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St James hosts the World’s Top Pianist

by Julia Meredith

Alexander Panfilov is, to be precise, this year’s 1st Prize winner of the Top of the World International Piano Competition in Tromsø, Norway, besides over 15 further international competitions; and it shows.  This young Russian has played in Carnegie Hall NY, Wigmore Hall, St Martins in the Fields and concert halls throughout Europe.  The adjective most frequently used about his stunning interpretations is ‘sensitive’ – so it is disarming when he comes on stage looking like nothing so much as a well-groomed bouncer.

He sits down (with a creak from the piano stool!) and then, as his hands began to shape the opening phrases of Haydn’s Sonata in Eb, any idea of heavy-handedness is comprehensively dispelled.  As he bowed his bull’s head over the keyboard, the contrast with fingers sprightly as any corps de ballet’s satin slippers, was delicious to behold.  Little puffings of the lips, nodding or shaking at the expression of certain phrases – he seemed to be cajoling the music out from the Steinway, and then gazing heavenward (up at the scaffolding – yes, St James is getting its much appreciated renovation at last!) for confirmation that his brailling fingers were, in fact, on the right path.

He took the Presto at a ferocious lick, a wild rollercoaster ride with a master engineer at the helm: playful but exacting, beating time with his eyebrows, never less than a safe pair of hands.  We could relax into the exhilaration; not always the case.

Everyone knows the Schubert Impromptus (D899) and I have yet to come across the curmudgeon who doesn’t love them. As the first sweet, familiar notes took shape in the air, there was an audible sigh of pleasure from those below.  In the Eb, a butterfly ripple of sound was utterly controlled, without skittishness or swooning liberties with the tempo:  just immaculate technique.  The poetry slipped out from between his disciplined fingers as I suspect Schubert would have intended.

The Gb was played with such honeyed tenderness it was hard to breathe, the murmurings of a lover… then segueing into darker, more sombre territory… then back again to the sunny uplands.  It felt like the bestowing of a gift.

During the interval, Credit Suisse, sponsors of this concert and indeed the entire Fanny Davies International Piano Series, had provided a thoughtful glass of prosecco for those who had braved the storms to be there. I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels with Mr Panfilov: the bottled-up magic has to flow out to be fully appreciated.

Albeniz’s ‘Iberia’ is a Spain-infused contrast to the first half of the programme.  In Evocacion the shimmering, pointillist heat-haze that Panfilov conjured for us had the dreamy quality of a siesta.  Authentically the lushness was countered with Spanish wiriness, poking through like a rawboned Rosinante somnolent under a tree;  and the spiky Andalusian dance rhythms of El Puerto.

The last listed piece, Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, is a set of kaleidoscopic variations.  At first it might have been written for another instrument, so distinct was the soundscape from what had gone before.  A sonorous minor chime, almost metronomically precise.  And then the leap into dazzling bravura, switching techniques like a man changing a mole-wrench for a pair of fine-nosed pliers to suit the task, abundantly at ease with each.  At times his head sinks between his shoulders like a bull preparing a charge – yet from the ends of his solid arms, the notes tiptoe out, shyly, in patterns of delicate perfection  His pianissimo is so ethereal you can’t imagine it being heard beyond the second row (were it not for the phenomenal acoustics of St James), but when he wishes to swing the mallet fortissimo, you are in no doubt about the controlled power being wielded.  Like some large men, you suspect he’d be a very fine dancer.

We would not let him go after that and so, having told us that it would be wrong not to play at least one Russian composer and that as it happened, Prokofiev had visited Guernsey some 100 years ago – who knew! – he gave us a taster.  Surprising. Magnificent.

Thanks again to Credit Suisse; and, for those who sadly missed this memorable evening, earmark 28th April when Adam Davies will be our next pianist in the series.