2019 is the first year this four day festival has been held. Karlskrona sits at the heel of Sweden and was built in 1680 to host the navy as an alternative (and ice free) base to Stockholm during King Karl XI’s wars with Denmark. The naval base closed only in the 1980s and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Karlskrona is surrounded by an archipelago of small islands, giving the area great charm. The Piano Festival has been started by Peter Jablonski who has returned to his home territory after 30 years resident in London. The programme largely consisted of concerts by Jablonski, his students and friends.
Directors: Peter Jablonski and Anastasia Belina
Friday 8 November
Karlskrona Concert Hall
Young Pianists Showcase
Friday 8 November
Karlskrona Concert Hall
Brahms Six Pieces Op. 118
Julius-Jeongwon Kim Piano
Classical meets jazz; variations and improvisations
Konstantin Vilensky Piano
A showcase is not a competition – all four young pianists playing in Karlskrona were very fine and Peter Jablonski would not have picked them for his first festival otherwise – but comparisons are inevitable. In this daytime concert each had half an hour to demonstrate their musicianship and two proved to be exceptional.
At only 15 years old, Herman Pellback reminds me of a very young Stephen Hough. He has the same ability to make the listener feel that every bar has been thought about, considered in its context and delivered with affection. He was the first pianist in the festival, of whatever age, to make the Steinway sing in the oppressively dry acoustic of the Karlskrona Hall. Schumann’s gentle Kinderszenen and a selection from the Swedish late romantic, Valborg Aulin, were the perfect vehicles for his emerging talent. He is right at the beginning of his journey as a musician but it should be a long and rewarding one if he keeps his seriousness and does not get drawn into the frippery of virtuoso display.
Shuyi Zhang and, to a lesser extent, Siru Su seem to have fallen into just that trap. They are considerably older that Pellback and they have learned to play fast, loud and efficiently. In Zhang’s case, though, this is at the expense of emotional depth. Even in the note-heavy reaches of Rachmaninov and Scriabin it is possible to extract genuine feeling that is not completely manic. This did not come through in Zhang’s performance and she needs to fundamentally rethink her approach. She has the depth of personality to succeed but at the moment she seems to shy away from revealing it, shielding herself with athletic technique.
Siru Su was more perceptive in her reading of Tchaikovsky’s Theme and Variations, Op.19 No.6, which was played with intelligent belief, but that was quickly dissipated in the lurid noise of Prokofiev’s Suggestion Diabolique, a piece of such dubious quality that it undermines a pianist’s integrity. The crisp classicism of Haydn’s Sonata No.50 showed that integrity to far greater effect. Both women need to think about the balance of programming.
Her fellow student at London’s Royal College of Music, Jack Campbell, is such a slight figure on stage that the power and firm authority of his playing is quite a shock. He wisely eschewed the nonsense works of rabid pianism and instead explored the contemplative language of Aulin’s Five Tone Poems, Op.7. Campbell had, we were told, mastered this virtually unknown repertoire in two days. From his confident understanding one would have thought he had been playing it lovingly for years. Campbell was recognised as a major talent at much the same age as Pellback. Five years on, he is proving that the early enthusiasm was well placed.
Move on a generation and the benefits of long experience, of having favoured works lodged deep in the memory bank, shone through when Julius-Jeongwon Kim played Brahms’ late set of intermezzi and rhapsodies, Op. 118. These are works of reminiscence, of fond recall, of loves long lost or abandoned. Brahms does not go in for the fake sentiment of nostalgia but reflects on details and snippets from the past that bring the feelings back to life. They are not particularly calm works, though, and troubles disturb the serenity he might have hoped for in late middle age. Kim, a player who is coming back to an international career after a decade away from touring, has the depth of perspective this complicated and deceptive music needs.
Perspective and more than a dollop of wry humour colour Konstantin Vilensky’s mischievous jazz fusions. Well known themes by Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikovsk, Rimsky-Korsakov and others were presented, elaborated and eventually mutated into very different beasts. Vilensky himself is a thoroughly respectable Ukrainian composer, a pupil of Schedrin and Khatchaturian in the Soviet days, and it is the ingenuity and wit he brings to his elaborations that gives them musical value beyond entertainment. This was two genres meeting as equals, not just a bit of elegant fun but it was that in handfuls too.