Friday, August 11, 2023

A Magnificent Recital in the Summer

The drought of piano recitals in the summer was broken on Tuesday, August 8th, with pianist Sergei Babayan’s magnificent recital at Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral. In spite of the sounds of the Steinway competing with the occasional traffic noise, Babayan’s performance confirmed my previous impression that he truly is one of the Elect.


The concert commenced with Franz Liszt formidable and masterful Ballade No. 2 in B minor (S. 171), one of his finest solo piano works. I can see why this piece is rarely performed, as it takes not only a musician with transcendental technique, but also the ability, and vision, to hold all the disparate elements of the score together. Under the wrong hands, this work could sound like a series of beautiful episodes. In Babayan’s performance, there was a sense of unity, an organic cohesiveness to the score. The artist understands what Alfred Brendel calls Liszt’s nobility of spirit, and he underscored the ecstatic quality of the music, as well as the dark brooding colours found in so much of the work. He exploited – in the best sense of the word – and brought out the full resources of the piano. It was with this masterful performance that Babayan began his recital. 


With his performance of Franz Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s Lieder, the piano was suddenly transformed into a songful instrument. In spite of the very high standards of piano playing today, few pianists could produce a true legato on the instrument. Under Babayan’s hands, the piano took on a palpable liquid, flowing quality. From the starkness of Die Stadt (D. 957) to the yearning of Der Muller und der Bach (D. 795) to the utter despair of Gretchen am Spinnrade (D. 118) and to the beautiful flowing melody of Auf dem Wasser zu singen(D. 774), Babayan gave the piano an absolute vocal beauty and a complete identification with and affinity for the Schubertian idiom that would be the envy of a Fischer-Dieskau or Ameling. 


I have long admired Babayan’s Rachmaninoff interpretations, so beautifully highlighted in his solo album for Deutsche Grammophon. At the risk of running out of superlatives, his performances of the composer’s Etudes-Tableaux (Op. 39) and Moment musicaux (Op. 16) highlighted all the beauty and inventiveness of his music. In his playing of the Etudes-Tableaux in E-flat minor (No. 5), Babayan brought absolute clarity to the dense texture as well as the passionate and tumultuous quality inherent in the score. The artist’s performance also highlighted the intricacies and forward-looking aspects of Rachmaninoff’s later works, as was evident in how he masterfully negotiated the complexities of the Etude-Tableaux in C minor (No. 1). At the same time, in his performance of the two earlier Moment musicaux, Babayan brought out the beauty of the composer’s harmonic and melodic inventions that so attracted musicians and music lovers to his earlier works. 


After intermission, the artist took the audience back to the 18th century with his performances of Mozart and Haydn. In many ways, the music-making in the second half was even more incredible, as the virtuosity required was even more subtle. The playing throughout was enthralling and moving. I was astounded by Babayan’s interpretation of Mozart’s early Sonata in B-flat Major (K. 281). There was great souplesse in his playing and breathing room for the music, but without disturbing the structural integrity of the work. Under his hands, the music seemed to have taken a three-dimensional quality, with a perfect balance between vertical and horizontal elements. His tempo choice in the second movement (Andante amoroso) reminded me of Horowitz’s admonition about this movement, “This was Mozart in love!” Babayan’s playing of the third movement brought out all the joy and humour of this jaunty movement, still so steeped in the aesthetics of the rococo. 


Haydn’s Sonata in E minor (Hob XVI: 47bis) is, for me, one of the most original works in his vast output of sonatas. A combination of sturm und drang as well as great humour, and a juxtaposition of joy and melancholy. Babayan’s playing of the first movement was, to my ears, like a beautifully shot black and white film, with infinite shades of light and darkness. His performance of the Larghetto was perfectly placed; he did not make it bigger than it is meant to be, but allowing the music to serve as an intermezzo between the two outer movements, and his romp through the third movement was simply breathtaking. 


Babayan brought out the elegance and humour in the first movement of the same composer’s Sonata in E-flat Major (Hob XVI:49). For me, the emotional core of the work lies in the magnificent slow movement - Babayan underscored the great depth and beauty of the outer sections and the gentle anguish, not to mention the darker colours, of the middle section. He took the gently rocking minuet of the third movement at a slightly slower tempo than I hear in my mind, which somehow made the humour inherent in this music even more pronounced. Somehow, Babayan managed to give the left hand a quality of a ticking clock. 


The artist gave an utterly charming performance of Mozart’s utterly charming Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” (K. 265). With the first notes of the music, the audience heaved a pleasant sigh of recognition of the famous tune. Babayan’s performance of this enchanting work with great panache, ending the evening’s performance with a palpable sense of joy and great good humour. It was, indeed, akin to a perfectly made dessert following a gourmet meal. 


Throughout this second half of the recital, I felt that the music-making had a sense of fantasy to it, a spontaneity and freedom, a feeling of discovery, and always full of surprises.


After a well-deserved ovation from the capacity audience, Babayan generously granted a single encore – although I am certain that the audience would have happily listened to many more – the Aria from Bach’sGoldberg Variations, a performance filled with all the grace and beauty it calls for, and one infused with a spiritual quality, as well as the quality of a benediction. 


Even in today’s crowded field of outstanding pianists, Sergei Babayan remains in a class of his own. Last Tuesday’s programme – indeed a traversal through a vast segment of the piano literature - amply demonstrated the artist’s generosity of spirit. The performance was a perfect synthesis of the intellect and the soul, the mind and the heart, and a reminder of how the greatness of music can make the world a better place. 

Patrick May



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