn’t need to slow down in passages where other players seem to run out of road. He can do it just as it is written. This made for a performance that offered freshness at every other turn, even to the point of seeming to catch the conductor unawares. The orchestral performance, with a much smaller orchestra than would normally be used, was musically distinctive and wonderfully clear, but not always tightly aligned with the soloist.
Poor venue for Khozyainov
Nikolay Khozyainov's Dublin appearance was hampered by the venue, Christ Church Cathedral, which is so unsuited to solo piano that I can only remember ever having been to a piano recital there once.
Khozyainov opened with Haydn (the Sonata in D, Hob XVI: 33) and straightaway showed a reserve and restraint opted for by none of his peers in Lucerne. His music-making had the calmness and succinctness of a master, someone who knows how to focus on the essential.
His Chopin Études were also beautifully controlled, but weren't thrilling in the way Gorlatch's were.
The second half was a real mixed bag, with Martin O'Leary's Blue Toccata treated in a square manner that the title would belie, and Rachmaninov's First Sonata simply failing to get off the page. He was back on form for a bells-and-whistles account of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz.
Less is more with Andsnes
Norway's super-pianist Leif Ove Andsnes made his first concerto appearance at the NCH on Sunday, directing Beethoven's Second and Fourth Concertos from the keyboard. It was very much a case of less is more, of a kind of homeopathic concentration that upped expressive impact.
If Andsnes were an actor, it would have been a matter of a millimetre of eyebrow movement telling of a world of feeling. And on this occasion the finely sculpted orchestral playing was always at one with the soloist. Unforgettable.