Immaculate and varied piano recital from gifted young Russian pianist

Nikolai Saratovsky (Russian pianist)

Bach: Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, BWV 992
Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue in A, Op 87/7; Preludes Op 34: No 2 in A minor, No 15 in G flat and No 16 in B flat
Schubert: Impromptu in E flat, Op 90 (D 899) No 2
Brahms: Op 118: No 4 – Intermezzo in A and No 5 – Romanze
Rachmaninov: Barcarolle in G minor, Op 10/3; Preludes, Op 32: No 5 in G and No 12 in G sharp minor
Gershwin: Three Preludes

St John’s Church, Corner Willis and Dixon Streets

Friday 22 June, 6:15 pm

Nikolai Saratovsky is a 31-year-old pianist, brought to New Zealand by Mary Gow, impresario (feminine form??), who runs the Mulled Wine concerts at Paekakariki (you can catch him again, at the Paekakariki Memorial Hall, this Sunday at 2:30 pm).  Mary Gow also organised his concert at St Andrew’s on The Terrace on Thursday lunchtime.

One of a seeming endless flood of musicians from Russia and other former-Soviet states.

Bach opened the recital; an unusual piece, though one whose name resonated; in my case, having not heard the music itself.

Its title is rather uncharacteristic of the aesthetic climate of the early 18th century: Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo (Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother). Though Bach(?)’s autograph is lost, the work has acquired Italian titles.
1 Arioso: Adagio — ‘Friends Gather & Try to Dissuade Him…’
2 Andante – ‘They Picture the Dangers Which May Befall Him’
3 Adagiosissimo (or Adagissimo) – ‘The Friends’ Lament’
4 Andante con moto – ‘Since He Cannot Be Dissuaded, They Say Farewell’
5 Allegro pocco – ‘Aria of the Postilion’ (Aria di postiglione)
6 ‘Fugue in Imitation of the Postilion’s Horn’ (Fuga all’imitazione della cornetta di postiglione)

Wikipedia reports that “The story that Bach performed it at age nineteen when his brother, Johann Jacob, left to become an oboist in the army of Charles XII in Sweden, is questionable”. Another musicologist has offered a new theory: that Bach wrote his Capriccio at the age of seventeen and dedicated it to his school friend, George Erdmann, who was departing for Danzig and later served at the Russian court. So its date can thus be guessed at around 1703-5.

If I had been asked to name the composer in the course of the first few minutes, I might not have guessed Bach. An impression that accords, as I have later read, with doubts about its authenticity. Partly, it’s the feel of a piece that seems to lie unusually for the harpsichord, but further, that its calm and rhapsodic-like character hardly sounds like Bach, even though its scenario was not inconceivable.

More significantly, I really couldn’t get a clear idea of the pianist’s grasp of the music, and while the second section was a little quicker, it hardly sounded much more Bach-like; more ornaments and changeable in its phrasing that could have suggested possible risks on the journey. The third part, strangely marked Adagissimo, certainly suggests sadness with its repeated, descending motifs; finally, Bach’s candidature seemed stronger. The Postilion’s octave horn cries marked the fifth movement vividly, and by this time I had come to feel both that Bach was a credible composer candidate and that in Saratovsky we were hearing a highly gifted, unobtrusive and self-effacing musician who was not trying to impose a Bach style where it didn’t clearly exist.

Shostakovich’s collections of preludes (1933), and preludes and fugues (1951) are more read about than heard (in my experience). I await a pianist who will present either collection in its entirety in Wellington. This taste of three Preludes and the second Prelude and Fugue was tantalising, capturing so well their quirky or enigmatic character.

The rest of the programme was both varied and demonstrative, ranging from Schubert’s much loved Impromptu in E flat, a couple of less known, late piano pieces from Brahms’s Op 118, both played with taste and discretion, essentially Brahms in flavour, and to Rachmaninov.

A similar absence of ostentation was clear with Rachmininov: first the Barcarolle in G minor from the Morceaux de salon, Op 10, fleet of detail, natural and impeccable; then two of the Preludes from Op 32: No 5, deceptively difficult to articulate with delicacy, and No 12 (the second to last in the set), the right hand rippling (‘coruscating’ is a favourite word) over a beautifully limpid left hand melody.

But here was an utterly different pianist in Gershwin’s three Preludes; absolutely in the American spirit, vividly striking the contrast between the sombre second, Andante con moto, and the heavy, conflicting rhythms in the first and the more swinging, comfortable (even if it’s marked agitato) third one.

The encores had their purpose in the context of the programme: Rachmaninov’s G minor Prelude, the most familiar after the earlier C sharp minor, and then the piece included in other programmes: the familiar, though hard to attribute, Malaguena by the famous Ernesto Lecuona y Casado. Each contributed another facet of the pianist’s impeccably scrupulous, individual approach to the piano repertoire.

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