For a while, Sergei Babayan was the best-kept secret in the music world. Everyone knew him as a great teacher, mentoring an entire generation of distinguished pianists. Thankfully for music lovers, Mr. Babayan has recently been much more active on the concert stage. A few years ago, in a recital in Vancouver, I was moved and stunned by his beautifully idiomatic Chopin and his incredible pianism in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. With his new recording contract with the Deutsche Grammophon label, I am certain that his name will soon become a household word in the music world, as he deserves to be.
In this latest album of the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Babayan has chosen a wonderfully diverse recital of the composer’s solo miniature works. In the opening Prelude in A-flat major (Op. 23, No. 8) and G-sharp minor (Op. 32, No. 12), as well as the composer’s own transcription of Lilacs (Op. 21, No. 5), the pianist plays like a master painter, drawing from his incredibly wide sound palette, and his magical pedaling, painting for us a multitude of sound colours. In hearing these pieces, one “sees” splashes of colours in front of our eyes, and hears a sort of “liquid sound”. In his playing of Lilacs, Babayan acts as both singer and pianist in a perfect blend of vocal and pianistic colours. Indeed, throughout this entire album, the word “colour” keeps returning to my mind.
We then hear a different side of the composer, when Babayan’s plunges into the Prelude in F minor (Op. 32, No. 6), where he not only towers over the not insignificant technical demands of the work, but underscores the forward-looking harmonies that the composer is not often given credit for.
In three Études-Tableau, Babayan draws upon the darker harmonic colours in the composer’s music. In the Étude-Tableau in C minor (Op. 33, No. 3), he underscores the contrast between the drama of the opening and the lyricism of the middle section. His playing of the Étude-Tableau of the same key (Op. 39, No. 1) is, in a word, sweeping. Babayan has an incredible sense of the horizontal aspect of the music, no matter how dramatic the playing is, or how big the sound, the playing never becomes heavy. In the Étude-Tableau in A minor (Op. 39, No. 2), he highlights the composer’s unique melodic inventiveness, as well as the gently swaying melodic figures of the accompaniment, and gives us a performance of intense lyricism.
The towering Prelude in B minor (Op. 32, No. 10), for me the climax of this recital, is given a very memorable performance indeed. From the pale colours of the opening, Babayan masterfully builds the music to its shattering climax before the tension abates once again. His ability to bring out the lyricism of Rachmaninoff’s music is also evident in the Volodos transcription of the composer’s Melody (Op. 21, No. 9), where he manages to keep the melody afloat amidst the pianistic figurations swirling around it. With an uncanny sense of programming, Babayan gives us the brief Morceau de fantaisie in G minor, serving as a perfect palate cleanser before the balance of the recital. In the justly famous Prelude in D major (Op. 23, No. 4), the pianist brings out the incredible sensuality of the music, and stunningly plays off the beautiful melody with the almost as beautiful counter melody, or descant, the two floating around each other in an ocean of sound.
The final part of the recital is a contrast between the lyrical and the dramatic. In the Étude-Tableau in E-flat minor (Op. 39, No. 5), Babayan highlights the composer’s penchant for bell-like sounds. The Volodos transcription of the Andante from the composer’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (Op. 19) received an interpretation from Babayan that made me forget the cello. He ends this Rachmaninoff recital with masterful playing of two contrasting works, the Moment musical in E-flat minor (Op. 16, No. 2) and the triumphant Moment musical in C major (Op. 16, No. 6).
In Babayan’s own words that he shares with us in the programme notes, he writes, “Only a composer of the highest gifts can have a craftsmanship of the level where music sounds like an improvisation, born spontaneously.” I believe he might as well have been describing his own playing in this album, because only a pianist with the highest gifts can make the music sounding so spontaneous, like an improvisation. So closely does Babayan identify with Rachmaninoff’s music, I feel that he almost takes on the identity of the creator.
Mr. Babayan’s first album on Deutsche Grammophon was one dedicated to the two-piano music of Prokofiev, where he shares the recording studio with Martha Argerich. As much as I admire and love the art of Argerich, I am grateful that we get to hear Babayan on his own, in music that he so obviously loves. I hope that this incredible album will acquaint many more people to the art of this master pianist and artist.