Last Saturday I went to a recital by Alexander Gavrylyuk at the Melbourne Recital Centre. It's the third time I've seen him perform, which is testimony to my high opinion of his playing.
I remember that the first time I heard him, I came away with the impression that he was a perfect pianist, and the second recital I went to (some years later) only served to confirm this view. However, at the time of these recitals, my knowledge of piano repetoire and of pianistic technique in general was limited. I can't even remember most of what he played! I do recall, however, hearing him perform the Moonlight Sonata and being amazed at his interpretation of the first movement, which was unlike anything I'd ever heard before. I'm used to hearing this movement played very limply and weakly, which I hate. Gavyrlyuk played it with such emotional intensity and depth that for the first time I found myself actually understanding the music.
It's very different to be hearing Gavrylyuk now, when my own experience of the piano and piano repetoire is so much broader (and growing every day). Naturally, it's easier for me to find faults in people's playing - if you can call them 'faults' - since I've now heard many more pianists than I had back then, and have established what I like and don't like with regards to interpretation and technique. However, my opinion of Gavrylyuk's playing hasn't changed much.
The program started with Bach's Italian Concerto. Before going to the concert I had listened to excerpts of Gavrylyuk playing this piece on Youtube, recorded nearly ten years ago. I have to admit I was not impressed - I found his interpretation excessively heavy and rather lifeless. However, in 8 years I believe he has matured a lot - his performance on Saturday night was beautiful, much lighter and more elegant than the recording on Youtube.
His interpretation was not quite to my taste, since I like my Bach Glenn-Gould style: dry and 'crunchy', without any pedal, and hard-edged rather than pretty. Gavrylyuk played it with an (albeit very skillful) use of the pedal and very sweetly. It was certainly a 'pretty' performance.
The second piece before interval was Schumann's Fantasie. This is a piece I like, although I don't know it very well, having probably only listened to the entire thing once or twice. I'm well aware of the enourmous technical difficulties it poses, and these didn't seem to trouble Gavrylyuk at all. However, I'm used to hearing Evgeny Kissin's tumultuous, stormy interpretation, and Gavrylyuk played it so differently that I almost didn't recognise it.
He is a small, compact man, rather mouse-like in appearence, but he is somehow capable of making the piano sound like an earthquake. I would have liked to hear a bit of that earthquake-iness at the start of the Schumann, but in fact all I heard was the first note in the bass followed by a very gentle crescendo into the arpeggios, which got completely lost in the acoustic of the auditorium (about which I will say more later.) All in all it was a bit of a let-down, despite the sections of exciting technical fireworks.
However, what was to follow after interval well and truly made up for the disappointment, and even inclined me to think that Gavrylyuk had not been giving his all in the first half of the recital just in order to have the stamina for the second half.
I first heard Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition played by Nikolai Demidenko when he gave a recital in Brisbane in 2011. It was a great recital, but unfortunately I was coming down with a cold and was so exhausted I had trouble focussing on the music. I woke up for 'Baba Yaga', since it sounded like heavy metal. That's all I really remember.
Demidenko is an interesting pianist, but I find his tone tends to be quite harsh. One of Alexander Gavyrlyuk's strongest points is his tone, which is always incredibly warm and beautiful, even at maximum volume. He got an excellent opportunity to display this technique when he performed the Pictures on Saturday night.
When Gavrylyuk came out on stage after interval, he barely waited for people to finish sitting down before plunging straight into the opening 'Promenade'. It annoys me how pianists always play this opening so stridently and harshly. Gavrylyuk, by contrast, played it very beautifully, shaping each note with the pedal. His playing had the intensity and focus I had come to expect from him. and which I felt was somewhat lacking in the first half of the program.
Gavrylyuk's interpretation of Baba Yaga wasn't what I was expecting. I've heard so many poor interpretations of this movement - lacking in rhythm, bite, volume, you name it. Gavrylyuk played it better than any I've heard so far - even better than Demidenko. The volume he achieved in the loud sections of the work, especially near the end, was terrifying; one half expected the auditorium to collapse from the sheer massiveness of the sound, and yet the tone was not percussive at all, just rich and pure.
I don't think I'd ever really understood what a masterpiece Pictures at an Exhibition is until I heard Gavrylyuk's interpretation, which somehow just made perfect sense to me. For the first time I felt like all the movements of the work hung together and were interconnected, and his playing held my attention for the entire work (which is quite a feat, in my opinion.)
Gavrylyuk got a well-deserved standing ovation, and played three encores - THREE, after Pictures at an Exhibition and the Schumann Fantasie! - one of which was quite long and virtuosic: Horowitz's variations on the Mendelssohn Wedding March. This showpiece was framed by a Rachmaninov Prelude and the Vocalise. All were perfect, and Gavrylyuk played them with the same intensity he displayed in the Mussorgsky. The high standard of his playing in the second half of the recital is what made me think that he was saving himself for that. I also feel that Gavrylyuk has a particular affinity with Russian composers.
My main reservation about the recital was not do to with Gavrylyuk's playing, but to do with the Melbourne Recital Centre acoustic. The Elisabeth Murdoch hall, where all the major recitals take place, has an INCREDIBLY reverberant acoustic. (What's more, the slightest noise is clearly audible throughout the auditorium. Someone moves their program, you can hear it. Someone whispers, you can hear it. Someone scratches their neck, you can hear it. I'm not kidding. And as for when a phone goes off in the middle of the concert, as it did on Saturday...)
For small ensembles, this acoustic is excellent. When I saw the King's Singers there, it was perfect. Likewise for the Takacs Quartet. However, the reverb (which is probably several seconds long although I haven't counted), doesn't work at all for piano recitals. I first noticed this when I went to see Bezhod Abduraimov. There was a most curious doubling effect created by the reverb, almost a delayed echo. You'd hear a note played, and then immediately afterwards you'd hear it again, bouncing off the walls. It was very disconcerting.
I was in a good position to observe Gavyrlyuk's feet during the recital on Saturday, and it was only by this that I could tell his pedalling technique was highly refined. The reverb was so extreme that you couldn't hear most of the subtleties of pedalling he used, except when the music was slow, which wasn't often! I don't know why I never noticed this unfortunate quality of the acoustic until recently.
To finish I'd like to link to some of Gavrylyuk's recordings, so here is an excerpt of him playing one of my favorite concertos (you can find the other movements in the related videos)
This is pretty cool also