Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ending on a High Note

It is always sad every year to realize that the concert season is winding down. The Vancouver Recital Society’s season ended a couple of weeks ago, and the Vancouver Chopin Society presented its final concert of the 2016-2017 season this past Sunday with a recital by the Armenian-born, Russian-trained, American pianist (and famed pedagogue) Sergei Babayan. I had never before heard him in concert, and so it was certainly a treat to have experienced the artistry, musicianship and pianism of this wonderful pianist.

Babayan began his performance with, I am guessing, the Vancouver premiere of Russian composer Vladimir Ryabov’s Fantasia in C minor, in memory of Maria Yudina, Op. 21. This is an incredibly intense and challenging work inspired by the repertoire and life of the great Soviet pianist Maria Yudina. I doubt that many people in North America had heard of Maria Yudina, since she didn’t – or couldn’t – play outside of her native Russia. But she was a pianist in the same order of a Richter or a Gilels. In the piece, there were allusions, or quotes, of themes from pieces that Yudina frequently played, as well as references to Orthodox Chants, because of the pianist’s Christian faith. Babayan’s performance of this demanding work was stunning, capturing the rapidly shifting moods and colours of the work. The work ended, as indicated in the programme notes, with “a dream-like perpetual motion punctuated by bell tones that seems to disintegrate into shattered silence.” The silence and attentiveness of the audience indicated to me that Babayan was successful in conveying the essence of this music.

The pianist continued with the rest of the first half with music by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, playing the pieces without a break. Indeed, Babayan created such a mood of intimacy, especially in the Chopin works, that I felt that he was playing for himself, and that the audience was almost eavesdropping upon this incredible performance. In the Polonaise in C-sharp minor, Op. 26, No. 1, Babayan captured the contrast between the drama and heroism of the outer sections with the lyricism and longing in the middle section. In the great Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, I thought his playing of especially the descending scale at mm. 13 to 16 to be meltingly beautiful. The challenging B section of this waltz sounded as effortless and light as it could possibly be.

The pianist’s playing of the Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60, was very different from the performance given by Georgijs Osokins last season. Osokins brought out all the colours of this great masterpiece, while Babayan’s interpretation was more inward looking, more intimate. He did not try to make the Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2, bigger than it is, but played it with just the right degree of melancholy and an intense musicality. The Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 29 was stunning in its gossamer lightness and breathlessness.

Instead of the Ballade No. 3 that was originally programmed, the artist decided on a last minute programme change, playing instead three short works by Sergei Rachmaninoff – the Etude Tableaux in E-flat minor, Op. 39, No. 5, the Moment Musicaux in E-flat minor, Op. 16, No. 2, and the Moment Musicaux in C major, Op. 16, No. 3. The programme change showcased Babayan’s affinity for the music of the Russian composer. His performance of these works highlighted not only his awesome pianistic abilities, but also the beautiful sound – especially in the lower register of the piano – that he evoked from the instrument (this was also evident in his performance of the Ryabov), a sound that is so well suited to Rachmaninoff’s music.

Ever since hearing Glenn Gould’s stunning first recording of Bach’s monumental work, I have always had a personal bias that the Goldberg Variations as something that Canada owns. An artist like Babayan would obviously have its own interpretation of the work, one that really can lend itself to so many different views. Rather than, to paraphrase Gould’s words, looking for some kind of mathematical correspondence between the theme and the 30 variations, I believe Babayan was trying to convey the character of each individual variation. That said, I thought that his playing of the variations had a logical and natural flow from one to the next, as well as a palpable sense of totality that eludes many artists. In the 25th variation, he did not fall into the trap of wearing the tragedy of the music on his sleeve, but infused it with just the right degree of pathos. Babayan told me afterwards that he was inspired by the attentiveness of the afternoon’s audience.

After hearing Sergei Babayan, I understood why artists like Martha Argerich, Danil Trifonov, and Valery Gergiev regularly sought him out as collaborator. I am already looking forward to his next appearance in Vancouver.

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