Still only in its second year, the London Piano Festival has already established itself as a major player in the capital’s music scene. Created by pianists Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva, the secret of its success and evident popularity (judging by the commitment and enthusiasm of the audiences) lies in a simple formula: an impressive line up of internationally-acclaimed pianists, imaginative programmes and a friendly atmosphere. Owen and Apekisheva curate the festival and also perform in it, thus creating a wonderful sense of common purpose, very much music with friends, for friends, and amongst friends. Kings Place is the ideal venue for this long weekend of pianism: not only does its Hall One boast a fine acoustic, but its social areas – its bars and café and canal-side terrace – are pleasant places to socialise with friends, and pause and reflect between concerts.

Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen © ICA Media
Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen
© ICA Media

The LPF programme is packed: eight concerts over four days, including jazz and a Sunday morning children’s concert, and the variety of programmes and artists offers something for every piano fan. This year’s festival built on the success and excitement of the previous year, and offered an underlying Russian theme with music by Borodin, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, plus new works written especially for the festival. The climax of the weekend is the two-piano marathon, an embarrassment of piano riches featuring music for two pianos by John Adams, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Shostakovich and Lutoslawski, together with the première of a new work by Elena Langer. Six pianists took to the stage to share this cornucopia: Danny Driver (resplendent in a rococo-patterned long frock coat), Lisa Smirnova, Ilya Itin, Melvyn Tan and of course the festival curators.

Superlatives are largely inadequate here, and it’s hard to select highlights from such a generous and diverse selection of music and performers. The two-piano marathon offered piano playing of the highest order, each pianist bringing their distinctive voice to the repertoire performed, the pairs of performers sparking off one another, collaborating and interacting with warmth, wit and evident enjoyment.

Two pianos in concert together create wonderful orchestral sounds or glittering conversations across the two keyboards, and it’s fascinating to hear what composers make of the opportunity to explore the genre. Vibrant musical colours and rhythms leapt from the two sleek Steinways stretched nose-to-tail across the stage, from the opening work, Hallelujah Junction by John Adams (Driver and Owen), sparkling with rhythmic energy and vigour to the fizzing virtuosity of Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini (Tan and Driver). In between, enchanting late Mozart (elegantly performed by Smirnova and Itin), dramatic and luxuriant Rachmaninov (Owen and Apekisheva), sensuous Ravel (also Owen and Apekisheva), elegiac Schumann (Tan and Driver) and robustly witty Shostakovich (Itin and Smirnova).

Danny Driver and Melvyn Tan © ICA Media
Danny Driver and Melvyn Tan
© ICA Media

In addition to this compositional and pianistic brilliance was the new work by Elena Langer, written for the festival and inspired by a painting of a rider on a scarlet horse by Russian artist Petrov-Vodkin. RedMare pranced and galloped across the two keyboards, replete with “horsey rhythms” and tunes drawn from chastushki (short Russian folksongs or poems). The entire programme was intoxicating, perfectly balanced to keep one wanting more, and a splendid celebration of the piano and those who play it.

But the enjoyment did not end there. Earlier in the afternoon I attended concerts by Melvyn Tan and Ilya Itin. Tan’s concert, Dances and Mirrors, opened with Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz, its delicate, intimate preamble like a shy debutante at her first dance, waiting to be swept off by her beau. Tan’s expert sense of pacing and musical wit kept the listener guessing: what might happen at this dance? What could the “invitation” lead to?

In contrast, Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales presented the waltz at its most decadent and erotic, with supple rhythms, jazz infused harmonies and an improvisatory feel running through the eight movements. The centrepiece of Tan’s programme was the première of l’Africaine by Kevin Volans, a work which employs African compositional methods and the use of patterning, with the left and right hands as two complementary performers. The energetic rhythms and repetitions created myriad tones and colours, suggestions of other instruments and even a veiled reference to Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse. The title is a slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to Couperin and indeed the work owed something to the French Baroque clavicinistes in its intricacy and clarity of touch. The “mirrors” element of Tan’s programme came from Ravel’s Miroirs. Here Tan’s liquid tone and iridescent touch brought these evocative works to life: fluttering nocturnal moths, a ship at sea on crashing waves, a call to the hot, arid landscape of Spain, and distant bells echoing in a valley, their individual characteristics and charms beautifully delineated, with sensitive pacing and an extensive palette of dynamics and subtle nuances.

Lisa Smirnova and Ilya Itin © ICA Media
Lisa Smirnova and Ilya Itin
© ICA Media

Ilya Itin explored music in the key of D, pairing Schubert’s extrovert and virtuosic Sonata D850 with Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata no. 1 in D minor. Composed 80 years apart, at either ends of the Romantic period, Itin sought to link the works with an intriguing common thread, a repeated motif which appears in the first movement of the Schubert and the second subject of the Rachmaninov. The Schubert felt rather four-square, though the slow movement was delightfully poignant with a clear sense of Schubert’s mutability and restless outbursts, and the finale’s tinkling theme, like a Viennese toy soldier’s march, was charming. Itin brought a Beethovenian robustness to the sonata. This approach was far more successful in the Rachmaninov, in which one felt the performer was fully at home with the music of his countryman. Expansive and dramatically volatile, with long-spun melodies and rich textures, this was a performance of authority and commitment.

I know from friends who attended other concerts in the festival that the exceptional quality and variety was maintained throughout the weekend, which bodes well for the future of the festival. Pianophiles can rest easy: the dates of the 2018 London Piano Festival are already confirmed (4-7 October), with performances promised by Ingrid Fliter and Konstantin Lifschitz, with the full line up to be announced early in the new year.