Alexander Gavrylyuk – transcendental pianism at Waikanae

Alexander Gavrylyuk at Waikanae
JS BACH (trans.Busoni) Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
HAYDN – Keyboard Sonata in B Minor (No.47) Hob. XVI:32
CHOPIN – Etudes Op.10 – Nos. 3, 8, 9, 10, 11, & 12
SCRIABIN – Piano Sonata No. 5 Op.53
RACHMANINOV – Preludes Op.23 Nos 1, 5 / Op.32 No.12
RACHMANINOV – Piano Sonata No 2 Op.36 (1931)

Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano)
Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 22nd October, 2017

I reviewed Alexandre Gavrylyuk’s astounding recital at Waikanae last year, reflecting on that occasion, on the pianist’s ability to enchant his listeners with every note, and in doing so, display a Sviatoslav Richter-like capacity to invest each sound with a kind of “centre of being” which suggests that the interpreter has gotten right to the heart of what the music means. Last time, it was the very first note of the Schubert A Major Sonata D.664 which straightaway held me in thrall ( – this time round, the shock of the first item’s opening was palpable in the hall, Gavrylyuk galvanising sensibilities near and far with the opening of Feruccio Busoni’s transcription of JS Bach’s D Minor Toccata and Fugue BWV 565.

I had heard Busoni’s transcription of this work before in concert, and remember being disappointed on that occasion by what seemed to be the limited range and scope of Busoni’s realisation compared with the original – such wasn’t the case here, as Gavrylyuk’s playing seemed to take us as far as was physically possible on the piano towards the sheer impact of the organ’s power and majesty. An organist friend of mine afterwards said that it wasn’t quite the same as experiencing the thrill of those massive organ sonorities – to which I was tempted to respond (but thought better of it!) with the remark that what the pianist was missing was a cloak and a mask covering half of his face! On reflection, though, I’m glad I stuck to musical considerations!

Truth to tell, Gavrylyuk needed neither cloak nor mask to convey the music’s splendour – and (perhaps because I wasn’t an organist) I didn’t think he even needed the organ! Certainly I was thrilled to at last encounter a performance that realised something of the transcription’s evocation of the original’s glory. In fact Gavrylyuk’s playing gave us ample sense of the music’s huge sonorities in pianistic terms, while achieving a transparency of articulation often clouded by the organ’s resonances. The pianist seemed to put all of his physical weight into the Prelude’s concluding chords, and hang onto the resulting resonances for dear life, keeping us transfixed by his and the music’s alchemic power.

He then began the fugue quietly and serenely – as if a vision had appeared in the midst of the tumult. The fugal voices took on such character, each voice having a kind of eloquence suggesting the transcriber’s complete identification with the spirit of the original. Each of the sequences had both momentum and flexibility, with the pianist’s through-line giving us a real sense of “journeying”, at once taking in every detail while keeping a sense of purpose about the whole. I thought the dynamic range employed by Gavrylyuk along the journey astonishing – thunderous footsteps set against sonorous whisperings, and a gamut of eloquence in between. The whole was built up to a peroration of extraordinary power and elaboration, concluding the work with huge, properly “crashing’ chords, whose lingering aftermath stunned our responses for some time to come.

What better antidote (for all the right reasons) to such massiveness was the music of Haydn, which Gavrylyuk slyly and mischievously then set into play, rather like letting a mouse loose to scamper around and over the body of a now-sleeping elephant! Such was the pianist’s focus, we were soon transported into this new creature’s sound-world, the music of this B Minor Sonata slowly but surely adjusting its size-scale, moving from sly mischief to playfulness with the warmer, confident major chordings mid-exposition, the whole reinforced by the repeat. We then heard from the pianist in the development a miracle of fluidity between assertive and meltingly beautiful playing, Haydn’s genius being recreated for us by another like-minded genius of the keyboard. Nowhere was Gavrylyuk afraid to differently emphasise detail when revisited, reinforcing a sense of the music being created for us there and then, for our pleasure.

The Menuet was at first all exquisute grace and sensibiity, the pianist weaving gossamer threads into a pattern,taking care not to break any of the strands – then, with the Trio things became darker and more robust, geniality of a more forthright kind, with a dissonant sound or three thrown in for good measure (the right-hand ostinati clashing with the left-hand figurations), a mood which lightened once again at the opening’s return. The finale’s Presto marking brought playing from Gavrylyuk one associates with those pianola rolls made by “greats” such as Josef Lhevinne, Leopold Godowsky, Sergei Rachmaninov and Moritz Rosenthal – all feathery brilliance and rapid-fire octaves, before plunging back into a repeat! Then, after wowing us with this “do you want to see that again?” gesture, the pianist suddenly drew the music back, and with a few knowing looks and quiet gestures, packed it all away in a box – and it was all over! – one imagined the shade of Haydn allowing the ghost of a smile to warm its features at both Gavrylyuk’s playing and our bemusement.

I’d recently been listening to some recordings of Chopin’s etudes, so was more than usually ‘attuned” to them on this occasion – Gavrylyuk had chosen six from the composer’s first of two sets, his Op.10, begin with No.3 in E Major, a piece whose opening melody has been used innumerable times in different arrangements over the years – to my surprise the pianist played the melody “straight”, without any broadening at the climaxes first time through, then began the middle section softly, building up its intensities with ever-increasing power, before playing the lead-back to the beginning with the same simplicity as was delivered the opening. This time Gavrylyuk allowed the famous melody more space and ambience, drawing more poetry from it without ever resorting to sentimentality.

The pianist’s wonderful fleet-of-finger skills dazzled us in the F Major No.8 Etude, the right hand the elusive butterfly, the left hand the sober, serious plodder trying vainly to maintain contact on ground level, everything played with wonderful freedom and independence of hands. Such filigree brilliance played no part in the F Minor Study No.9 that followed – here the energies were intense and driven by the pianist, a throbbing, agitated base pursuing a fugitive melody, one which occasionally sent up beacons of light as signals of distress, urgently-repeated notes which eventually fell back into the midst of a frisson of quietly-despairing figurations.

No.10 in A-flat Major, despite looking and sounding fiendishly difficult, was given a compelling ebb and flow of feeling and tension, Gavrylyuk proving he was human after all by dropping a couple of right-hand notes in the flurry of decoration at the end of the middle section. However, it seemed that, whatever the music’s diffculties, the pianist seemed to relish the prospect of engaging with every note of it – both here and in the opening of Etude No 11 in E-flat Major Gavrylyuk conveyed both a sense of rapturous anticipation and intoxicated delight at doing what he was doing, the E-flat Major’s arpeggiations exquisitely timed and beautifully varied in emphasis and shading. And so to the notorious C Minor “Revolutionary” Etude, the last of the set, with its right-handed thematic lacerations (every phrase like a dagger plunged into a beating heart) yoked with the left hand’s rapid runs and frequent turns, a rushing, agitated torrent, but here given frequent changes of emphasis and colour by way of a narrative, one involving conflict, heroism and, at the piece’s conclusion, defiance even in defeat and disillusionment.

If what we’d heard thus far was ample food for thought, our capacities were fully extended by the recital’s second half, Gavrylyuk giving us in broadbrush-stroke terms as beautifully-contrived an assemblage here, with similar kinds of ebb-and-flow. As with the Bach transcription in the first half, the Scriabin Sonata’s opening straightaway sent an electric thrill through the hall, the pianist’s physical attack riveting our sensibilities and holding us in thrall for all that was to follow. The composer called this, his Fifth Sonata, “a big poem for piano”, and we certainly got from Gavrylyuk a most dramatic reading of its essential qualities – demonic energies set against withdrawn mysticism, physical bravado contrasted with intensely poetic feeling, and grinding dissonance relieved by moments of intense, simple loveliness. Gavrylyuk’s astonishing technique took us on the music’s somewhat hair-raising rife to the abyss’s edge, before suddenly returning us to a state of wide-eyed wonderment at some intense fragility, some passing embodiment of beauty. Always was a sense conveyed of the music trying to reach out to something ineffable, either through beauty of utterance or madcap humour or physicality marked by extremes of exhilaration/desperation. Where we were being taken to through the composer’s assemblage of self -absorbed enchantments was anybody’s guess until the music’s final declamations, Gavrylyuk gathering up all of his energies, and hurtling up the keyboard towards a zenith of spent realisation, marked with a flamboyant gesture of finality – we loved him for it!

At first it would seem that the music of Scriabin’s exact contemporary Rachmaninov might here, in comparison, pale in impact and eloquence – but Gavrylyuk’s scheme of following something cataclysmic with its antithesis worked beautifully, here, with his playing of the first of the latter composer’s Op.23 Preludes, music that powerfully spoke of simple, deep-seated emotions, bringing us down-to-earth once more in the wake of Scriabin’s cosmic galivantings! The pianist opened up the music’s vistas unerringly towards what Rachmaninov called in every piece of music “the point”, that moment to which all before it led and from which all fell away from, for him a defining characteristic in both his own playing and his composing. Gavrylyuk seemed to understand this, taking us to such a moment where the piece’s obsessive figurations reached their “moment” before allowing the tensions to slowly unwind, taking their time as part of the experience.

The well-known No.5 in G Minor, marked “Alla marcia” was played by Gavrylyuk less as a march and more of a scherzo-like dance, with occasional impulsive thrusts both of dynamics and phrasings, a volatile, even “dangerous” reading, not unlike the composer’s own. The “trio” section featured dark, swirling waters, with both treble and “alto” melodies strongly-etched, and darkly counterpointed – the reprise of the opening rhythm was built up with rapid purpose, the music growing more and more menace-laden with every phrase – so orchestral in effect! At the end I was glad that Gavrylyuk played the composer’s original throwaway ending, without the emphatic G minor chord that he later added (and recorded!).

From Rachmaninov’s later (Op.32) set of Preludes, Gavrylyuk gave us No.12 in the more remote key of G-sharp Minor. This was music which scintillated sharply and coldly at the outset, the pianist displaying razor-sharp responses to the bleakly-atmospheric texures, and the unforgiving, almost Dante-esque fatalism of the music, the theme a declamation of something like a Slavic equivalent of the portal-phrase “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”, grim and gloom-laden music.

Right from the beginning of the recital’s final work, Rachmaninov’s Second PIano Sonata in B-flat Op.36, it seemed as if a “battle of the titans” was being enacted in Alexander Gavrylyuk’s hands, between Rachmaninov’s and Scriabin’s music – the Sonata’s opening threw down a jagged and confrontational Sonata’s earlier with the Scriabin – however such considerations were soon put aside as we became caught up in the web and waft of the music’s progress, here majestic and monumnetal, there volatile and angular, and working with the same building-blocks of sound shaped and moulded in countless different ways. Before the lyrical second subject arrived we heard it resounding in the figurations, growing out of the previous material – Gavrylyuk played it so touchingly, like a thing of great fragility – “A world in a grain of sand” as William Blake wrote. After flowering and rhapsodising, it was taken along with a tremendous rhythmic thrust towards a more agitated, scherzo-like world, Gavrylyuk building up the agitations to the strength of cascading church bells – fantastic! The pianist gave the music all the time in the world to breathe, its extension of the lyrical material so tender, filled with the composer’s characteristic “endless melody” , here and there reminiscent of Enrique Granados’s “The Lover and The Nightingale” in places.

But with what explosive energies the music came to life with in Gavrylyuk’s hands once again – the pianist took the music’s raw power and flung it across the vistas, varying strength with dizzying dexterity in places, then, going with the work’s amazing all-encompassing variations of mood, again bringing out a more lyrical and ruminative sequence before returning to the attack – how much more this music is “conflicted” than Rachmaninov’s large-scale works of the previous decade, the Third Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony. Gavrylyuk took us through the conficts and agitations towards the grandeur of the work’s last few pages with the ardour of a foot soldier and the surety of a general. It was as stunning a display of all-encompassing musicianship as any I’ve ever had the good fortune to witness.

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