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Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev: Michail Lifits (piano) Campus Internazionale di Musica, Teatro Cafaro, Latina, 13.11.2009 (JB)

Schumann, Arabesque in C Op 18 and Fantasia in C Op 17;
Rachmaninoff, 4 Moment Musicales Op 16;
Prokofiev, Sonata no 7 in B flat Op 83.

The winemakers of Bordeaux successfully put about the myth that the finest grapes for viniculture were those that grew with difficulty in an inhospitable climate. Such was their supply. The truth was that it was the intelligence, diligence and unstinting application of these early masters which brought about the art of viniculture. The inhospitable climate may have been a challenge but it was one which spurred them on to the point where they were convinced that it was more of a friend than an enemy. The Russian Jews don’t have quite that relationship with Mother Russia: the inhospitable climate is all too blatantly there as well as the intelligence, diligence and unstinting application of the Jewish brethren. In the world of pianists, the vintage is as impressive as the Bordeaux wine. Michail Lifits, first prize-winner of this year’s Busoni competition, is the latest on this list. And while he is proudly a Russian Jew, he was born in 1982 into a doubly oppressive society in one of the farthest flung cities of the Russian Empire in Tashkent, the then new capital of Uzbekistan.

I’ve forgotten now how many highly skilled women it took working how many continuous hours over how many successive weeks to embroider the magnificent tapestry which now covers my bed and which, in spite of my considerable bargaining skills, caused me to delve deeply into my wallet in that famous shop in the Istanbul bazaar which specialises in imports from Uzbekistan. The intricacy of the Persian design and the gold are what first catch your eye. So no surprise when you find that intricacy of supreme craftsmanship and gold are major Uzbekistan exports. Add uranium, natural gas and cotton to that list of assets.

Uzbekistan is doubly landlocked in the middle of Central Asia, since it only has borders with other landlocked countries that make up the “stans”: Turkmenistan to the west, Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan to the east, Kazakhstan to the north and Afghanistan to the south. Gore Vidal was probably right when he said that most educated Americans would not be able to tell you where the stans are, let alone name them. Ukbeki is a Turkic language and the indigenous people, here, as elsewhere in Central Asia, were originally nomadic in a country of vast desert and mountains. They have been clobbered from all sides throughout their history and still managed to retain a distinctive national pride, often absorbing the best of their oppressors, from Alexander the Great through the Persians to the Soviets. The former capital of Samarqand competes only with Damascus for the title of the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It is a World Heritage Site and the home to some of the most spectaculour Islamic architecture anywhere. More than 90% of the 27m population are Moslem and Samarqand is a world centre of Islamic studies.

During the Soviet Regime (1924 – 1991) there was almost certainly a disrespect for human rights on level with the recent administration of George W Bush in USA, but western music was introduced with a vengeance, especially through the teaching of the Russian manned conservatories. Michail Lifits’s mother taught piano there and she remains a visiting professor, even though, largely on account of Michail’s outstanding gifts, the family transferred to Germany in 1998, where just two years ago, he acquired citizenship, marrying another Russian Jewish pianist. His studies are now divided between Bernard Goetzke in Hannover and Boris Petrushansky in Imola. (Italy).

There must have been a faint smile of surprise on my face when he ordered Parma ham for his antipasto at the after-concert dinner: O yes, I’m proudly Russian Jewish, but not kosher he says with a big smile.

He has an interesting theory that consciously or unconsciously Schumann was revisiting Beethoven’s Opus 111 in his Fantasia in C Opus 17. That intellectual connection was not immediately obvious in what I heard him perform, but when he outlines his theory I understand what he is aiming for. Every phrase of his concert was an adventure; there was an awareness of going somewhere you hadn’t been before, even if the musical terrain ought to be familiar. And he has an enviable ability to carry his audience with him in this adventure: a born communicator. His piano tone has a no-nonsense, brisk approach, often steely, recalling Richter. He obtains a whole spectrum of orchestral colour from the piano, which in the Schumann pieces he seemed to studiedly restrict in the left hand to various shades of grey. I assume these left hand greys were a particular choice, since they were so perfectly controlled. They would not have been my choice but I bow contentedly before greater musical minds than mine. At any event, Michail Lifits’s steely command of the keyboard ensures there is never any Schumann slush.

After the interval was the turn of the Russians. The first of the Rachmaninoff Moment Musicales, Op 16 in B flat minor, had a fine melodic line, while the second (in E flat minor) impressed with its pearly cascades of rippling sound; the turbulence of no 4 (in E minor) was more convincing than the sombre air of no 3 (B minor). The very finest singing tone was reserved for his first encore – an imaginatively spun account of the Chopin C sharp minor nocturne.

Over dinner, I told him I was impressed by his evident grasp of Prokofiev’s irony in the seventh sonata in B flat, Op 83. Oh, you mean his sarcasm? he asked, with a quizical grin. Quite. What some have seen as irony and Lifits dishes up unequivocally as sarcasm, made the audience want to laugh aloud –a striking introduction to the first movement. The piece is a virtuoso’s heyday and he sweeps you along this joy ride with all his technical brilliance. He seems to chastise Prokofiev while warmly approving, treating the composer as though he were a wayward child. And what a fun way this is of approaching the Russian maestro! Playing as authoritative as this could become hard on the ear, but I haven’t yet mentioned that Lifits’s pianism also has charm. And buckets of it ! In all this breathtaking virtuosity it’s as though his musicianship also asks –you’re not taking this too seriously, are you ?

Jack Buckley



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