Itin opens Miami Piano Festival with explosive wartime Prokofiev

By Alan Becker

Ilya Itin is well known to Miami audiences, having appeared at the Miami International Piano Festival many times. The Russian-born pianist is a powerhouse musician, having garnered top honors at the William Kapell, Casadesus, and Leeds International piano competitions.

Sunday afternoon’s all-Prokofiev program at the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theatre began the three-day Master Series of this year’s Piano Festival. Although Itin began with a matinee program featuring two of Prokofiev’s knuckle-busting sonatas, he returned in the evening to tackle all 24 of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes. Few pianists would consider themselves ready for that kind of endurance trial.

The Sonata No. 7 is the most concise of Prokofiev’s three wartime sonatas. It takes less than 20 minutes to perform and is packed with fertile ideas that seem to tumble over one another.

Ilya Itin

Ilya Itin

Itin proved a master at separating the various strands and making them cohere. The sonata does not reveal its true tonality until the last movement’s Precipitato in which the pianist steadily builds his violent percussive sonority on the way to the final crashing cluster chords. Prokofieff’s sound is here distilled to its essence , and Itin performed like a demon possessed.

The finale is a great contrast to the Andante caloroso which preceded it, in which the pianist toys with reminiscences of the composer’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s an achingly lovely respite before the fist-pounding evils of war in the conclusion.

The Sonata No. 8 begins with a lengthy first movement that changes tempos constantly. There is a fate motif that takes precedence over those of mourning and grief, and while Itin’s cool demeanor keeps the emotions in check, he also avoids going overboard where many become too pitying and self-indulgent. Itin caught all of the unrest and the inner pain expressed by the composer.

The Andante sognando may be slightly dreamy, but the music reveals a lighthearted levity and sarcasm in which war is never far away. Itin has given careful consideration as to the precise weight of each chord and strand of melody–a stunning achievement for a difficult and unsettling piece of music. That final Vivace returns us to the throat-gripping sounds of chaos, and again the tempo changes were handled with remarkable skill, the nightmarish sounds provoking reflection on the brutality of war.

A change in the order of the program gave us the ebullient Peter and the Wolf between the two wartime sonatas. This was a wise decision as the unremitting intensity of the music would have otherwise been unbearable.

The rarely heard solo-piano version of Peter and the Wolf, was presented with noted announcer Martin Bookspan serving as narrator. For obvious reasons this version omits introducing the instruments of the orchestra but it does give us the motifs representing each character. When Peter opens the gate to go out in the meadow we know that things are in good hands. Bookspan relished the delivery of his lines and the composer’s piano arrangement worked quite well. The ear quickly compensates for the loss of an orchestra and Itin had great fun depicting Peter, the bird, the wolf, Grandpa, and others.

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Mon Mar 8, 2010
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