Had Sergiu Celibidache been in attendance at the Oshman Family JCC, Monday, May 16 for the recital by Russian pianist Sergei Babayan, standing in for Nelson Freire, Celibidache would have declared the phenomenally gifted Babayan “a conductor — he makes colors.” Indeed, in a marathon concert whose expansive program embraced music by J.S. Bach, Pärt, Liszt, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, Babayan demonstrated a complete control of every element in keyboard technique, in which digital articulation and graduated dynamic sonority proved extraordinary. Performing on a highly responsive Hamburg Steinway, Babayan achieved the kind of “fever-pitch of in the incessant pursuit of ideal beauty” that bespeaks his artistic credo.
Babayan opened rather unconventionally, with a series of Bach Preludes and Fugues, beginning with the “genesis” of them all, the C Major Prelude and Fugue of Book I from The Well-Tempered Klavier, BWV 846. Playing without using the damper pedal, Babayan achieved a smooth legato throughout its broken-chord progression, achieving a graduated continuity whose silken surface this reviewer had not encountered since Elly Ney. Babayan then served us six more selected Preludes and Fugues, culminating in the monumental No. 24 in B Minor, BWV 869, whose Prelude proffers an ardent meditation while its Fugue combines striking colors and daring invention in the form of chains of sequences and wayward sixteenth-note patterns that both ornament and disrupt the flow of the procedure. Babayan, nevertheless, once having established a pulse or tactus, was able to maintain its solid character in the midst of surface variety. His bell-like tones, moreover, could well have served the Rachmaninoff etudes and his explosive Rachmaninoff encore heard later in this program.
Disdaining any formal applause or acknowledgment, Babayan then embarked upon a performance of eleven, selected pieces from the 1720 Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, a collection of pieces assembled around 1720. Essentially a guided tour or primer on the art of ornamentation, the various character pieces revealed from Babayan no end of color and motor combinations: deft, witty, and eminently “inventive” in the best Baroque application of the term, given the potent sonority of the contemporary instrument.
The second half of Babayan’s program conceded to the Romantic taste, although we could detect aspects of personalized rubato and phraseology even in his Bach. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s 1976 Für Alina thoroughly beguiled us with Babayan’s crystalline, “minimalist” attention to the keyboard’s upper registers, achieving a transparency and purity of sound as few pieces demand. Deceptively “naïve” in appearance, the work proffers Blake’s “fearful symmetry” of form and content, set in B Minor with a right hand part that sails — by way of free rubato — above the low B in the bass. If Debussy has any share in the piece’s inspiration, the work transcends him and creates its own ecstatic space.
Few segues could be more fiendish than Babayan’s “descent into the maelstrom” of Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B Minor, ostensibly set to Gottfried August Bürger’s Lenore, a Gothic tale in which Death himself seduces a woman who awaits the return of her lover from the Seven Years’ War. The absolutely startling dark, chromatic runs that open the massive score jarred us with their contrast to the Pärt sensibility, and the emergent struggle soon rose to Liszt’s favorite key for ecstatic transformation, F-sharp Major, the Empyrean setting for his equally convulsive Dante Sonata. Babayan made this heroic and tragic composition assume the general character of the Transcendental Etudes, an effect no less apparent in the Rachmaninoff group.
For many auditors this evening, Babayan’s Chopin took the berries. The opening Polonaise in C-sharp Minor, Op. 26, No. 1, set the tone of passionate nationalism, countered by a tender, lilting middle section in the enharmonic D-flat Major that convinced us of Babayan’s innate sympathy for Chopin’s style. But with the perennial, even clichéd, Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2, we witnessed what marvels Babayan was able to create from an otherwise weary vessel. This dance gained a poised aristocracy, shaped and bedecked by graduated tempos and intelligent rubato, never for a moment devolving into empty display, in spite of the accelerations. Babayan repeated this magic in the B Minor Waltz, Op. 69, No. 2, equally poignant and exalted by a refreshed simplicity of expression. Between the two exquisite waltzes Babayan delivered the marvelous 1846 Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60, a masterpiece of fertile harmony and rhythmic invention (in 12/8). In the course of the gondola song, Babayan built up a series of waves and sonic undulations whose layers – stretti – soon had us mesmerized in a sea of competing colors, in thirds and sixths and undulating trills, sustained by an unceasing sense of the bel canto vocal (perhaps even ballade) style that marks Chopin’s ouevre. What a dazzling cornucopia of pianism this piece truly is!
Babayan concluded an already mammoth recital with a Rachmaninoff set, comprised of the Etude-Tableau in E-flat Minor, Op. 39, No. 6; and two of Op. 16 Moments Musicaux, Nos. 2 and 6, in E-flat Minor and C Major, respectively. The most prominent feature of these works lies in their vehement bravura, much in the manner of Liszt and Chopin, certainly, but no less urgent by way of Russian bells and harmonized doxology. Liquid melodic figures, warm, surging arpeggios, and occasionally demonic impulses broke forth, but always rich in melody. If Rachmaninoff owes debts to Liszt and fellow Russian Scriabin, he repays them with a fertile imagination and brilliant technique.
Two encores ensued: the first, a marvelously slow, nobly realized Scarlatti Sonata in C Major, K. 159, completely unique to our hearing, having been spoiled by too many assertions of its speed. This moment of utter transparency and Spanish charm suddenly took one more, wild ride in the form of Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in C Minor, Op. 39, No. 1, a veritable tempest at sea inspired by the ubiquitous (for Rachmaninoff) Arnold Böcklin. Bowing graciously, robust, smiling appreciatively, Babayan took his bows without any sign of strain or fatigue, his absolute control eager for yet more demonstrations of a Promethean gift.