by Kyriakos Loukakos
We haven’t had the privilege of assisting to the 1877 Athens debut of the 17-year old Marcella Sembrich in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, but we assume that at least some of the happy witnesses must have realized the potential that brought the Polish soprano to the eventual conquest of the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Remarkably, 135 years later, we feel confident to attest that Mark Viner’s much attended official debut in the dim Greek capital of the economic crisis, on December 19th, will probably form the stuff of similar historical references in the not too distant future. Then, although we had already acquired some idea of his extraordinary powers during last spring’s Alkan – Zimmermann International Piano Competition, which bestowed upon him a well deserved first prize, we scarcely had been able to grasp the full range of this young Brit’s artistry. Rector spiritus of that event had been the experienced musicologist, critic and collector Constantine Karambelas – Sgourdas and it was him again, under his double capacity as president of both of the former, who not only ably managed to combine forces of the “Gina Bachauer” and “C.V. Alkan – P.J.G.
From his first appearance, in the beautifully restored historic Pavlos Melas Palace Hall, in the center of Athens, young Viner established a remarkable combination of personal integrity and artistic maturity. His program encompassed the full thrill of romantic 19th century pianism, with first part of the concert devoted to Frederic Chopin and his bosom friend, Charles Valentin Alkan, and moving, after the interval, to the more extrovert virtuosic rivalry between Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg.
Frédéric Chopin’s (1810 – 1849) Fantaisie op. 49 enjoyed a strong, well defined and characterful performance of concentrated power and conceptual clarity. A wonderful sense of uneasiness imbued nocturne op. 27 no.1 , introduced with soft playing of the utmost delicacy and poise, thus contrasting powerfully the otherworldly quality of its outer ends with the central nightmare. The more popular nocturne op. 27 no. 2 displayed Viner’s aristocratic feeling for rubato and a clear sense of rhythm, contributing to playing of consummate style and stature, involved and involving. The Chopin chapter was rounded off with an elegantly fluent and rhythmically flexible Fantaisie – Impromptu op. posth. 66, with a touch of improvisational freedom, conform to the romantic era and its’ indisputable stars. Two compositions by Charles Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888) followed, his Marche Funèbre op. 26, in a deeply considered reading with clear separation of notes and a particularly expressive left hand to mark the funereal drums, and his Marche Triomphale, op. 27, a defiantly powerful and optimistic work that provided the 22 – year old pianist with ample opportunities to exhibit his brilliant technique and a considerable understanding of this most enigmatic and fascinating composer.
The Fantaisie sur des thèmes de l’opéra Moïse de G. Rossini op. 33 by Sigismond Thalberg (1812 – 1871), in an inspired and inspirational reading by Viner, introduced the second part of the concert, incidentally a wonderful elaboration of thematic material from a highly interesting Rossini opera, currently reevaluated thanks to a fairly recent absolutely complete revival under the baton of Riccardo Muti. On thematic material from another opera, i.e. the duet “Suoni la tromba” between puritans Sir Richard Forth and Sir George Walton that concludes act 2, draws the monumental morceau de concert of “‘Grandes Variations de bravoure sur la marche des “Puritains” de Bellini’ Composées pour le Concert de Mme. la Princesse Belgiojoso au Bénéfice des pauvres” under the collective name of “Hexaméron” that Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) commissioned to 5 eminent fellow pianists – composers (in order of “appearance” Thalberg, Pixis, Henri Herz, Czerny and Chopin), himself contributing the introduction and first variation, as well as the linking parts among them. It must have been a considerable challenge for the pianist to prepare the work in little more than 3 months time, upon Sgourdas’s impulsive proposition during a visit in Athens last August, as this, his first performance of it, was most probably also a Hellenic premiere of this outrageously difficult compendium of transcendental pianism. Mark Viner attacked this Herculean feat like a young lion, with splendid panache, proving, beyond phenomenal technical stamina and dexterity, a seriousness of purpose it seldom acquires. His subtle differentiation of style among the 6 eminent contributors was backed up with an evident belief in the work and a natural and so special empathy with the Zeitgeist of its time. A passionate rendering of Liszt’s Liebestraum no. 3 as a thankful encore to a delirious audience brought this extraordinary concert to its end. But it will haunt memory for a long time! Prick up your ears, ye Gentlemen, and listen: then unto us a new star pianist is born…
The present publication occurs honouring the artist’s Wigmore Hall (London) debut recital, on March 2nd , 2018.
Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”.
Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique www.critics-point.gr, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address www.criticscorner.gr .
As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory” Society.
 Photos kindly provided by the artist