Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Art of the Encore

Although only 23 years old, pianist Nikolay Khozyaninov already has an impressive string of competition wins. And so it was with great anticipation that I attended his recital last Friday evening.

Recent performers for the Vancouver Chopin Society have not been concentrating so much on the music by the society’s namesake, but Khozyaninov gave us an entire first half devoted to music by Chopin. The justifiably famous Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2 was taken at an unusually slow tempo. But tempo isn’t really the issue here, an artist can take any tempo as long as he or she can sustain and maintain the tensions within the music. This was not the case in Khozyaninov’s playing of this particular nocturne. At measure 6, with an ascending series of notes in the right hand, the pianist inserted a significant ritard where Chopin indicated only crescendo, which led to, so early on in the piece, an interruption in the impetus of the music. Perhaps he was dwelling too much on the beauty of the music, to the detriment of the musical flow.

The Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1 worked better under Khozyaninov’s hands. The opening of the work, with quietly flowing left hand broken chords, and the haunting right hand melody, were realized beautifully. I did feel that the climactic, mazurka-like, section from measures 64 to 80, lacked nobility. The young artist opened the great Barcarolle, Op. 60 with a great sense of space. There was, however, not enough of a build-up towards the great climax at measure 93, that when the moment did arrive, it was almost like an anti-climax.

Khozyaninov followed this great work with three waltzes by Chopin. For me, the Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2 was the most successful. The artist’s playing brought out the simple beauty, and slightly melancholic character of the work. In the great Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, I took issue with the speeding up at the B section of the piece (not indicated at all by the composer), which changed the pulse of the music. After the Più lento section, Chopin did write Più mosso for the reappearance of the B theme, but this is only in relation to the slower tempo of the Più lento, and not a license to speed up the first time the B theme appears. The Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 69, No. 1 is, for me, a miniature tone poem for piano. I felt that the pianist missed the shifting colours and moods that the music takes us. I would perhaps suggest that he listens to Alfred Cortot’s incredible interpretation of this work, not to imitate, but to learn from it.

In the Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38, the dramatic sections worked much better than the quieter chordal sections as the chords did not float and lacked a sense of direction as well as repose.

It seems incredible that this must have been the fourth or fifth time this season that I heard Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110. This is not a complaint, since a work like the Op. 110 can have a wide range of interpretations. On Friday, there were things that were outstanding, such as in the rhythmically tricky second movement (“Allegro molto”) as well as a beautifully realized Adagio ma non troppo movement. In the latter, Khozyaninov brought out the depth and pathos of the music as well as a sense of time standing still, especially in the many pregnant pauses in the Recitativo (measure 4). In the Klagender Gesang (Arioso dolente) - the most tragic music Beethoven ever wrote, Khozyaninov played with great beauty and depth of feeling, but without sacrificing the impetus of the music. I did, however, feel that in the first movement, the left hand accompaniment to the first theme was rather wooden sounding, as were the left hand chords at measures 13 to 18, and at 71 to 75. Compared to Paul Lewis’ magisterial playing of the fugue in the final movement, only a week ago, Khozyaninov again fell short in the very slow build up towards the radiant A-flat major chord that ends the piece.

I was grateful to the pianist for playing Tchaikovsky’s Original Theme and Variations in F major, Op. 19. The young artist brought out the unique character and charm of each variation of this set of theme and twelve variations.

The pianist then proceeded to tackle Feux follets (Allegretto), the fifth of Franz Liszt’s 12 Etudes d’exécution transcendante and, according to many, most difficult of the set. I sat stunned as I heard the pianist played this work with great aplomb, flair, and the most incredible lightness and agility. It was a truly breathtaking pianistic feat. More impressive piano playing awaited us in the final work of the recital, the Liszt-Busoni Fantasy on Two Themes from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. The two themes from the opera are, specifically, Cherubino’s beautiful Voi che sapete and Figaro’s mocking Non più andrai. Not knowing the work, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the work was Busoni, and how much was Liszt. As expected, it was a barnburner of an interpretation, where Khozyaninov pulled out all his pianistic stops. It was truly ingenious how the composer (composers?) merged the two themes in this staggeringly difficult work.

With such incendiary playing in these final works, it was no surprise that the audience clamored for more. Khozyaninov rewarded us with four encores. In the Waltz in E minor, Oeuvre posthume, I felt that his playing of this particular Chopin waltz was far too skittish, and missed the noble beauty of the E major section. Busoni’s Fantasy on Carmen once again brought out the best in this young man, who relished in the colours, not to mention pianistic hurdles, of this complex music. To my ears, he gave us his most musical and sensitive playing for the evening in Debussy’s Clair de lune, reminding us once again that this piece is popular because it is truly beautiful. I was rather hoping to leave the recital with the delicate sounds of the Debussy. I was therefore disappointed that he ended his string of encores with Strauss-Rosenthal's Fantasy on themes from Der Fledermaus. Yes, the playing was brilliant, and it was clear that the pianist was having fun, but I think there should only be so much virtuosic playing in one recital. After a while, the pianistic feats began to wear thin, and at the end of the experience, I longed for silence. After the recital, I was convinced more than ever that any artist should know when to quit.

I am certain that Nikolay Khozyaninov is a pianist of incredible abilities. I believe time will tell if he truly becomes an artist as well. I hope that his busy career won’t hamper him from continuing to study and think about music.

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