With Elizabeth Leonskaya and Paul Lewis leading the pack, this has been a good year for Schubert’s piano music, but from the moment Katya Apekisheva played the opening flourish of the Sonata in A minor D 537 it was clear that hers was a voice like no other.
With its wayward and episodic structure, this movement poses a tricky challenge, but Apekisheva gave it such propulsive and silky power that the whole edifice felt like a single train of thought; the passage-work had feline smoothness, the bursts of fortissimo came like bolts from the blue. The Andantino turned into an interplay between a dry self-denial of the pedal and the sensuous pleasure of luxuriating in it; in Apekisheva’s hands even the concluding Allegro vivace – whose awkwardness reflected the young Schubert’s inexperience – became keyboard poetry of a high order.
She then delivered Schumann’s ‘Kinderszenen’, employing sound-worlds of a very different sort: it was wonderful to see the Wigmore’s massive beast of a Steinway effortlessly tamed by this tiny, round-faced, smiling woman. And for the knowing innocence of these pieces she found a style of playing as natural as everyday speech. The sharp syncopations of ‘A Curious Story’ were followed by a dizzily-scurrying ‘Blind Man’s Buff’, and an account of ‘Dreaming’ which became something large and richly suggestive: we were like children at a party watching a conjuror pull tricks out of a hat.
Then came a curiosity by Dobrinka Tabakova entitled ‘Halo’, whose inspiration was apparently the halo of light surrounding the moon on a summer night. It would follow the life-cycle of that halo, and would also hint at the cycle of human life: a grandiose notion, but a rather ordinary piece, dwelling too heavily on a few bold effects, but it made a nice bridge into Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ which was Apekisheva’s finale. Trained at the fabled Gnessin school, she has such rock-solid technique that she can focus entirely on what she wants to do with it. Her Old Castle had noble restraint, her Tuileries were gracefully unhurried, her Unhatched Chicks kicked up a storm, her Great Gate of Kiev climaxed in a blaze of magnificence. Until this sensational concert, Katya Apekisheva had been a slightly shadowy figure on Britain’s pianistic scene. Not any more.