Very talented

On Monday to the SSO’s “International Pianists in Recital” series at Angel Place to see Alexander Gavrylyuk in recital.

Gavrylyuk is “international” in an unusual way. Rather like those sportsmen who are suddenly drafted into a new nationality, he was one of a group of young (teenaged) Ukrainian pianists who came to Australia in the 1990s to study at the Australian Institute of Music with their teacher, who was imported with them – something of a coup at the time for Warren Thompson, the Svengali of the Sydney Piano Competition and then juror-about-the-world. A number of them have since enjoyed success in international competitions and made careers for themselves.

It is difficult to imagine, from outside, what kind of a hothouse upbringing this must have been. Practically every waking hour must have been spent practising, if not at home, then at the Steinway showroom of Theme and Variations where they were practically a fixture. Undoubtedly, Gavrylyuk has a phenomenal technique in the “Russian school” virtuoso tradition.

As the packed-to-the-rafters (though with some gaps down in subscriber-ville) Angel Place demonstrated, Gavrylyuk has an almost Helfgottian following.

The program was:

SCHUMANN Kinderszenen
MOZART Piano Sonata in C, K330
LISZT Lacrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem
LISZT Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli, S162
[interval]
PROKOFIEV Sonata No.6 (War Sonata 1)

The Schumann is not, in terms of its absolute technical demands, difficult. Surely every and any pianist has played its pieces and knows them well. The challenge is interpretative – including to meet each such pianist’s preconceptions. Of course there is scope for a better pianist to play them better, but there is also a risk of over-interpretation, of winching the pieces up to meet demands which they do not really make.

Gavrylyuk showed a marvellous technical capacity but much of it involved giving the right hand melody a pellucid dominance whilst only just allowing the lower parts to be heard. This struck me as strange for Schumann: his knotty contrapuntalism is at the heart of his music and this was often suppressed to the point of near inaudibility. There were exceptions: I liked his bringing out of the inner passing note on which the transition back from fast to slow in “Pleading child” hinges. Conversely some of the big moments just became a blur (the end of the Knight of the Rocking Horse, for example). Despite the many felicities, what I took away from the performance was an unease about the suitability of this set as a vehicle for this type of concert performance.

The Mozart sonata was likewise characterised by an exquisitely controlled but to me frustrating devotion to the right-hand line. Where was the contrapunctal infrastructure? We were in music-box territory. To me this was Kugel-Mozart.

The Liszt transcription of the Lacrimosa from the Requiem left the chocolates behind. I thought it was a good transition to Tarantella which was to come, even if things got too big too quickly and Gavrylyuk did not join Liszt in observing the rests in the choral parts for “Qua resurget ex favilla.”

The Tarantella was the first-half closer. It was stronger in the mad frenzied bits than in the cantabile section, where I felt that Gavrylyuk, by favouring “the tune,” missed the charm of its parallel-sixths accompaniment (for purposes of identification rather than comparison see Kissin at about 3 minutes in here and again at 3.45 etc).

The Tarantella brought many in the audience to their feet. “I’ll certainly have to practise more!” I overheard a young pianist say to his friend in the aisle-egress crush, before inviting her to his recital next month. I doubt if a month’s practice would do the job.

Gavrylyuk gave a fiery performance of the Prokofiev. It didn’t quite match my preconceptions – sure the piece is fiery, but Prokofiev is also a “cool” composer. I found the whole thing too manic. I would have preferred a bit more mezzo forte (a dynamic point which Gavrylyuk seems to pass through very quickly) or even forte, and at least a few crescendi at an angle (figuratively speaking) of less than 60 degrees. The Allegretto, in particular, didn’t really gell for me.

That wasn’t the general view. The audience loved it, with a standing ovation again.

As we were getting ready to do battle to get out of the hall (always an ordeal at Angel Place) I asked my neighbour at these concerts, an older woman with a rather reserved aspect but obviously a seasoned concert-goer (we both take the front fire-escape to avoid the worst of the foyer crush), how she liked the concert. “He’s very talented,” she replied.

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