Released to coincide with this year’s Sydney International Piano Competition, this disc of Russian music showcases a previous winner. In 2008, Konstantine Shamray won not only the First Prize but also the People’s Choice award. Listen to the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Sonata and you will understand the excitement caused by this young pianist.
The piano was not Tchaikovsky’s natural medium, and parts of his sonata of 1878 sound like the keyboard reduction of a symphony. Understanding this, Shamray revels in the quasi-orchestral gestures of the first movement (Chopin’s heroics a clear influence), and savours the dark lyricism of the slow movement. In the fleet scherzo and dazzling finale his light touch impresses. A crucial section of the scherzo involves the repetition of a simple melodic figure with a descending scale in the bass. This passage could easily sound trivial, but so spry is the pianist’s response that instead it sparkles.
He creates a mood of half-lights and shadows most effectively in four late pieces by Scriabin, especially the Feuillet d’album. Scriabin’s fragrant, introverted music is as impressionistic as anything by Debussy. By contrast, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No 8 occupies a more robust emotional terrain. The third of Prokofiev’s so-called War Trilogy of sonatas, this affecting work begins with an uneasy lyricism and concludes with a restless onslaught. The slow movement is shot through with nostalgia – Prokofiev was not the only 20th century composer to yearn for simpler times – and Shamray finds exactly the right tone to convey this feeling.
He takes the finale at a faster tempo than that which Ashkenazy and (especially) Pletnev adopt, but the younger pianist knows what he is doing. Even in its quieter moments he maintains a relentless forward drive, and as he builds up the texture the underlying menace of Prokofiev’s writing is carefully established. Some great exponents of the work are not this subtle.
Shamray’s dexterity never wavers at any dynamic level, nor is there ever a lapse in his concentration. These are carefully calibrated interpretations. Competition on disc is fierce, but he holds his own against the iconic Richter in the Tchaikovsky, or Ashkenazy, Pletnev and Bronfman in the Prokofiev. The recording is excellent. I found the piano itself a little undernourished in the upper treble but I can’t say that bothered me.
Shamray was clearly a deserving competition winner, and this release does credit both to him and to SIPCA.