Warm-up festival with fire, anger - and beauty

JULIA HOLLANDER previews the first Iffley Piano Festival with its strong Russian link

For young musicians, an Oxford gig is a perfect warm-up for the pressures of the Purcell Room or the Wigmore Hall, indeed for the world at large. The city offers audiences open to a wide repertoire, thrilled to be at the cutting edge of emerging talent.

One such opportunity is Iffley Music Society. Founded by music enthusiast Michael Bourdeaux in 1996, the society stages half a dozen concerts a year in the glorious old church and hall of Iffley village.

The emphasis is on informality and accessibility, with players writing their own programme notes and discussing the music between numbers. Over the years, Michael has built up a lively and faithful following, but never has been staged quite such an ambitious event as this up-coming Anglo-Russian piano festival.

On the opening night, 21-year old Cordelia Williams launches the festival with a piece of showmanship from a youthful Bach - his Toccata in F# minor. Cordelia is the daughter of a piano teacher and gave her first public recital at the age of eight, going on to win the piano section winner of Young Musician of the Year in 2006.

cordelia williams

Not content with exposing just her own talents, in the live television finale she chose to premiere Absentia by her friend Hugh Brunt. Hugh is well known to Oxford audiences as the conductor of Oxford University Philharmonia and other enterprises during his recent sojourn at New College. Since Absentia, Cordelia has commissioned two more piano pieces from him, and the complete triptych gets its first airing at this concert.

It would be a mistake to think novelty and youth were the only characteristics Williams offers. As a student of theology, she is not embarrassed to discuss the spiritual element of her work. For the culmination of her concert, she has chosen Schubert's last piano sonata, written just a couple of months before his death at the age of 31.

Of the music, Williams said: "There are outbursts of fire and anger, but also moments which I believe to be among the most beautiful in all music, moments of communion with the sublime. This sonata seems to me to be a reflective journey through life - it encompasses the whole of our world and more."

From Viennese universality to dancing in the streets of Buenos Aires - at lunchtime on the Saturday, the 21-year-old Russian Alexandra Krylova will give a recital full of fireworks, its high-point being a flamboyant sonata by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. The lunchtime concert next daySun ? will contain old favourites by Schubert and Bach, as well as Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin. At 18 years of age, pianist Craig Greene is the youngest in the festival.

elena vorotko

The evening concerts on Saturday and Sunday provide exposure for two more young Russians. Iffley music-lovers are big fans of 27-year-old Elena Vorotko, who has played for them twice before.

She came to England from the Russian Central Volga region, first to study at the Purcell School and then at the Royal Academy of Music. Two years ago, her work as a composer came to our notice when the choir of New College performed her prize-winning choral piece. Elena specialises in Bach and Schumann, whose music fills her programme in Iffley.

Last but not least, Veronika Ilinskaya arrives on Sunday evening. She grew up in Moscow and was taught piano by her mother and later at the Moscow Conservatoire's Central Music School.

veronika ilinskaya

"Growing up in the country with so glorious and rich cultural heritage couldn't leave me uninvolved in the eventful musical life there," said Veronika. "Apart from inspiring atmosphere and access to so much repertoire, materials, great teachers and historical concerts - during these years I also got accustomed to discipline and hard work from the start."

Veronika came to the UK to study at the Guildhall School of Music. She said: "It helped me to become aware of deeper level of musicianship to aim for, close studies of other forms of art, history and literature, and it also assisted me to become an independent, to have my own musical opinion and to start my performing life travelling across UK and Europe with concerts and going to competitions and festivals."

Last summer she played with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the Henley Festival and is now making her first commercial CD of Scriabin's Piano Concerto, also with the CBSO. Her programme for Iffley emphasises her interest in Russian music, with a popular sonata by Medtner, the contemporary of Rachmaninoff who spent his last 15 years in the UK, and a suite by Prokofiev taken from his brilliant Cinderella ballet. Like the composers she champions, Veronika is a true cosmopolitan. Not content to settle in a commercial niche, she recently graduated from the Mannes School of Music in New York, where she held a scholarship.

"Now, when I am back to Europe" she said, "I hope to share my love for changes, different views and discoveries which I try to integrate through my work, because I believe that it is appreciation of all differences which makes people closer and richer."