Recital Review Print

Sergei Babayan at Meredith: A Kaleidoscopic Exploration of Colors and Dynamics

December 3, 2008 - Raleigh, NC:

Russian pianist Sergei Babayan's dazzling piano recital honored two of his great keyboard colleagues. In a sense this was a warm up for the artist's upcoming performance at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Babayan's recital was given in memory of the great musician and pianist Alexander Slobodyanik, who passed away last August. Pianist Maria Yudina, whose extraordinary life beggars a novelist's imagination, is honored in the Fantasy in C Minor by Vladimir Ryabov (b.1950). Despite the suddenness with which this concert was arranged, a good and rapt audience hung on to every one of Babayan's vividly characterized notes in Meredith College's intimate Carswell Recital Hall.

Too often "new music" overstays the average music lover's welcome. Not so for the 25-minute Fantasy in C Minor, Op. 21, which the composer-pianist Ryabov dedicated to the memory of Maria Yudina. Everyone knows the deadly fear that haunted most Soviet era artists. Many (like Shostakovich for example) kept a suitcase packed in case the secret police came for them in the night. Peter Laki's program note for the Ryabov piece recounts the stranger than fiction situation of Yudina, "a true intellectual institution in Russia...; never afraid to speak up against the Communists and ... openly affirm her faith, she was a black sheep under the regime." She miraculously escaped the gulag or worse because she was Stalin's favorite pianist and the "Great Leader and Teacher" was willing to overlook much!

Ryabov's idiom is strongly indebted to 19th-century Romanticism, but he adds a unique twist by "devising an approach to harmony in which he add(s) upper and lower neighbors to the tones of traditional chords, creating rich, cluster-like sonorities in which the original harmonies are, nevertheless, still recognizable." The Fantasy has an unusual structure involving five continuous sections, marked Introduction-Sonata I-Marcia funèbre-Sonata II-Capriccio. Ryabov makes fleeting, subtle allusions to classics by such composers as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schuman, Mussorgsky, and others. I was reminded, by analogy, of Ravel's prismatic take on the Viennese Waltz in La Valse. The striking fugue theme used in Sonata II "was composed by Yudina herself, at age 18 in 1917. Ryabov used this theme to create the most shattering climax in the entire work." There is too much going on to be fully taken in on first hearing but the piece whets the appetite for more opportunities to listen. Babayan plans to record the work soon.

Babayan's performance of Ryabov's Fantasy was its North Carolina premiere and quite a coup for Meredith College. Babayan's keyboard mastery throughout the concert was breathtaking. I cannot recall another pianist who produced such focused and resonating fortes followed instantly by the most hushed pianissimos. His pedaling was peerless, and few can equal his refined palette of tone colors. Ryabov's piece juxtaposes hushed sections suggestive of orthodox chant or lyrical passages set against savage, seemingly chaotic episodes. A striking technique in the march section was to sound the note without a direct attack, resulting in a sound derived from the string's harmonics.

Babayan's mastery of seamless singing lines was manifest throughout his gorgeous performance of three of Franz Liszt's transcriptions of songs by Franz Schubert: "Der Müller und der Bach,""Gretchen am Spinnrade," and "Auf dem Wasser zu singen."

Babayan's imaginative control of his extraordinary full, rich sound was evident throughout his uninterrupted performance of six selections of works by Sergei Rachmaninov. He beautifully maintained the sustained cantilena melody in the Prelude in D, Op. 32/5. This was followed by three Etudes-tableaux from Opus 39. The daunting chromaticism of No. 6, in E-flat minor, was controlled masterfully. No. 1, in C minor, displayed Babayan's ambidextrous virtuosity. The melancholy mood of No. 2, in A minor, known as "The Sea and the Seagulls," was most effectively sustained. With hardly the batting of an eye, these followed two of the six Moments Musicaux, Op. 16. Babayan seemed nonchalant as he tossed off the constant sextuplets of No. 2, in E-flat minor. His mastery of every pianistic arrow in a virtuoso's quiver as he wove the spell of the stormy No. 6, in C, seemed to verge on slight of hand.

The music of Jean-Phillipe Rameau (1683-1764) represents the pinnacle of the classical style achieved by the French clavecin school. These works, many written for the harpsichord, can be tastefully played on a modern piano. Babayan chose the Suite in A minor from Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin (1731), a monumental landmark in the development of the keyboard. The Suite in A minor has seven movements. The first three and the last are typical dance movements while numbers 4 through 6 are imitative character pieces. Babayan eschewed any attempt to suggest the clipped sound of a harpsichord, fully exploiting the color and dynamic possibilities of a modern concert hall grand. His ideally paced Allemande was exceptionally clearly articulated. His performance of the Courante was rhythmically vital while his playing of the Sarabande was poised and stately. The aptly named "Les trios mains" ("Three Hands") was a delight to watch with its extensive exploitation of rapid crossed hands. Babayan brought out all the charm and lightness of Rameau's portraits of two women, "Fanfarinette" and "La Triompante." Most delightful of all was his witty traversal of the concluding Gavotte with its six variations.

The audience's heartfelt standing ovations were rewarded with two colorful and vivid pieces from the pen of Chopin: the Waltz in B minor, Op. 65/2, and the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 67/4.

*Edited/corrected 12/17/08.