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Illia Ovcharenko making his debut performing at Zankel Hall, 2/25/2023
Illia Ovcharenko making his debut performing at Zankel Hall, 2/25/2023. Photo by Chris Lee

Concert Review: Ukrainian Pianist Illia Ovcharenko – Music of Liszt, Scarlatti, Silvestrov, Revutsky, Chopin (NYC, 26 February 2023)

Ukrainian pianist Illia Ovcharenko dazzled an enthusiastic audience at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on Sunday, showing NYC why at just 21 he was the laureate of the 2022 Honens International Piano Competition.

Ovcharenko is as thoughtful and exact in his concert programming as he is technically proficient and emotionally immersive at the keyboard. His first set centered on Franz Liszt’s challenging Sonata in B minor and bookended that vast opus with two Scarlatti sonatas in that same key, which set off and commented on the Liszt in interesting ways. In the second half he interspersed pieces by two Ukrainian composers, exercising his dynamic control in short works by Valentin Silvestrov and contextualizing Levko Revutsky’s late Romanticism with a Chopin Polonaise at the end.

The whispering left-hand accompaniment in the opening Scarlatti sonata actually looked ahead to the studied quality of the Silvestrov Bagatelles. With a clean, bell-like tone and sensitive fingerwork the pianist seemed to directly channel the Italian’s centuries-old voice.

Then he combined stunning, razor-sharp technique with spare, modest pedaling to give the towering Liszt sonata an admirable clarity. Left-hand octaves danced, right-hand runs sparkled, and staccato passages resonated with unusual expressiveness. He played with passion but without schmaltz – a huge plus with Liszt.

Revutsky, Silvestrov – and Ovcharenko

Clarity and spaciousness marked the Silvestrov pieces, flares of Romantic heat the Revutsky works. A folk theme evoked a sense of muted longing in the former’s Bagatelle No. 2, while the latter’s Prelude in F-sharp minor looked back to the heat of the Liszt. Ovcharenko brought off Revutsky’s Vivace Prelude No. 2 in B-flat minor with dexterity and a smooth, bright tone, which set up a tense, elastic tableau in the No. 1 in E-flat Major with its Rachmaninoff-esque climax.

The Revutsky Sonata Op. 1 (B minor again!) gained from a fleet-fingered, confident, kaleidoscopic touch, gritty melody-making from the left hand, and a gentle chorale erupting into pianistic fireworks again recalling the Liszt.

Illia Ovcharenko making his debut performing at Zankel Hall, 2/25/2023
Illia Ovcharenko making his debut performing at Zankel Hall, 2/25/2023. Photo by Chris Lee

With spark but without undue flashiness, Ovcharenko’s performance of the familiar Chopin Polonaise in A-flat Major raised spirits high. His rapid left-hand octaves sounded almost superhuman, but there is nothing machine-like about the young pianist’s sensibility. Furious technique is just one dimension of his already-mature skillset.

It’s also nice to hear a young artist from Ukraine looking back to his countryman-composers for inspiration. Silvestrov, still active, is gaining particular attention in the Western musical community of late. As Ovcharenko told us in our recent interview:

It is very important to me, especially nowadays, to represent Ukrainian culture. In Ukraine, we have so many great composers who are unknown globally; however their music is truly beautiful, unique and worth more exposure worldwide. Music is my way of speaking up and showing my support to the people of my country, wherever they are, in Ukraine or temporarily outside of Ukraine.

Illia Ovcharenko tours Europe this spring, then returns to the U.S. in July to perform at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival. Visit his website for more information.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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