Igor Kamenz: Playing the Indescribable

A preview of the Russian-born pianist's concert for Portland Piano International


“I choose repertoire that fits my nature,” says pianist Igor Kamenz, who’s performing a pair of recitals in Portland this weekend. “The first concert is more atmospheric while the second concert is more virtuosic.”

The Russian-born pianist’s split musical personality explains why he’s opening Portland Piano International’s 2014-15 season with two back-to-back solo recitals featuring completely different programs. Sunday night’s concert begins with selections from French Baroque composer Francois Couperin’s collection Keyboard Pieces (Pieces de Clavecin) and builds to Igor Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka and Russian Romantic composer Mily Balakirev’s Islamey. Also, by including Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess), this concert will submerge listeners into the extravagant and lonely sounds composed during the tumultuous fin de siècle period.

In Monday’s concert, Kamenz will perform ten of the eighteen Domenico Scarlatti sonatas on his latest recording, just released on the respected French Naive label, which has already been awarded album of the week honors by WQXR, New York´s classical station. Thoughtfully arranged into a musical story, Kamenz’s Scarlatti album connects each musical moment to the next in virtuosic unity. Scarlatti lived in Madrid, isolated from the dominant European musical world during the early 1700s.  His 555 keyboard sonatas are spicy on piano textures and unexpected harmonic turns. Kamenz never gets lost, but places each phrase in perfect support of the one before and after, irresistibly pulling the listener through Scarlatti’s rich, kaleidoscopic layers of harmony.

Igor Kamenz performs at Portland Piano International. Photo: Matt Hennek.

Igor Kamenz performs at Portland Piano International. Photo: Matt Hennek.

Born near the Chinese border in Russia, Kamenz managed to escape from the USSR to Germany in 1978. While he has has won top prizes in eighteen international competitions, this will be his debut in Portland, right on the heels of his New York debut at Lincoln Center for the Mostly Mozart Festival just a month ago.

Kamenz, who now lives in Freiburg, talked with OAW about his surprising discoveries in Scarlatti, his method of learning pieces, and his favorite music to listen to.

When did you begin your musical studies and why did you choose piano?

My mother and father both taught piano, and so I began playing at age three. Circumstances made piano the logical choice. There was the possibility of becoming a conductor, but when I escaped from the Soviet Union in 1978 I was not famous and a conductor needs an orchestra. I do not need anybody in order to be a pianist, so it is for practical reasons that I became a pianist.

Your repertoire is vast; what influenced your choices for Portland’s two concerts?

I choose repertoire that fits my nature. The first concert is more atmospheric while the second concert is more virtuosic. For example, Monday’s concert opens with 10 of Scarlatti’s sonatas. Scarlatti is very virtuosic! Within Scarlatti you can find Liszt, Chopin, even Prokofiev. It sounds crazy but you can do it! It was a real discovery for me. I made a CD of Scarlatti and before that I had only played two sonatas of his. But I searched for the right eighteen sonatas that are interesting to the listeners and arranged them into a “suite of 18 movements” as I call it. This CD will be released on the French label Naive. I was happy to learn that it was already awarded “Album of the week” at WQXR, New York´s classical station!

What does it mean to be virtuosic?

It’s not simple. Some people think virtuosity means the music must be loud and fast. But if you play very softly, this also requires virtuosity. One must know how to touch the keys. It is a horizontal movement but it must be practiced very much! It was such a discovery to find virtuosity in Scarlatti.

Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert lieder [songs] are on the second night’s concert and are also virtuosic. While Schubert’s Lieders are well known and are beautiful, Liszt manages to create a special sound for the piano. Just as a singer must make many characters in “Erlkönig,” so must the pianist. Ultimately the piano’s voice is a singing voice.

How would you describe your particular piano voice?

I connect to each composer differently and so cannot say that I have a specific voice. When the composer calls for power, then I am powerful. But for example, the first piece on the first night’s program in Portland is “Les Barricades misterieuses” (“The Mysterious Barricades”) by Couperin. This piece is like eternity, like celestial atmosphere. It’s in B-flat major; it’s pianissimo. There is no call for powerful playing in this piece.

Walk us through how you prepare pieces.

At first I practice what the composer has written in the score. But the composer cannot exactly write what he imagined at the time. The famous conductor Mahler said, “In the score is everything, just not the vital point.” It’s up to the conductor, the musician, the pianist to find that for himself.

This is found depending on the acoustics of the instrument, the acoustics of the hall, and how I feel in this moment. It is a creation process. Each piece is a landscape. The pianist must recreate each time the mountain over there, the rivers over here. It is difficult to describe.

In the beginning, I must know exactly what the composer has written and after a time I begin to see more. I begin to see what is not written. You shall see what is not written not with the eyes, but with feeling. To see requires my imagination. My imagination comes to the piece when I know the score well. It is this part of the artistic process which I cannot describe because then it will be in the physical world. Sometimes I suddenly see how I connect this moment with another moment, and at the end there is unity. When I find unity throughout the entire piece, then I have won.

How do you develop your focus as a pianist?

Normally when I practice I try to forget everything. I only want to be with the music so that the piece is made new every time. When I work with a piece, I don’t listen to any other pianists, because I am afraid it will influence my interpretation. At the first I want my own personal reaction. In this stage of the learning process, I do not bring in influences from practical reality; I try to leave those behind.

Normally life does interfere with the process, and when I practice I want to be free of all those feelings. But there are exceptions. Sometimes, though, the circumstances of practical life can influence without disturbing the work.

For example, I played the last Schubert sonata in B-flat major D. 960 in 1993. In the second movement I saw that it must be played with the pedal. But it didn’t convince me. Perhaps the pedal wasn’t even written by Schubert, but it is traditional to use pedal. What to do? At this time there were terrible things happening in former Yugoslavia; normally I do not allow politics into my playing. But this time, reality came into the work without disturbing it. I decided not to use any pedal to create a drier, less romantic sound. It convinced me. It was such a process! The practical reality came into the work and my voice came into it as well. So I found a connection between the score, my imagination, and what was happening in the world.

What do you enjoy listening to at the end of the day?

Jascha Heifetz playing “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Jascha Heifetz plays incredibly and the pianist can learn so very much from this sound. His transcriptions are genius and his technique is amazing.

Igor Kamenz performs Sunday, September 21 at 4 pm and Monday, September 22 at 7:30 pm at Lincoln Hall, 1620 Southwest Park Avenue, Portland, OR 97201. Tickets $45-$54 and can be purchased online. http://portlandpiano.org/tickets/

Jana Hanchett is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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