Canada Rachmaninoff: Alexander Gavrylyuk, piano, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey, conductor: Orpheum Theater, Vancouver, 29 & 31.3.2014 and 5 & 7.4.2014 (GN)
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op.1
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op.18
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op.30
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40
Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43
‘Hats off’ to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for introducing so many festivals in this year’s concert season. For medium size cities, this now seems to be the way to go in creating a sense of occasion for the concert-going public, and increasing a city’s musical energy. This fourth ‘Russian’ festival was in many ways the best of them all, and this was largely due to the oversize presence of an actually very modest and unassuming Alexander Gavrylyuk, a pianist who can clearly bring the house down with his virtuosity and phenomenal Horowitz-like weight and fire, but certainly offers much more than that. The centerpiece of the occasion was the complete Rachmaninoff concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody.
That Alexander Gavrylyuk’s playing is quite magnetic goes without saying; there was nothing remotely routine about any of his interpretations and, quite frankly, there wasn’t even a single note or phrase that didn’t hold my interest. Why that is perhaps emerged in talking to him (see interview on this site): his ideal is to penetrate the full reach of the composer’s emotional and intellectual world and to present it in the most pure and selfless way. Many artists of course can say something like this; Alexander seemingly does it. Here, playing Rachmaninoff is all about perceiving the different dimensions and shades of the composer’s ‘inner struggle’. This ultra-sensitivity certainly presents Rachmaninoff in a more vivid way, emotions often changing quickly from a buoyant energy to a much more vulnerable and pensive sadness, from a courageous striding forth to an almost static sense of futility, from capriciousness to unendurable pain. One remarkable thing about this playing is that it actually can convey the feeling of the composer literally out of control at points — tumbling down into some vortex, or trapped in an almost surreal reverie, or propelled by an almost giddy and quite unstable enthusiasm or release.
There was no better illustration of this than in ‘the pianist’s consummate concerto’: the Third. Here we started from the usual gentle lyricism, but we soon noticed how one piano passage would be followed by another with much more intensity, point and motion. Then, the pianist would return to a calmer posture only to have that broken by something that seemed slightly out of control, and so on. Phrases that seemed innocuous somehow had a very subtle swell at their end, hinting at something more ominous. Tremendous variety and indeed rubato on this journey, and this could have so easily appeared to be mannered or fragmented in lesser hands. But Alexander had his emotional radar so finely tuned that it did seem revealing of the true nerve ends of the composer. It told a believable story, articulated clearly and decisively. The cadenza was commanding. The following Adagio also took us on an enticing emotional ride, phrases often pointed to generate a headlong passion at one moment, a profound sadness at another, with almost a giddiness surfacing at the end. The triumphal finale was played for all it was worth, giving us many different sound worlds and striking motion and intensity. But the intimacy of this very personal concerto was always preserved.
I can safely say that, just witnessing Alexander Gavrylyuk’s clean sense of line and texture, and obvious sensitivity and imagination, one could hardly help but be impressed. But when one combines this with his visceral energy and his almost demonic white-heat virtuosity, I can safely say that it would be almost impossible for anyone to go home from this festival other than somewhat entranced. The encores only added to this experience: the sheer heartfelt beauty of the ‘Vocalise’, and absolutely breathtaking performances of Horowitz transcriptions of Mozart’s ‘Alla Turca’ and Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’, where the speed of the playing and its sheer volume level almost had to be seen to be believed.
Yet the performances did vary in quality, seemingly getting better as we moved to the later concerts: the 3rd and 4th concertos and the Rhapsody were clear highlights. In retrospect, the 2nd concerto achieved somewhat less. Certainly, the beautiful Adagio of the 2nd did move out to a very special place, with beautiful, unforced playing from the pianist, heartfelt and intimate, but the first movement drove the weight and intensity of its opening too far to permit much of its quiet rhapsodic melancholy to settle and flower. The finale also tended to overemphasis, the orchestra often reaching out to punch climaxes home, but not finding too much in between. For sure, the pianist always created interest, maintaining strong lines and command throughout, getting the piano voice to register above the orchestra, and certainly giving us an unbridled power and passion at the work’s end that was most exciting. But I think everything would have come out even more strongly if there was more lyrical ‘give’ in the outer movements.
On the other hand, the 4th concerto was remarkably successful. This late concerto is always a bit of riddle, testimony to a Russian spirit trapped in American garb. It is also structurally tighter, its lyrical fervour less pronounced. For the most part, this was a very powerful, cogent traversal of this work. In the opening movement, the piano certainly started off as strongly as I have heard, but later on found just the right expressive space and quiet still to set up a very decisive climax at the movement’s end, the orchestra surging out with incandescent power while conveying just the right bittersweet flavour overall. The middle movements carried their line extremely well. The pianist was quite deliberate in the second, nicely musing to begin and very involved throughout, with another striking surge of emotion at its end. The last movement is tricky to perform – so many things going on together – but emerged as less episodic than it often does. However, I do think that the strong string proclamations at the end needed more lift. One interesting feature of the pianist’s gleaming, spiky articulation in this movement is that it had a clear link to Prokofiev’s style, intended or not.
The Paganini Rhapsody was tremendously revealing. I have really never heard the opening variations played with so much ‘puckish’ point and play, with so many dynamic gradations and types of piano texture. As we progressed, things got even more vivid and intense; flowing from one moment of dynamic thrust to a serene waltz-like reverie, then pushing forth with almost abandon, then back to a dream-like still, and so on. Then, the ominous bottom of the piano would surge up with its message. Yet every note ‘spoke’, making the work almost into a larger-than-life ‘conversation’. And seemingly a slightly bizarre one too, a product of a composer whose emotional state was clearly heightened and unstable! Then, the long quiet leading up to Variation 18, slowly, delicately and deliciously delivered. Everything now releases, the piano conveying more certitude, its gleaming articulation having a greater strength and propulsion, again almost Prokofiev-like. The work heads unwaveringly to its end. I have seldom heard a performance as intriguing and vivid as this!
So, a wonderfully-compelling experience overall, and sometimes a truly overwhelming one. Alexander Gavrylyuk’s imaginative dynamic gyrations must not be the easiest for a conductor and orchestra to follow but, as everyone got used to each other, things got better and better. Maestro Tovey in general coaxed a fine energy, and a cogent dramatic response, out of the orchestra and was most sensitive to the pianist’s objectives. The only criticism would be that the conducting was sometimes a little straitlaced, not finding as much lyrical flow, colour and sensual warmth as there can be in this composer. But this is of little concern: this festival was indeed a triumph for all concerned.
© Geoffrey Newman 2014