The Biltmore Hotel’s opulent Alhambra Ballroom was filled with similarly dazzling music-making Sunday afternoon, as the Mainly Mozart Festival presented virtuosic Ukrainian pianist Stanislav Khristenko. The program of character pieces included a spectacular second half of Russian ballet transcriptions, with Khristenko recounting the stories behind each work for the rapt full house.
Equally extravagant was a Fazioli piano, handmade to order in Italy. Faziolis are notoriously bright and loud in the upper registers, and this was no exception. While great for Romantic music and jazz, this poses problems for more transparent music.
Khristenko spent much of his opening Mozart Fantasy in D minor, K. 397 struggling to achieve evenly quiet dynamics on the instrument. The resonant hall didn’t help, and rhythmic beats from the pool area bled unfortunately into the silences. The playful lines and faster tempo of the Mozart Rondo in D, K. 485 came off better, and once Khristenko hit the sublime octave echoes, he seemed finally confident with the instrument and space.
In three Liszt transcriptions of Franz Schubert songs, Khristenko’s gentle “Ständchen” gave way to a fiery “Aufenthalt,” his melody clearly ringing above the tumultuous lower register. His “Erlkönig,” with its famously demanding octaves, also conveyed recognizable portrayals of the sinister fairy, frightened child and anxious father.
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Authoritative, blistering variations in Franz Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody closed out the first half, with shimmery octaves, a rich left-hand statement and clean lower register passagework.
On the second half, Khristenko plunged into five selections from Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces for piano retooled from his ballet Romeo and Juliet. In a strong, blustery “Montagues and Capulets,” his menacing octaves were tempered by a dreamy central variation before ultimately building to a dramatic end.
While “The Street Awakens” was clear but ponderous, Khristenko’s “Juliet as a Young Girl” proved a highlight, his energetic ripples and seamless cross-hand melody perfectly capturing capricious adolescence. Lighthearted grace notes balanced out quirky dissonances and a heavy two-step in “Masks,” but the real standout was Khristenko’s “Mercutio,” with subtly colored characterizations flowing between rapidly alternating ideas.
In Mikhail Pletnev’s transcriptions of the Adagio from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and the Andante maestoso from The Nutcracker, Khristenko delivered fluid, lyrical renditions. Especially inspired was the Andante’s tender opening, convincingly building into emotionally charged statements of the falling, wistful melody.
The real showstopper was Igor Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka. Although Stravinsky didn’t intend an orchestral sound, Khristenko vividly brought it to life anyway. In his brilliant “Danse russe,” massive power, aggressive angular themes, and abrupt changes in dynamics and voicing combined for a masterful, propulsive performance.
Khristenko’s emotional twists and turns with Petrouchka’s melancholy piano motives and his range of the Fazioli’s coloristic effects for the tableau’s orchestral passages proved so realistic one could almost hear the flutes and trumpets. His music-box Ballerina possessed the masterful pearly upper register wanting in the Mozart.
In the “Shrovetide Fair” finale, Khristenko’s impressionistic tremolos with bells pealing above gave way to his clean toccata’s joyous theme. He stayed strong through the end, easily tossing off impossible runs, and wringing out every available color from the Fazioli.
As an encore, Khristenko showcased the Fazioli’s exceptional jazzy timbre in George Gershwin’s The Man I Love.
The Mainly Mozart Festival continues at 4 p.m. Sunday with the Amernet Quartet performing music of Mozart, Bloch and Beethoven. mainlymozart.com
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