2020/2021 music season is one of the most outstanding achievements for Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, that managed to bring all available Russian and international star performers at this tricky time for travelling. The second part of XV International Piano Festival was a breath of fresh air in terms of a real mix of international and Russian performers that was not really imaginable even weeks before. Pyotr the First’s phrase (attributed to him by Pushkin’s imagination in ‘The Bronze Horseman’) – ‘All flags will visit us’ – indeed felt palpably true during May 2021, when it seemed that vibrant music life can again become the visiting card of the city.

The performers included Seong-Jin Cho and Danill Sayamov, Alexandre Kantorow and Miroslav Kultyshev, Behzod Abduraimov and Varvara Nepomnyashchaya, Nikolai Lugansky and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, as well as Abisal Gergiev, Dmitry Shishkin and Mira Yevtich – all appearing in one concert. Attending the Festival during these beautiful days of St Petersburg spring in its full swing was almost like having been invited to a delicious wine tasting: there were so many beautiful aromas to choose from, and the aftertaste remained strong on one’s musical palate. With apple and cherry trees blooming, the feeling of freedom was never stronger, as many international stars flew from Europe for the first time since the pandemic.

Seong-Jin Cho. Photo by Natasha Razina © Mariinsky Theatre

My personal strongest impressions were individual recitals, as they imperceptibly revealed the character of each performer, and created an unforgettable passage into the music as seen by the musicians. They were almost like auto-portraits of these pianists, as their choice of works to play reflected their motivations, musical inclinations and even human character, through notes we got introduced to their inner selves. The first highlight was the recital of Korean young star, now Munich-based pianist Seong-Jin Cho. Cho, having won the Gold Medal at Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2015, chose to build his programme around genius Polish composers. For the first half he found two rare works: the rarely performed Janáček’s Piano Sonata «1 October 1905» that vividly portrays the death of a 20-year old worker during demonstrations in Brno, and Karol Szymanowski’s ‘Masques’ that is playful and almost theatrical. Following that, Cho delved into Chopin’s four scherzos, combining mastery and youthful freshness. This Korean young man possesses a unique musicality, and it is always a delight to come so close to its sources, as was possible during these precious minutes of co-creation of wonders on stage.

Behzod Abduraimov. Photo by Mikhail Vilchuk © Mariinsky Theatre

Dmitry Shishkin, Behzod Abduraimov and Nikolai Lugansky all impressed us in their own way, leaving an indelible mark on their audiences who love and cherish their own unique styles. Thus, Shiskin, appearing as the last one in a concert also featuring Mira Yevtich and Abisal Gergiev, stunned us with the performance of Kurt Leimer’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand inspired by the composer’s friends’ injuries during the Second World War and premiered in 1953. To the listeners’ amazement, Shishkin did his encore of Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary Etude’ (Op.10, No.12), using the left hand only. That was a moment of true artistry and theatricality from a young Russian pianist. Abduraimov, in his turn, also benefited from music’s ability to impress by reverting to a very well-known repertoire: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, and Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The last suite was a perfect match for Abduraimov’s mightily and expressive style of performance, as his changes of dynamics and an ability to structure music into 3D-forms helped us to immerse ourselfs into a vivid world of this piece. And finally, Nikolai Lugansky revealed his introspective best through the repertoire where he chose going for depth rather than for surprises and innovations. Lugansky also played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and  his 32nd Piano Sonata, while the second half of the recital was dedicated to Bach and Lugansky’s trademark performance of Rachmaninoff’s six Etudes-Tableaux. As is always the case with Lugansky, every minute of his music-making allowed the listeners to enjoy the crystal clear sounds and to experience mature and thoughtful rendition of famous pieces allowing us to rediscover their beauty through this masterful performance.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photo by Mikhail Vilchuk © Mariinsky Theatre

The Festival finished with much-awaited two evenings of performances given by the renowned French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard who was happy to visit St Petersburg after a long break. Aimard, who is known world-wide for his interpretations of 20thcentury composers (Ligeti, Stockhausen, Ives, Boulez, Birtwistle), chose to play Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with Valery Gergiev and Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra, showing an attuned feeling of the performer-orchestra collaboration and impressing us all with the sounds of this famous piece where the cello (Oleg Sendetsky) becomes the piano’s heart-wrenching counterpart. The second evening performed by Aimard coincided with the opening of the XXIX White Nights Festival that is to last till mid-July 2021, and again, as the Piano Festival itself, indicated the international ambiance that would be ‘business as usual’ for the weeks to come. A careful creator of his recital programmes, Aimard focused on a theme of Fantasia, intertwining Mozart, Beethoven and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach with Jan Sweelinck, Andrei Volkonski and George Benjamin. Volkonski belonged to Russian nobility of post-Revolution émigré circles and went through two rounds of emigrations himself (to USSR in 1947 and back to Europe in 1973), while experimenting with musical styles not-known in the Soviet Union at those years. Thus, Aimard performed his Musica stricta (fantasia ricercata) that boasts to be the first dodecaphonic piece in the history of Russian music. George Benjamin’s (a contemporary British composer who is famous for his three operas, the last of which, Lessons in Love and Violence, had been performed at Covent Garden and also, in concert version, at Mariinsky) Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm acquainted our ears with sharp contrasts of rhythms, alternating between calm and slow and furiously fast. Aimard only hinted at the variety that music of the 20th and 21th century has to offer, while finding their fraternity with classical canon of Beethoven and Mozart.

Thus, the Festival, while staying true to grand masters of music, refreshed our imaginations and opened our minds to fantasies of possible worlds that are so close and yet stay imperceptible unless found. Hopefully, the geography of Russian audiences’ travels could soon proceed from the realm of fantasies to real spatial journeys to the countries inhabited by the guests of Mariinsky Piano Festival. The imagination has never worked so vividly as during the pandemic, and our trained minds wait to be fed the diverse excitements that the world still has to offer. It was the piano music heard this spring at Mariinsky Concert Hall that has blazed this trail for St Petersburg listeners, and made the international borders more transcendent and less real than they in fact are at this complex moment of our world’s existence.