by JEFF WINSLOW
I laughed as I read pianist Igor Kamenz’s advance publicity – “extraterrestrial musicality,” said the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Surely a looming deadline or sloppy translation was involved. If I hadn’t been obliquely reminded by Portland Piano International director Arnaldo Cohen’s introduction to Kamenz’s recital last Sunday afternoon at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, I might have forgotten all about it. Kamenz began with three transcriptions from the harpsichord works of French Baroque composer François Couperin, and he played from the score rather than memory, but otherwise nothing unusual seemed to be going on. He was scrupulous about inner voices and pedaling, bringing out intricate details clearly, and he elegantly shaped each piece with flexible tempos and subtle pauses. That’s consummate musicianship, but there’s nothing Martian about it. One thing that did seem odd was the slowness of his trills in the first two works, especially when he removed any lingering doubts about his technique by ripping out any number of fast ones in the third.
Robert Schumann’s last completed work, “Spirit Variations” – so named because the composer, his mind in a downward spiral from tertiary syphilis, dreamed the theme was given to him by the departed spirits of Schubert and Mendelssohn – is another unusual choice for a virtuoso. The theme is indeed lovely, and Schumann decorated it sublimely, but there’s not much else to it. It seems to come from a simpler time, before Beethoven and Brahms turned the variation form into something questing and dramatic. Kamenz nonetheless strove to get what drama he could out of it. Again, inner voices beautifully supported the musical argument. Tempo contrasts between later variations kept interest up. In the last variation though, he pushed the harmonic accompaniment to the foreground, nearly drowning the melody. Schumann may have tried to drown himself a few days before he wrote it, but that’s mere concept; the accompaniment was not interesting enough on its own to sustain musical interest and the overall effect was merely peculiar.
Such experiments were banished from the next work, Australian-born virtuoso and composer Percy Grainger’s homage to Richard Strauss “Ramble on Love (from Der Rosenkavalier).” There were decorations aplenty, including a generous helping of Strauss’s own otherworldly celesta riff orbiting around the home key. It would be all too easy to obscure the theme, from the love duet of his 1911 opera, in a haze of pianistic stardust. But Kamenz, using what seemed to be infinitesimal gradations of volume, gave each filigree its due and yet highlighted the theme at all times. The crowd, which seemed a bit bemused by the earlier works, gave him a big hand in recognition. But we hadn’t heard anything yet.