Yesterday afternoon, by popular demand, the brilliant Russian-trained pianist Sofya Gulyak returned for a triumphant fifth recital appearance in central California. The event was jointly sponsored by Joseph Sekon’s Aptos Keyboard Series and the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist at 125 Canterbury Drive in Aptos.
Gulyak has won many prestigious piano competitions — among them first prize and the Princess Mary Gold Medal at the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition — the first woman to achieve this in the history of the competition. She has also won first prizes at the William Kapell International Piano Competition (USA), the Helsinki Maj Lind International Piano Competition, Tivoli Piano Competition (Copenhagen), Gyeongnam International Piano Competition (South Korea) and the Allegro vivo International Piano Competition (SanMarino).
In case you wondered how Dr. Sekon managed to capture such a distinguished artist as Sofya Gulyak for a post-season concert, it was a virtual target of opportunity. Ms. Gulyak was returning from a concert tour in China and headed for San Jose tomorrow to spend the week as one of several international jurors at the San Jose International Piano Competition (Antonio Pompa-Baldi, well known to local audiences, is also on the jury). This entire competition will be live streamed during the week and can be viewed at the 2019 San Jose International International Piano Competition’s web site — https://www.russianmusiccompetition.com
Ms. Gulyak’s recital program on this occasion was a huge sandwich consisting of blockbuster outer sections devoted to larger-than-life performances of two great transcriptions — Busoni’s amazing treatment of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin and the bounds-bursting solo version of Ravel’s La Valse in Ravel’s own transcription of this mighty orchestral work for solo piano.
Ms. Guylak’s powerful and sensitive performance of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne makes a case for this work being rated one of the ten greatest works ever written for solo piano. Her performance ran the gamut of amazing virtuoso treatments of Bach’s original challenging passages in D Minor contrasted with the tender sections in D Major that Gulyak shaped with loving care. She held our attention and achieved an intense and satisfying cumulative effect that made time stand still.
Gulyak’s ending work on the program, La Valse in Ravel’s transcription for solo piano, is an amazing challenge for pianists, since the piano treatment of the orchestral passages is so dense with over-pedaled textures and bravura it can come across as ten minutes of piano bombast. Gulyak gave us all the bombast, but still managed to project the glorious big tunes and achieve a coherent and satisfying performance.
The central works in Guylak’s mighty sandwich contained some lovely performances of Brahms Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 118, the rarely heard Chopin Variations brilliants, Op. 12, the also rarely-heard Prelude, Fugue and Variations by César Franck, and the Wagner-Liszt Liebestod. Ms. Guylak’s artistic skills in managing complicated textures, achieving a tender, loving cantabile, and shaping phrases with a lovely control of dynamics were a delight for the ear.
In response to prolonged applause and a standing ovation, Guylak returned to the piano and performed one encore — a lovely rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise.
Let’s hope she will be returning for her sixth appearance in the not too distant future.