Alexander Gavrylyuk Probes and Enriches the Tchaikovsky Concerto in the Season Opener

CanadaCanada Morlock, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky: Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 24.9.2016. (GN)

Alexander Gavrylyuk © Mika Bovan
Alexander Gavrylyuk © Mika Bovan

MorlockOiseaux bleus et sauvages (2005)
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor Op.23
StravinskyLe Sacre du Printemps

Opening night concerts typically need to offer a sense of occasion for everyone, so why not do it by celebrating a Russian theme and combining two big works that have achieved mass popularity in quite different ways and for quite different audiences? Thus, the Vancouver Symphony season opener set Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto up against Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Not that there was any announced competition, but the former did emerge as the clear winner. In fact, young Ukrainian/Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk combined with Maestro Bramwell Tovey for one of the most penetrating performances of this well-worn concerto that I have heard in years. Both also gave pretty riveting traversals of the Rachmaninoff concertos and Paganini Rhapsody just over two years ago (review). The appetizer was Composer-In-Residence Jocelyn Morlock’s gamelan-based Oiseaux bleus et sauvages, an early work that attractively fuses naturalistic 20th century musical metaphors within a Bolero-like rhythmic framework.

While many performances of the Tchaikovsky concerto are driven by commanding pianism and sheer orchestral gusto, this one focused more on the inner psychological nerve-ends of the piece and provided an engrossing narrative. This is not to suggest that Gavrylyuk’s pianism was anything other than magnetically commanding – he is well known for his remarkable virtuosity and Horowitz-like fire – but the essential focus was on the makeup of the composer himself, suspended in the comfortable extravagance of the Russian Imperial Court, sometimes finding peace but only fleetingly so. At times, Tchaikovsky is portrayed as too vulnerable to really fit, and at other times too extreme and volatile in his emotional responses, prone to moving between an uncontrollable joy and an all-consuming despair. Of course, one might find all these attributes spelled out in concert ‘programme notes’ but few pianists take the characterization to heart and communicate the composer’s inner struggle as faithfully as Gavrylyuk does. There was all the power one could want in the more determined, heroic passages – and certainly the most exultant joy I have ever felt at the close of the opening Allegro – but it was the fantasy in between that was so revealing. The pianist found so many subtle turns and corners in the lengthy opening movement, using his skilled rubato and fleet fingers to quickly transform a serene, childlike innocence (often present) into the most giddy feelings of elation and then, just as quickly, into an unstable vortex of vulnerability and depression. This pattern was brought out repeatedly in a very rhapsodic way, achieving a wonderful feeling of authenticity; there were even glimpses of The Nutcracker.

Tempos for all three movements were on the deliberate side, providing a strong dramatic fulcrum and opening considerable space to allow the story to unfold. Maestro Tovey seemed to have benefitted from his earlier collaboration with the pianist, since the conducting matched perfectly, always patient yet finding the right kind of Tchaikovskian sweetness in the strings and nobility in the brass. The inner peace in the flute theme of the Andantino was set down beautifully, but we were already familiar with it since the same sense of fantasy was artfully suggested in the opening movement. Gavrylyuk moved the initial dreaminess to real emotional turbulence, almost frenzy, before radiant and loving hues poured forth at the movement’s end.

The closing Allegro often ends up as a glamourous race to the finish but here it was almost the opposite. The striking feature was the sense of desolation and removal that the pianist achieved at the opening. The orchestra was rhythmically purposive, but the piano line was projected as if in a world of its own, musing and playing to its own tune. Then reality comes back, the intensity and determination builds, and the piano hurtles strongly between all the different emotions. The ultimate return of the famous motive finds all the tensions released and reveals a man full of love, nobility and courage – exactly the way the composer wanted it to be. The sense of ‘struggle overcome’ was most tangible, and it would be difficult to imagine more explosive applause at the end. And for good reason: this was a very sensitive and thoughtful performance, and grippingly spontaneous too. From my perspective, the inner struggles of both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff now seemed closer. Gavrylyuk’s encore was an absolutely dazzling rendering of the Ukrainian composer Arkady Filippenko’s Toccata in C Major.

It would be difficult to think that the performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring could live up to the Tchaikovsky and, in many ways, it didn’t. For musicians who have just come back from their holidays, the work is a somewhat punishing way to get them going, and the orchestra understandably displayed less than midseason precision or automaticity. The basic problem was that the performance just wasn’t forbidding or threatening enough, lacking both raw rhythmic insistence and visceral punch. Rather than presenting the work as forward looking, or as one where the brutal, bludgeoning forces of Nature and Primitivism dominate, the interpretation somehow returned the work to more traditional Russian folklore. With a little more colour in the strings and winds and slightly less rhythmic drive, it was the Firebird that first came to mind. Then, later, in more cacophonous passages, there was a whiff of the ‘Shrovetide Fair’ in Petrushka. Part II even found luxuriant passages that took me right back to Rimsky-Korsakov – The Golden Cockerel for example. In principle, there is nothing wrong with finding these references, and it was refreshing to think about the work’s roots. Yet there is a reason why the classic performances of Markevitch, Dorati and the composer himself have had such a lasting imprint. They make the Rite a work of austere, raw power, sharp and uncompromising in every rhythm and gesture, and one possessing a ‘strangeness’ quite removed from conventional cinematics. While not without its impressive moments, this performance was neither strange nor raw enough, and it relied too much on cinematics. I have received information that the next afternoon’s performance was ‘tougher’.

For me, the story of the evening was Alexander Gavrylyuk. At only 32, he is such a fine pianist, praised endlessly over the past decade for his virtuosity and sensitivity, and held in high esteem at places like the Concertgebouw, where he has repeatedly performed. He has recorded many fine CD recitals for Piano Classics and the Complete Prokofiev Concertos with Vladimir Ashkenazy but, as of yet, none of the Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky concertos that he plays so uniquely. It is my firm conviction that this pianist’s day must soon come. It would be nice to see a distinguished recording company take on the latter concertos. I also have no doubt that he would be an absolute knockout at the BBC Proms.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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