Alexander Gavrylyuk – great pianism at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society presents:

SCHUBERT – Piano Sonata in A D.664
CHOPIN – Fantasy in F Minor Op.49
Nocturne Op.27 No.2
Polonaise in A-flat Major Op.53
PROKOFIEV – Piano Sonata No.3 in A Minor Op.28
RACHMANINOV – Etude-Tableaux Op.39  Nos 1, 2, 5, 7, 9
BALAKIREV – Islamey: Oriental Fantasy

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 22nd May 2016

From the moment Alexander Gavrylyuk played the very first note of Schubert’s adorable A Major Sonata D.664 on the Waikanae Music Society’s wonderful Fazioli piano, I felt we were in for a performance which seemed more than ready to explore and convey from the outset something of this music’s whole-hearted intensity and volatility, from the lyricism of the beginning which contrasted tellingly with the “sturm-und-drang” episodes of the development, through the poetry of the slow movement, and then to the humour and energy of the finale.

It’s somewhat ironic that “modern” Russian pianists (Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and more recently Arcadi Volodos and Grigory Sokolov) seem to have taken Schubert’s music very much to heart, developing, in fact, a particularly distinctive style of interpretative response to this repertoire, when for an earlier generation of Russian pianists (Rachmaninov, for example) the Schubert sonatas were hardly, if at all, known. In fact the nineteenth century generally set great store by the composer’s lieder and certain pieces of his chamber music, while the piano sonatas were all but conveniently forgotten, and dismissed by those who knew of their existence as vastly inferior to those of Beethoven’s.

Here, in Alexander Gavrylyuk’s capable and masterful hands, was that more recent Russian Schubert tradition reaffirmed, along with the composer’s true greatness as a writer of long-breathed, beautifully proportioned sonata-form structures, as differently wrought to Beethoven’s as could be imagined, but as profound and as visionary in their own unique way. The opening C-sharp of the sonata was here sounded by Gavrylyuk with the greatest of significance, as if a world of its own, one which briefly resonated and “coloured” our sensibilities before activating a gentle updraught on which the phrase took wing, and flowed with that same sense of wonderment into the music’s opening paragraph. And the repeat occasioned an expression on the pianist’s face of such joy in anticipation, we listeners couldn’t help but be infused with something of the same feeling.

Every episode of the sonata was delivered with a similar awareness of the music’s power to enchant, to move and to disturb, as with the shock of the development’s darker-browed statements, like storm clouds bringing conflict and strife to the peace of a hitherto settled day! Gavrylyuk’s lead-back from this to the reprise of the opening was like a gentle reassurance, with the opening theme now less yielding, made more assertive by its dealings with darker impulses and threatening gestures – with all of this in mind imagine our surprise and delight at the pianist’s decision to repeat the development section, rather like a “here we go again” feeling as the dark forces gathered and plunged into our midst once more! Again there was that reassurance when all was done, with beautiful voicings and fine gradations of tone leading us to those final statements of the opening theme, where the music seemed to take comfort in the darkness as a resting-place.

The slow movement’s heart-rending chordal opening spread its wings and soared aloft, elaborating its theme with angular rhythms mid-movement, which in Gavrylyuk’s hands seemed to reach out for something unattainable before resignedly returning to the comfort of the opening. All of that done, the finale then charmed us with its artless opening, a seemingly innocuous waltz which then grew into something forthright and determined. The pianist brought out the music’s different attitudes as much with his expressions and his body language as with his fingers, such as the “strut” with which he launched into the second subject, squaring his shoulders and pursing his lips like a child on a hobby-horse – almost as if he was on a “boys’ own holiday adventure”.

The music’s development had a kind of garrulous anxiety, freely modulating but running away from new territories as quickly as finding them, and at the end charmingly and insouciantly putting it all aside. In fact the overall journey here I thought resembled something of an early attempt at a “rite of passage”, one from which the composer could break off if things got out of hand. That Schubert stayed the course and finished the work was to our inestimable benefit, especially so with somebody like Gavrylyuk on hand to enable a glorious “no holds barred” kind of performance.

Three Chopin pieces followed, the first the wondrous F Minor Fantasy Op.49, that richly-conceived improvisatory-like journey which took us through various pianistic and compositional modes in aid of unfolding an expansive musical tale of one’s own particular fancy. Each section of the piece was strongly characterized, the opening a mysterious march, a ghostly processional plumbing the depths, and taking itself away with each downbeat, into the distance and darkness. Gavrylyuk then came into his own with passionately-wound swirlings of energy, heroically-delivered melodic lines and tremendous attack upon the chords, the ferment of interaction defused by the piano’s marching away from it all, and working towards a central melody delivered like a prayer – even a reprise of the swirlings of energy and “ferment of interaction” didn’t lessen the sense of a narrative whose music gripped our sensibilities.Next was a Nocturne, the well-known Op.27 No.2, played by Gavrylyuk with complete ease and grace at the beginning, working up into agitations with the stormy central moments and dropping back from it all into a most beautiful ppp, his delicate fingerwork creating sounds resembling strings of pearls. A different kettle of fish was, of course, the Op.53 A-flat Polonaise, probably the most well-known of these particular pieces, not the least for a notorious central section of the music whose left hand octaves were said to have evoked for at least one famous pianist of former times “the horses’ hooves of the Polish Cavalry”.

Taking an heroic and volatile, rather than a brutal and weighty approach, the pianist kept the music light on its feet for the most part, allowing the music an engaging, even charming strut in places, while giving the great crescendi their due. As for the “Polish Cavalry” section, Gavrylyuk generated a great head of steam and verve without ever losing a sense of the music’s purpose, finding real tenderness in the quieter moments before the dance’s reprise at the end.

Something of a concert of two halves, the world of difference in the music was emphasized by Gavrylyuk’s full-frontal engagement with Prokofiev’s Third Piano Sonata Op.28, the opening of the work rather like the effect of somebody starting up a large motor-bike and roaring off in a cloud of blue smoke! Again, Gavrylyuk took pains to bring out not just the physical energy of the piece but its mordant wit and sarcasm as well. In the work’s central section the pianist conveyed the music’s dark, somewhat eerie character, a world where things seemed to repeatedly turn upon themselves, by the end wistfully searching for a way back to the light.

A brief irruption of energies, alternating two- and three-patterned rhythms led to a grand melodic statement on repeated chords and bell-like left hand underlinings – just as deftly, Gavrylyuk then reactivated those galloping horse impulses, driving the music towards its brilliant, near-manic climax, with a virtuoso flourish at the end.

We then got a treasurable opportunity to compare at first hand the compositional styles of Prokofiev with his older compatriot, Rachmaninov. They were creative spirits documented as being more in conflict with one another rather than accord, though according to pianist Sviatoslav Richter (who knew Prokofiev), very much “yoked together”, more than one might initially suppose – Richter was referring specifically to Rachmaninov’s Op.39 Etude-tableaux as representing a kind of “epiphany” for the younger Prokofiev, though one that was never acknowledged, except in the latter’s music.

In these works more than in any of his other music Rachmaninov certainly seems to anticipate his younger contemporary’s sound-world. Gavrylyuk launched the first of his selection, No.1, with tremendous verve and agitation, here and there bringing out the music’s unmistakable shafts of imperialistic Russian light, but subjecting them to a new, harsher reality, one seemingly pursued by demons. No.2 took us to a different, though equally obsessive world, one of watery resonances dominated by the composer’s life-long fascination with the traditional “Dies Irae” chant, Gavrylyuk building up great reservoirs of swirling sound haunted by the four-note motif, before allowing the ambiences to drift into enigmatic silence.

More in the virtuoso “grand manner” was No.5, reiterating a sombre theme against a constantly modulating background, the whole replete with swirling chromaticisms, Gavrylyuk maintaining the oppressive mood of the piece with single-minded focus, allowing us little respite, even with the alternations between minor and major at the piece’s end. Blacker still (somewhat in the manner of Liszt’s late piano works) was No.7 with its bleak chordal progressions and harsh bird-cries, music of comfortless solitude and relentless trajectories – the bell-like build-up of sonority towards the piece’s end in Gavrylyuk’s hands created for us a profoundly grim “is this salvation or oblivion?” scenario – what an incredible piece of music!

After this, the unashamedly Tsarist splendour and barbarity of No.9’s resplendent energies was some relief, those Musorgsky-like church bells ringing out defiantly, and awakening the old imperialist glories, the shades and wraiths of the past hastening to join in with the processional for a short-lived moment of affirmation.

The composer, while admitting to extra-musical associations in these works never revealed any individual programs, stating unequivocally when pressed to do so – “…let them (listeners) paint for themselves what the music most suggests”.

Concluding the recital as per programme was Balakirev’s colourful Caucasian-inspired piece Islamey, whose subtitle, “Oriental Fantasy” says all that really needs to be said about the piece. I’d thought Kazan pianist Halida Dinova’s Lower Hutt performance of the piece a couple of years ago pretty wonderful, and Alexander Gavrylyuk was certainly of her company, plunging into the music’s high-voltage rhythmic trajectories with perhaps even more free-wheeling excitement in places!

Of course there’s more to the music than speed, power and glitter – and Gavrylyuk savoured the piece’s “old song” most beguilingly, infusing the melody with all the nostalgia and sinuous charm one would have thought possible to bring out.

As for the “bucking bronco” aspect of the piece’s final section, Gavrylyuk’s playing was simply jaw-dropping, fabulous runs, flailing notes and amazing climaxes and all, complete with a touch of showmanship at the piece’s end, a wonderful “that’s all, folks!” gesture seeming to toss all pianistic difficulties to one side with terrific élan.

After this, the pianist charmingly acceded to our request for an encore (hadn’t we had our just desserts by then, though, really?) with the opening of Schumann’s Kinderscenen, (“Of Foreign Lands and Peoples”) a well-nigh perfect gesture of homecoming at the conclusion of a fabulous musical journey.