Alexander Gavrylyuk Excels in Prokofiev Sonatas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Chopin, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov: Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 15. 4.2016. (RB)

Schubert: Piano Sonata in A D664

Chopin: Fantasy in F Minor Op 49; Nocturne in D Flat Op 27 No. 2; Polonaise in A Flat Op 53

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Minor Op 28; Piano Sonata No. 6 in A Op 82

Rachmaninov: Étude-tableau in C Minor Op 39 No. 7

Alexander Gavrylyuk is a prize winner at a number of international piano competitions and he has appeared with many of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. In 2009 he recorded the complete Prokofiev concertos with Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (review ~ review). He is an expert in Russian piano music but in the first half of this recital he shifted his focus to music written in the first half of the 19th Century.

The recital opened with Schubert’s A Major Piano Sonata which is a supremely lyrical creation written in 1819 when the composer was enjoying the “heavenly” scenery around Steyr. It was intended as a present for the eighteen year old daughter of one of his hosts there. Gavrylyuk played the song-like theme of the opening Allegro moderato with enormous sensitivity, lovingly capturing the innate lyricism of the music. Occasionally, the playing sounded a little precious and indulgent and I thought there was scope for him to bring out the fiercer, more gutsy elements in the music more, for example the octave triplets at the beginning of the development section. The opening chords of the Andante slow movement were nicely weighted and Gavrylyuk adopted very flexible tempi, treating the music in a free and Romantic way. The finale had charm and delicacy although Gavrylyuk had a tendency to speed up in some of the scale passages so the pulse was not as steady as it could be. This was a sensitive and sympathetic performance although I would have preferred a slightly more disciplined and Classical approach to this work.

From Schubert we moved to three masterpieces by Chopin, beginning with the wonderful F Minor Fantasy. Gavrylyuk’s interpretation of this great tone poem left a lot to be desired: the piece lacked the improvisatory freedom that it needs, the tempi were erratic, it lacked shape and the pedal occasionally blurred some of the harmonies. The Nocturne in D Flat was better: Gavrylyuk produced a nice singing line and there was expressive use of rubato and fine filigree playing although the final sequence of ascending chords in the right hand sounded a little pedestrian. The first half concluded with Chopin’s perennially popular A Flat Polonaise. Gavrylyuk brought enormous charm to the dance elements and there was certainly a patrician swagger in this performance. The famous left hand octave ostinato was well handled and built to a powerful climax.

The second half opened with Prokofiev’s A Minor Sonata which, like the Fourth Piano Sonata, was “from old notebooks”. Gavrylyuk seemed much more comfortable with this repertoire and there was a step change in the performance level. The rapid alternating opening chords were arresting and Gavryluk brought energy and rhythmic vibrancy to the opening section of the sonata. The central section in C Major was played with an unvarnished sweetness and simplicity and Gavrylyuk seemed to suggest the pealing of bells at various points. He seemed to relish the hammering and stabbing of the concluding section and the final accelerando was a tour de force, driving the piece to its climactic conclusion. In between the two Prokofiev sonatas, we heard Rachmaninov’s C Minor Étude-tableau which was described by the composer as a funeral march. Gavrylyuk certainly captured the pervading gloom of the piece well although I would have welcomed a wider range of dynamics.

The recital concluded with the first of Prokofiev’s ‘War Sonatas’ which the composer wrote immediately prior to Russia’s entry into the Second World War. The work shows Prokofiev at his most primal and aggressive (especially in the first movement where he marks a chord to be played con pugno – with the fist!). The horrors of mechanised warfare vie in the score with elements of parody and dark humour which are so characteristic of this composer. Gavrylyuk certainly invested the opening Allegro moderato with primal violence and the acerbic central section was a particularly impressive, unbridled piece of playing. The Allegretto second movement was imbued with Prokofiev’s whimsical dark humour – some elements sounded like a dark, wintry fairy tale – and I liked the rhythmic bounce which Gavrylyuk brought to the left hand quintuplets. The opening of the third movement could have been a little more expressive and some of the tempo relationships did not seem quite right although Gavrylyuk captured the sense of brooding apprehension well. The finale was played at breakneck speed with Gavrylyuk doing well to maintain the momentum – the finger-work in the final section was a dazzling piece of playing which succeeded in bringing the house down.

Gavryluk performed a number of pieces from Schumann’s Kinderszenen as an encore. Overall, this was a rather mixed recital with some indulgent, slightly ill-disciplined playing in the first half redeemed by the performances of the Prokofiev sonatas in the second.

Robert Beattie


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