The 2021 University of North Carolina School of the Arts Piano Weekend concluded with a recital from Russian pianist Pavel Nersessian in Watson Hall featuring works by composers of Russian and Polish descent. These included familiar names like Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, as well as names that the average classical audience may not be familiar with, such as Ogiński and Griboyedov. The first half of the recital was mainly comprised of dances, including a polonaise and numerous waltzes and mazurkas. Fittingly, Nersessian’s hands danced and flitted across the keyboard with a gracefulness that was a joy to witness. In addition to his technique, Nersessian’s control of the piano’s tone was especially impressive – in my experience as a UNCSA student and performer, the particular instrument can be quite unforgiving.

The only drawback from this portion of the program was that it felt rushed and overwhelming at times, as Nersessian took almost no time in between pieces, and there was no time for applause until intermission. Because of this, it was hard to distinguish between musical ideas being presented both within the same piece and between separate pieces. Whenever more time was taken in slower lyrical sections of pieces like Chopin’s Waltz, Op.34, No.2, though, Nersessian’s playing was quite moving. By the end of the first half of the recital, with a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Waltz, Op.10, No.2, Nersessian struck a nice balance, bringing out both the intimate harmonies and excitement that is so intriguing in late Romantic music.

Then, Pavel Nerssesian the pianist transformed into Pavel Nersessian the artist. In the first half of the recital, Nersessian was dressed in all black on a fully lit stage. After intermission, however, he returned in a flaming red shirt, illuminated by a single spotlight over center stage. This new intimacy made me feel as if Nersessian was playing for me and me alone, and I hope the rest of the audience felt similarly. I even found it difficult to take notes because I did not want to take my attention away for one second. Once he began playing Medtner’s Four Fairy Tales, I was mesmerized for the remainder of the recital. This was a fascinating piece that allowed him to tell four different stories, each one painting a multitude of pictures. Nersessian emulated the wind, chimes, trumpets, bells, and the sounds of a forest, while never letting go of the sense of wonder that we so often associate with fairy tales. To close the program, Nersessian performed Stravinsky’s Tango, offering a look into the jazzier side of the Russian composer, followed by Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. This gave a unique finale to a unique recital.

Even though the pieces performed were written by composers hailing from just two countries, there was a great variety of genres, feelings, and traditions presented. It would be hard to find a program that entertained, intrigued, inspired, and even educated the audience as much as this one. I found myself wanting to go home and learn Stravinsky’s Tango or investigate composers like Medtner that I have had no musical experience with. It has also been a long time since I have heard an audience in Watson Hall buzzing about a performer the way that they did with Nersessian, and they did not even wait until after the performance to talk about it. By intermission, everyone was discussing their favorite parts with the people around them as if they had just seen a new movie. This excitement is what is missing from many classical performances today, making Nersessian an artist that should not be missed when he comes to town.