Brilliance and Humanity Complement Each Other in Lilit Grigoryan’s Superb Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach/Busoni, Mendelssohn, Szymanowski, Beethoven, Rachmaninov: Lilit Grigoryan (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 26.11.2017. (GPu)

Lilit Grigoryan (piano) (c) Reinar Nicklas

Bach/Busoni – Chaconne in D minor
Mendelssohn – Variations sérieuses, Op.54
Szymanowski – Variations in BƄ minor, Op.3
Beethoven – 32 Variations in C minor Wo080
Rachmaninov – Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42

In a concert review published on these pages as long ago as 2009 Thomas K. Thornton observed that Lilit Grigoryan was a pianist who had ‘it all – the magic touch, the sensitivity, the intelligence, depth, technique, sense of drama, as well as the emotional and musical range’, but added that ‘as yet she is not a famous pianist by any stretch of the imagination’. Eight, almost nine, years later it remains true that Grigoryan’s reputation lags behind her achievement.

Grigoryan, born in Yerevan in Armenia, and now in her early thirties, has been something of a protégé of Maria João Pires. Indeed, Grigoryan’s website carries a ringing (and on the evidence of this concert, a justified) endorsement by Pires: ‘Lilit has abundant strength, determination, a clear and assertive musical language’. For this recital in Cardiff, Grigoryan chose a demanding and ambitious programme, made up entirely of variations. As Alfred Brendel puts it in a piece ‘On Recitals and Programmes’, ‘As for a full recital of variations, here prudence is called for’. And, on the whole, Grigoryan had exercised the necessary prudence in her choice of works My only reservation was about the Szymanowski.

For me the highlights – difficult of selection in a performance which maintained a very high standard – were Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s second partita for solo violin, Mendelssohn’s astonishing Variations sérieuses and Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli.

It was a brave, some might say foolhardy, undertaking on Busoni’s part to take Bach’s magnificent exploration of the resources of the solo violin and to transfer it to the ‘modern’ piano, while largely respecting Bach’s profound architectural sense. Menuhin described it as ‘the greatest structure for solo violin that exists’. Busoni’s ‘bravery’ was justified by the quality of the outcome. One may miss the violin’s lyricism, which is inevitably lost, but there is abundant compensation in the manner in which Bach’s contrapuntal writing emerges yet more powerfully. Busoni makes imaginatively exhilarating use of the resources of the grand piano, while not forgetting to manufacture hints of pizzicato and spiccato to remind the listener (and perhaps the performer?) of the work’s origins. In this astonishing work Busoni seems to conjure up Bach, Liszt and even Brahms, simultaneously. And Lilit Grigoryan did full justice to it, in what was one of the very best readings of the work which I have ever heard, live or recorded. The theme was stately, without being excessively so, and the ensuing variations (all 32 of them) had the kind of vivacity and spontaneity one might more readily associate with improvisation. The whole was emotionally communicative while being technically precise. Grigoryan found emotional depths here that I have rarely heard in other performances. I already had a high opinion of Busoni’s transcription; I now have even more respect for it.

Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses are ‘serious’ in several senses; this is not something intended merely to entertain, it is something to be approached ‘seriously’, it explores ideas and emotions that matter, it is a responsible piece of music. To quote Brendel once again, ‘In Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, his outstanding piano composition, the theme’s latent pathos becomes increasingly manifest … For the Classical masters, a set of variations in a minor key used to be an exception, and one that did not end in the major even rarer. Independent variation works had to entertain, and to serve as vehicles for instrumental proficiency … The Variations sérieuses have a forerunner in Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor … While Mendelssohn’s title is a reaction against the multitude of ‘Variations brillantes’ that were the fashion of the day, the work does not renounce bravura, but manages to fuse it with a deeply personal expression. The adherence to the theme is strictly Classicist; at the same time, disturbing passions are unleashed’. I have perhaps quoted Brendel at excessive length, for which I apologise. But, after trying to sort out my feelings about the work, I came across this passage, saying what I wanted to say, but saying it much better and more economically, and the temptation to quote it was irresistible. One might add, in this particular context, that Mendelssohn’s theme has a distinct family resemblance to that of Bach’s Chaconne as ‘pianised’ by Busoni. The design of Ms. Grigoryan’s programme was full of such ‘links’.

Ms. Grigoryan’s account of this work was magnificent. She was equally persuasive playing pianissimo or fortissimo and her changes of tempo and dynamics were beautifully handled. Here, as elsewhere, her sound was remarkable; I have rarely heard the RWCMD’s Steinway sound so rich and so clear, especially in its middle and bottom ranges. Grigoryan’s performance played proper (but not ponderous) respect to the overarching architecture of Mendelssohn’s supreme set of variations, in the way, for example, in which the first 9 variations, after the theme and variation 1 (andante sostenuto) consistently increase in tempo and energy, climaxing in the allegro vivace of variations 8 and 9, before the moderato of variation 10 (which here sounded a thing of special beauty) slows things down. Variation 11 (Cantabile) was also ravishingly ‘pathetique’, while the fugato of variation 12 (andante sostenuto) brought another kind of ‘seriousness’, a kind of musical (and quasi-moral) responsibility. There was bravura enough in such variations as nos.7, 13 and 16. Indeed technical challenges seemed to present no problems whatsoever to Ms. Grigoryan – she had more difficulty controlling her hair!

In some respects, Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli – actually, of course, the theme was not Corelli’s, it being our old Portuguese friend La Folia – belongs more fully to the Virtuoso tradition than anything else in her programme. Its virtuosic demands held no fears for Grigoryan, but she is not, I suspect, a pianist who values virtuosity for its own sake, and in her reading of the work she seemed less concerned to dazzle her listeners and more to communicate the almost tragic melancholy which permeates these Variations. The mysterious quality of Variation 8, the playfulness of Variation 10 and the sadness of Variations 14 and 15 were particularly memorable; the climactic Variation 20 felt less like a triumph of barnstorming virtuosity than the final defiance of a tragic hero approaching death.

If the Variations by Beethoven and Szymanowski were ultimately less satisfying, the fault was not Ms. Grigoryan’s. Szymanowski’s set of Variations in BƄ minor is an early work, written c. 1902 when Szymanowski was pupil of Zygmunt Noskowski in Warsaw. It is tempting, indeed, to say that the work is a student piece. Individual variations are interesting and attractive, not least the mazurka of the third variation, the waltz of the ninth variation and the almost chorale-like Variation 8 (all given fine readings by Grigoryan). But at times the young Szymanowski (he would have been around twenty at the time of his composition of this set of variations) seems to have been (understandably) rather too ready to follow the example of Liszt. He was (again, understandably) yet to develop his own distinctive voice. I think Lilit Grigoryan made about as much as can reasonably be made of this youthful work, which seems to lack anything to unify it emotionally, such unity as it has being purely ‘formal’, in its close adherence, throughout, to the shape of the original theme. Beethoven’s set of 32 Variations in C minor was written in 1806, when Beethoven was in his mid-thirties; it is, of course, an interesting work, not least, in this context, because its original theme, eight bars long, with its spare melodic line in the right hand and the chordal progression in the left hand reminds one of the thematic structure of Bach’s Chaconne or even of La Folia. In these variations the listener’s interest is largely engaged by the composer’s (often striking) interrogation of his materials as, for example, in the way that Variation 5 explores the contrast between legato and staccato, the manner in which Variations 26 and 27 are essentially studies in thirds. This, to refer back to Brendel is surely a set of variations which essentially ‘serve[s] as a vehicle for instrumental proficiency’. The result makes for fascinating listening, but is somewhat empty emotionally (though Beethoven can never be entirely so). This was a work of which Beethoven was very dismissive in later years and, to judge it alongside the emotional and psychological range of, say, the Diabelli Variations, it is easy to see why he should have felt that way.

A final quotation from Brendel: ‘Variations can relate to their themes in a variety of ways. The dependence needs to be one of musical material: bass, melody, harmony, individual motifs and formal layout of the theme can all contribute to generating a recognisable kinship. But there can also be a psychological dependence’. He goes on to discuss four sets of variations, including (Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses) in which ‘[the theme] gives a signal that determines the psychological course of the entire work’. My own experience suggests that it is precisely those sets of Variations in which the composer articulates both kinds of ‘dependence’ (musical and ‘psychological’) that most reward the listener. For that reason, it was the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses and Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli that most fully demonstrated Lilit Grigoryan’s capacities as a pianist. Her Szymanowski and her Beethoven, though inherently less emotionally involving, demonstrated her very high degree of ‘instrumental proficiency’. So too did the two pieces she played by way of encore (prefacing them with the observation that ‘we have had enough of variations for today’), transcriptions of two dances – ‘Ouzoun Dara’ and ‘La danse du Sabre’ from her countryman Khachaturian’s Gayaneh, played with passionate energy and precision.

Lilit Grigoryan is a remarkable artist and it is very much to be hoped that she will soon gain the greater recognition she deserves.

Glyn Pursglove

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