The Steinway Society the Bay Area inaugurated its 2018-19 season on Saturday, September 15, with a fine recital by Russian piano virtuoso Zlata Chochieva, who performed music by Bach, Rachmaninov, Chopin, and Liszt. Appearing in a silver, svelte gown, Ms. Chochieva might have resembled a sleek, modern incarnation of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, in the classic pose with her hair slicked back, except this deity of the keyboard holds her wrists low and exerts magical, athletic presence on the music she surveys. A combination of potent textures and poetic temperament ensued, inflamed her appreciative audience to demand one encore, a breathless, scintillating rendition of Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No. 5 in G-flat Major, the “Black Keys.”
Chochieva, a pupil of the equally volcanic Mikhail Pletnev, opened with the Rachmaninov 1933 transcription of Bach’s E Major Partita for Solo Violin, BWV 1006, in three movements, Prelude, Gavotte, and Gigue. Clarity of line and a sustained, balance of parts marked Chochieva rendition of the opening Prelude, whose layers – a toccata in stretti – preserve the original motor impetus of the violin part while filling out the harmonic motion in his idiomatic colors. The ensuing dances had piquancy and bite, fluidity and the occasional sforzandi that impart a delicious, minor shock to the system. Playful and antiphonal, the transcriptions lent a natural continuity of motion while remaining thoroughly idiomatic to Chochieva’s palette of tonal colors.
Chochieva then offered us a group of alternating Chopin and Scriabin mazurkas, the most opulent of Poland’s national dances for character and rhythmic-harmonic color. The first, in A Minor, came from Chopin, his “A Emile Gaillard,” from 1840. In 36 measures, the piece utters one fixated melodic curve, an extended, melancholy dialogue with a shift into the parallel major. The C Major Chopin mazurka, published posthumously, had a penchant for the diminished fourth of the Lydian mode, clearly more rustic and folkish than the A Minor. That in C Minor, Op. 30, No. 1 (1837) had playful figures in two octaves, rife with grace notes and accents on the second beat. Its harmonic language already reveals the singular direction of Chopin’s colorful imagination. The three Scriabin mazurkas: F-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2; F Minor, Op. 25, No. 1; and F-sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 7, span some ten years in their evolution, embracing Chopin and the original, fourth-based interval and harmonic audacity that reveal the Russian mystical Scriabin to be his own force of nature. Chochieva invested these with the subtle erotics that can make Scriabin a dangerous man.
Chochieva found in Franz Liszt no less a kindred spirit, as she performed two of his lesser-known showpieces, his Valse Oubliee No. 2 (1883) and his Mephisto Waltz No. 2 (1880). The first piece employs a choppy, somewhat gossamer opening strategy that, by groping extension, becomes fleet and aggressive. The passages and trills ornament the work with a playfulness and finesse that had Chochieva’s keyboard breathing pale fire. The E-flat Major Second Mephisto Waltz – another treatment of the Faust legend via the poet Lenau – has the same “forward” look we heard in Scriabin. We could hear intimations of a Hungarian rhapsody, glistening arpeggios, and the sweeping sonority requisite to the Liszt style, all rendered with a smooth sang-froid from Chochieva that belied the molten character of her playing.
The tour de force for the evening came in the form of Serge Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor (1906) that owes its inspiration directly to Liszt, in this case the Faust Symphony of 1857. In three movements akin to the Liszt symphonic work, the score “depicts” the characters of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. At times, the texture of the piece – more symphonic than pianistic – becomes dense and opaque, even despite Chochieva’s brilliant clarity. The writing can be tedious and repetitive, begging for the editor to trim the rhetoric. But when the music blazes and sings in open fifths, arched scales, and repeated notes, the Rachmaninov of the popular concertos and etude-tableaux emerges, not to mention a melodic line or two wholly reminiscent of his symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29. Typically, the piece resonates with Russian bells, religious doxology, and the ubiquitous Dies Irae. If the first movement scaled the dizzy heights in the momentum of Faust’s unabashed pride, the second Lento movement meditated in falling fifths and ascending leaps of the same interval. The raptures of love in this movement certainly bow to Wagner. Galloping falling fifths announced Mephisto, and Chochieva did not deny the Devil his due. If Faust’s cursed life passes before him, it certainly does not stop the spiritual onslaught that ends the Russian Orthodox chant in terrifying menace that announced what Shelley calls “the trumpet of prophecy.” Chochieva’s last chords held everyone in thrall, until a few brave souls could rise in homage to a potent spiritual journey, cast in lightning bolts.
This performance was rewarded with a standing ovation.