Sofya Gulyak – pianist extraordinaire

Piano Recital by Sofya Gulyak

New Zealand School Of Music,

in association with the NZ (Auckland) International Piano Festival

RACHMANINOV – Three Pieces for Piano Op.3 / Etude Tableau in E-flat Minor Op.39

Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op.42

SCRIABIN – Two Poemes Op.32 / SHOSTAKOVICH – Prelude and Fugue in D-flat Op.87 No.15

PROKOFIEV – Piano Sonata No.6 in A Op.82

Adam Concert Room, NZSM, Victoria University of Wellington

Saturday 28th April

Former Professor of Piano at Auckland University Tamas Vesmas instigated in 2005 the Auckland International Piano Festival, an event which for the following couple of years attracted numerous world class pianists to give recitals, concerts and masterclasses. In 2008, Vesmas returned to Europe to live, and the Festival’s organization was taken over by John Eady, of Lewis Eady Ltd, the New Zealand agents for Steinway pianos. Tamas Vesmas was able to maintain an interest in the Festival as Artistic Director, which continued successfully under John Eady’s stewardship, a process which eventually saw the Festival drop the “Auckland” from its title and become the New Zealand International Piano Festival. This year, the prestigious line-up included none other than the 2009 Winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition, Sofya Gulyak. It was Wellington’s great good fortune that she was able to include a visit to the capital in her schedule, and perform her Festival program here as well.

Gulyak’s success at Leeds was historic in the sense that she was the first woman to win the top prize in the competition (Mitsuko Uchida went close in 1975, but was edged out by Dmitri Alexeev, and the talented Noriko Ogawa was placed third in 1987, though she beat the highly-regarded Russian Boris Berezovsky into fourth place). At Leeds Gulyak played the Brahms D Minor Concerto with Mark Elder and the Halle to take the honours, and her performance was praised for its “measured intensity” and its “combination of tonal weight and dark lyricism”. Her success wasn’t entirely unquestioned, as often happens in these competitions, with each of the runners-up preferred by some commentators as the more deserving of the highest award – but Gulyak was able to impress enough of the right people sufficiently to carry the day.

She was certainly able to impress her Wellington audience as well, though not with Brahms – her programme, which she had also played in Auckland, at the Festival, consisted entirely of Russian works.  It was a well-chosen assemblage of pieces designed to demonstrate unequivocally those characteristics we’ve generally come to associate with music from that particular part of the world. Added to this was a style of playing which, thanks largely to recordings of other pianists, could readily be identified as belonging to the “Russian School”, and which Gulyak seemed to me to proclaim practically from her first note of the recital, at the beginning of Rachmaninov’s Elegie from the set of Pieces, Op.3. Her depth of tone, and evocation of both a deep stillness and a wonderfully oceanic surge caught us up in her sound-world within seconds, one which rose and fell at will throughout the music’s journeyings.

The Op.3 Pieces of course contain THE Prelude,  which Rachmaninov the concert pianist grew to hate, as he was simply beleaguered with requests for its performance – “I know my duty – I will play it!” he would wearily say to his stage manager, in response to his audience’s clamouring at the end of each concert. There was nothing weary about Gulyak’s performance, which was very “chiaroscuro” throughout the sharply-delineated opening, but then brought out the variants of colour and tone, with the left hand held in check, allowing the sounds of those tolling bells plenty of space and atmosphere. A quicksilver middle section proclaimed her amazing technical facility, with cascades of sounds pealing in all directions, and then the most magical tonal diminutions of the final chords opened up the music’s vistas and merged sounds with memory.

Despite the programme’s boldly-proclaimed “Five Pieces for Piano Op.3”, Gulyak played only three of them, concluding the group with the Polichinelle, Rachmaninov’s scintillating portrayal of the well-known Pulcinello, from the Italian commedia del’ arte theatre – impish brilliance at the outset, followed by one of those rolling Russian melodies that the composer simply couldn’t help writing, and concluding with a reprise of the opening, working up to an even more brilliant conclusion. The grandly obsessive Etude-Tableau in E-flat minor from the wonderful Op.39 set of these pieces followed, its Lisztian sweep and rhetoric making the perfect foil for what was to follow – the composer’s last piece written for solo piano, the Corelli Variations.

Though the theme Rachmaninov used is not really by Corelli at all (it’s an ancient Portugese dance-tune called “La Folia”) it was used by the latter in one of his Op.5 Violin Sonatas, as well as by other Baroque composers. By this stage in his career Rachmaninov was favouring a leaner, sharper-edged style in his composing, following on from his Fourth Piano Concerto and his “Paganini” Rhapsody.  Sofya Gulyak fills out the spaces contained by these clear edges with dark, rich colours, vividly characterizing each variation (a cricket’s song in Variation Two, for example), and for me making each vignette at once modern-sounding and fantastically Schumannesque. At first I thought her playing in the finale a shade unyielding, but orchestral colours kept burgeoning up out of the textures and the rhythms acquired a real schwung from one keyboard extreme to another – exciting and extremely musical pianism! And the epilogue was brought about with such a sense of “being there”, Gulyak scattering a few roses about the devastation, her playing of the theme at the end a quiet, deep-toned tribute to the journey and its remaining memories.

Scriabin’s “Two Poemes” were played for contrasts, the first Andante Cantabile very beautiful,  limpid and watery, the second more “impetuoso” than its actual marking “con eleganza”. Though seeming like whole worlds apart, Gulyak moved from these worlds of over-wrought sensibility to the sharp, acerbic intensities of Shostakovich with complete ease, flinging the composer’s angularities at us with gusto at the beginning of the Prelude, and switching to playfulness for the child-like middle section, innocent and artless but for the occasional “wrong-note” contouring! And what a wicked, chromatically torturous fugue! Gulyak relished its motoric impulses and its spiky, “in-your-face” concluding cadences, whose ironic, matter-of-fact aspect brought a huge appreciative response from her audience.

Though the Shostakovich work had a modicum of grit, it was left to Prokofiev to provide the evening’s truly coruscating moments. His Sixth Sonata was numbered as the first of what the composer called three “War Sonatas”, begun in 1939 and written throughout the duration. Amazingly, the composer began work on all ten movements of the three sonatas at the same time, in order to be able to switch to a different movement’s mode if he felt any kind of creative “block” with what he was currently grappling with. It’s small wonder that these sonatas have things in common, but an even greater miracle that each does have its own specific thematic and schematic world.

Sofya Gulyak threw herself and all of us into the ferment with a vengeance, giving the Sonata’s opening major-minor fanfare its full clangour and spadefuls of energy, drawing us into the darkly-lit lyricism of the central section, before re-energizing things, the fanfare returning in harsher, more mocking guise. Her playing hurled the sounds across the spaces, transfixing our sensibilities and rending the fabric of things. The Allegretto movement provided a little respite, though Gulyak pointed its its angularities in-and-out of our comfort-zones, unsettling us with sudden accents and dark shadows. I also loved Gulyak’s way with the slow-waltz lentissimo, again, taking us from warm reassurance to cool unease across single measures, rather like moonlight suddenly obscured by cloud and leaving things enveloped momentarily in darkness. Her voicings throughout were beautifully modulated, her control of animation and stasis that of a master, the concluding cadences playing delicacy against darkness most effectively.

The finale here drove between bristling energies and diabolical impulses – we felt a sense of dark pursuit that gave way to a slowly-descending vortex dominated by the work’s opening fanfare-motif. Gulyak’s impulsive reawakening of the textures were the sounds of fireflies in the gloom, the energies spreading to open conflagration, and overwhelming us with explosive force – her delivery of the final “pay-off” phrase had an electric thrill whose shock momentarily knocked our receptive powers sideways, though we recovered to give her the ovation and recalls she so richly deserved. Her encore, appropriately, restored calm and order to our sensibilities – a Bach transcription of part of a Marcello Oboe Concerto, after what we had just experienced, the musical epitome of equilibrium and well-being!  Bravo, Sofya Gulyak!