Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk (courtesy of Chamber Music San Francisco)
Yesterday afternoon in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco concluded its 2018 season with the San Francisco debut of Ukrainian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk. Gavrylyuk has a clear passion for Russian music from the early twentieth century, and the second half of his program was organized around sonatas by both Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff, separated by a selection of three of Rachmaninoff’s piano preludes. Rachmaninoff was one of Scriabin’s greatest admirers, reacting to the older composer’s relatively early death in 1915 by changing his Carnegie Hall recital to an all-Scriabin program.
Gavrylyuk’s Scriabin selection was the Opus 53 (fifth) sonata, the first of his ten published sonatas to be written without a key specification. The score itself is oriented around three different key signatures; but what is most important is that, across the entire duration of the sonata’s single movement, one never encounters a perfect cadence. Arnold Schoenberg would not write about emancipating dissonance until 1926, but in 1907 Scriabin was already exploring musical organization that did not depend on a dominant-tonic relationship.
Instead, Scriabin orients the listener by unfolding a series of motifs, which then engage among themselves through a musical rhetoric that is almost conversational. (One can also find this rhetorical approach in Carl Nielsen, albeit in a far more tonal framework.) Thus, if Scriabin’s score may strike some as unsettled for never arriving at a tonic, the composer offers, instead, a vigorous context that can be described as highly dramatic without ever committing to a specific plot. Most startling is the way in which all that tumult of the different motifs bumping into each other just comes to an abrupt conclusion, rather like an argument that is never resolved because all of the antagonists collapse from exhaustion.
The Opus 53 sonata was clearly a major turning point for Scriabin, even if he had been preparing himself for it by taking similar approaches to shorter pieces. One wonders how Rachmaninoff would have played it, if he chose to play it at all. Certainly nothing he wrote following the publication of Opus 53 in 1907 suggests that Scriabin’s approach attracted his attention. If anything, Rachmaninoff’s Opus 36 (second) sonata in B-flat minor, with which Gavrylyuk concluded his program, was defiantly retrogressive.
Indeed, the sonata is a large bleeding hulk of exorbitant virtuosity all framed in a relatively conventional three-movement structure. To some extent it reminds the attentive listener that Robert Schumann was not in his most favorable element when he wrote his piano sonatas. As a technician Gavrylyuk clearly had a confident command of all the challenges posed by Rachmaninoff’s score, but he lacked the ability to convince even the most sympathetic listener that attention to this piece was time well spent. He was far more convincing in his account of the three short Rachmaninoff preludes that preceded the sonata performance, all in minor keys but each with its own highly personalized characteristics.
There was a similar lack of balance during the first half of Gavrylyuk’s recital. Things were at their best in his account of Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XVI/32 sonata in B minor. Haydn clearly enjoyed exploring the possibilities of this less conventional (at least for his time) key. Gavrylyuk followed every step of that exploration with a light touch and an unabashedly playful rhetorical stance. It was hard not to think of Menahem Pressler’s playfulness in his younger days as both a soloist and member of the Beaux Arts Trio.
Sadly, the Haydn selection provided the only real satisfaction on the first half of the program. A selection of six of the études from Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 10 collection were technically impressive but offered little to attract the attention of the seasoned listener. However, if the Chopin selections were merely undistinguished, Gavrylyuk’s approach to Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 565 toccata and fugue in D minor was entirely off the rails, totally ignoring the profound respect that Busoni had for Bach’s music. Rather than approach the arrangement as a means to account for virtuoso organ-playing at a piano keyboard, Gavrylyuk’s style seemed to be channeling Leopold Stokowski’s outrageous full-orchestra arrangement of the same composition. The result was all sound and fury with little sense of either the spontaneity of the toccata or the elegant polyphony of the fugue.
The first of Gavrylyuk’s two encores followed up on the Rachmaninoff sonata was a more subdued offering, a solo piano version of the “Vocalise” that concluded the Opus 34 collection of fourteen songs. There are more piano transcriptions of that song than can be enumerated, so it is difficult to identify which one Gavrylyuk selected. This was followed by Arcadi Volodos’ outrageous transcription of the final (Alla turca) movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 331 piano sonata in A major, probably best known to those who follow Yuja Wang’s encore selections.
Overall, yesterday afternoon was an uneven affair whose rewards were few but still worth appreciating.