Closing his singular and exhausting recital at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Monday, May 18, with the Horowitz transcription of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Russian virtuoso Alexander Gavrylyuk demonstrated the fiery and often stentorian arsenal of keyboard technique he brandishes with a singular aplomb, raising both the roof and the exhilarated sensibilities of his appreciative audience. In virtually dire contrast to his second encore, “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples” from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, which enjoyed a serenity of spirit that a grateful soul feels after the passing of either a windy tempest or a volcanic eruption: the last work on the official program had been the Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36 (1913; rev. 1931). The last movement of this work had Gavrylyuk’s urging brilliant, chromatic runs and chords in furious motion, with one of Rachmaninov’s patented lyrical themes in D. The shifting affects of Rachmaninov’s work seemed to encapsulate the virtues — and issues — with Gavrylyuk’s especial style and flair.
Russian pianism by nature tends to the percussive – perhaps the unfortunate legacy of a legendary thunderbolt like Sviatoslav Richter — so we expect the onslaught on “Russian bells” to infiltrate many a rendition of the classics. In Gavrylyuk’s case, his tendency to pound and hammer chords would then shift to an almost manic desire to reduce the sound to delicate, brittle clusters of color, much in the manner of the late Glenn Gould’s desire to turn the piano into a harpsichord: witness Gavrylyuk’s performance of the Haydn Sonata No. 32 in B Minor (1776), a work of dramatic distinction with dark, Empfindsamkeit (“emotional”) qualities. Here, Gavrylyuk’s playing corresponded to the dual nature of his work in the opening Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in the Busoni arrangement: huge, gripping block chords and palatial sonorities countered by a brittle, mannered, “precious” figures and lightly textured runs. When Gavrylyuk loomed in full force, moreover, the sheer weight and mammoth sonority assumed an unfortunate monochrome, and so the music lost much of its sensuous logic and nuance; indeed, the monoliths had little to no subtlety.
These observations by no means belittle the massive scale and range of the man’s technique: few can provide the spans required to play the Rachmaninov F-sharp Minor Prelude’s final chords as written, not without either detaching his hand or growing an eleventh finger! More than once, the potent acceleration in the B-flat Sonata of Rachmaninov reminded us just how much that composer borrowed from the Chopin Second Sonata in the same key, with its own opening doppio movimento indication. Yet, in the famed, lyrical E Major Etude from Op. 10 of Chopin — from a group of six from Op. 10 — Gavrylyuk enchanted us with a graceful arioso whose intimacy would be not sacrificed to bravura in its middle section. The persistent affects in extremis began to feel less artful and meaningful than merely willful, to which the pianist’s swooping and scooping arm and elbow gestures at the keyboard merely exacerbated an opinion of a mannered temperament.
The range of response in my own attempts to characterize Gavrylruk’s musical equivalents vacillated to the imposing Egon Petri in the Bach to the flamboyant, but often inane, Lang Lang, or the mistress of shellacking, Olga Kern, in the more clamorous episodes. The nature of Gavrylyuk’s pedal technique, too, became an issue, as – and here we think of Ivo Pogorelich – the dry, unpedaled approach to selected Chopin etudes created a strange luster that would stand in bold contrast to a panoply of applied color effects in the F Minor and C Minor “Revolutionary” Etude.
For my money, Gavrylyuk found his happiest moment in that most willful of piano compositions, the Sonata No. 5 (1907) of Alexander Scriabin, the first of the composer’s one-movement works devoted to the ecstatic expression of the divisive, protean, and mercurial aspects of his own ego. The ardent, manic, contesting forces of this ode to the mysteries of creation called forth from Gavrylyuk exactly those diametrically thrilling impulses in his playing: intensity, supreme digital control, emotional color by way of the pedal, and an orgiastic volume of sound complemented by elusive, yet modal harmony. Rachmaninov had proclaimed to Scriabin that in this piece Scriabin had “chosen a wrong path,” but the Russian, self-appointed mystic decided to proceed further on his path to solipsistic ecstasies. May Gavrylyuk’s chosen paths lead him to the artistic and personal heights he seeks, with or without me.