Roman Rabinovich and a Clown on a Bicycle


Schumann, Michael Brown, Haydn, Stravinsky: Roman Rabinovich (piano), RWCMD, Cardiff, 12.6.2016. (LJ)

Robert Schumann: Papillons, Op. 2, (1831); Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26, (1839)

Michael Brown: Surfaces, (2015)

Josef Haydn: Piano Sonata in E flat, Hob. XVI 49, (1790)

Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from Petrouchka, (1921)

Roman Rabinovich was born in 1985 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He began learning to play the piano at the age of six with his mother, Mira. In 1994 he and his parents emigrated to Israel. Here, he studied with Irena Vishnevitsky and then with Professor Arie Vardi (best known for his recordings of Debussy and Ravel) at the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel Aviv. Rabinovich later graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music, followed by a Master’s Degree at the Julliard School where he studied with Robert McDonald. Rabinovich was the recipient of the 2008 Arthur Rubenstein International Piano Master Competition. He has been praised by the New York Times for his “uncommon sensitivity and feeling” and noted by critics for his “vivacity and virtuosity” and “impeccable clarity of execution.” Such qualities can be heard on his 2013 debut recording of pieces arranged for solo piano for Orchid Classics entitled ‘Ballets Russes’ which features Rabinovich’s own arrangement of Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe, Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. For his fine musicianship on this recording, Rabinovich was awarded the Classical Recording Foundation Artist of the Year award and received high praise (and a four star review) from BBC Music Magazine who attributed its success to Rabinovich’s “broad palette of colours […] in the more poetic moments.” For his afternoon recital at Cardiff’s RWCMD, Rabinovich’s challenging programme included Schumann’s Papillons, Op. 2 and Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26, Michael Brown’s Surfaces, Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E flat, Hob. XVI 49, and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka.

Rabinovich sat to the piano in an upright chair, not the usual piano stool. This gave him a more controlled centre of gravity. His posture allowed him to play with alacrity and force in Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, but sometimes made his playing seem too heavy-handed in the more delicate phrases in the quieter moments of both Schumann and Haydn pieces.

Papillons (butterflies) may make one think of light, fluttering miniatures, but for Schumann the title referred to “the psyche floating above the body turned to dust.” The contrasting and swiftly interchanging moods in the music (think of the contrast between Eusebius and Florestan) was played convincingly by Rabinovich. His performance was daring as he played in the extremes of these opposing parallels of dreamy introspectiveness and passionate gusto. Overall, he demonstrated a strong sense of rhythm in the swaying waltz-time of the dances.

Rabinovich is a true polymath, in the Renaissance sense of the word. As well as being a concert pianist and composer (more on this later), he is a visual artist. Thus, the visual nature his playing (in true Kandinsky-like synaesthesia) is no doubt due to his talent as an artist. About his art, he says: “I started drawing when I was ten years old, and though I never took formal lessons, it has been my passion ever since. I love sketching in particular and I always have a sketchbook wherever I go.” Composed in response to Rabinovich’s paintings, Michael Brown’s Surfaces is a work that uses six notes as the nucleus of his piece. His diverse use of these six notes contrasts bombast with an abstract, sinister mood. Brown said of the piece that the idea “comes directly from Roman’s paintings, where I see different yet related brush strokes layered on top of each other and presented simultaneously.” Rabinovich’s performance of first and last movements of Brown’s piece had an introspectiveness that allowed the listener to dwell in its open spaces. This was contrasted by a dark, heavy (and sometimes wearisome) second and third movement with their “spiky texture at a brisk tempo” and “series of repeated staccato chords”, as Brown notes.

For his final piece before the interval, Rabinovich played Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien which draws upon ASCH and SCHA cryptograms that also underpin Carnaval, making his selection of his Schumann pieces, a neat musical parallel. His performance of the second and fourth movements extracted the sombre and thoughtful moments of the piece which provided a compelling contrast with the more tempestuous nature of the work. Another example of Rabinovich’s gift for mining the quiescent inner core out of the music came in the form of the second movement (marked Adagio e cantabile) of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E flat, Hob. XVI, 49. As Haydn pointed out to his much loved friend Marie Anna von Genzinger, this central movement is “full of meaning and emotion.”

When Rabinovich finished the Danse russe, Chez Petrouchka, and La semaine grasse from Stravinksy’s Petrouchka, the virtuosic furore left the audience stunned by his strength, technical abilities, impressive speed and precision. This piece was transcribed by Artur Rubenstein and Stravinsky in the composer’s home in Biarritz, France. It became the piece that Stravinsky himself deemed too difficult to play. This admission did not hold Rabinovich back, who played with such confidence and conviction that any work by Busoni or Alkan might seem facile in comparison!

For his encore, Rabinovich performed Clown on a Bicycle; a witty, wry piece he composed himself. This short piece was intelligent and individual, but, as ever, comparisons with other composers spring to mind. Some impressionistic influences (think Debussy or Ravel) could be heard against heavier, more taught passages that made me think of some of Prokofiev and Scriabin’s works. Overall, it sounded not unlike some of Martinu’s piano sonatas and left me curious as to what other works Rabinovich has composed.

There is plenty to look forward to in the forthcoming year as Rabinovich gets ready to present his ‘Haydn Project’ which consists of the complete Haydn Piano Sonatas. Until then, clips of Rabinovich’s performances as well as photographs of his artworks can be viewed through his website

Lucy Jeffery


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