In spite of his declaration that he would perform “just one more piece” in response to a wildly enthusiastic, standing ovation, Russian classical pianist and transcriber Vyacheslav Gryaznov added to the suavely virtuosic Polka Italien of Rachmaninoff yet a second encore, the same composer’s massive Etude-Tableau in E-flat Minor, Op. 39, No. 5. Gryaznov’s marathon recital at Le Petit Trianon Theatre, Saturday November 12 comprised the third recital of the current Steinway Society the Bay Area, here a brilliant display of intellect and digital prowess that embraced music by Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff, including two transcriptions by Gryaznov of orchestral works that themselves rely on timbral and color nuances.
Gryaznov (b. 1982) opened his concert with Beethoven’s 1796 12 Variations on a Russian Dance from Paul Wranitzky’s Das Waldmädchen (the Forest-Maiden), a showpiece meant to exploit Beethoven’s ready sense of improvisation. The galant theme in A Major, set in a five-measure phrase – coincidentally identified by Gryannov as Kamarinskaya of Glinka fame- behaves rather conventionally, moving from tonic to dominant and entering the minor mode only three times, in variations 3, 7, and 11. The real challenge comes in Beethoven’s use of thirds and seconds that transform into ninths and tenths in terms of span, and leaps in triplets later on. Gryaznov set the tone with controlled, resonant aplomb, an easy and natural facility.
Gryaznov followed with two French pieces, the first of which came in the form of his own transcription of Claude Debussy’s epoch-making symphonic poem, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894), the composer’s musical response to the Symbolist, erotic poem by Stephane Mallarme. The poem salaciously describes the Faun’s priapic intentions, while the music blends orchestral colors and timbres by having instruments play out of their normal registers, often in modal, exotic harmonies and whole-tone scales. The keyboard transcription – a feat accomplished by peers like Mark Hambourg and George Copeland – relies on canny pedal control to soften the intricate colorations, the minute gradations of timbre and texture.
If refinement and subtlety marked the Gryaznov excursion into Debussy, flights of fire defined his next offering, Ravel’s 1908 suite Gaspard de la Nuit, based on poems of another exotic poet, Aloysius Bertrand, who claimed his inspiration from the Devil himself. In three sections – Ondine, Le Gibet, and Scarbo – Ravel wished to exceed the virtuosic demands of a piece he envied, Balakirev’s Islamey, which its own composer found unplayable. Ondine elicited from Gryaznov voluptuous arpeggios and eddying chords, meant to seduce mortals into the sea-nymph’s fatal kingdom. Le Gibet demanded from Gryaznov long, potent and static harmonies – depicting the rotting of a hanged corpse in the sun – with a manic B-flat chimed persistently as a merciless sunlight or tolling knell illumines the implacable presence of death. But in the final section, Scarbo – the evocation of a malicious dwarf – Gryaznov transcended technique and emerged a musician of impeccable taste. If Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli could perform this work with a diabolical, mechanical accuracy, Gryaznov “humanized” the experience, breathing lurid, impulsive life into the punishing, extended trills, tremolos, and hints of Spanish rhythm that infiltrate the demonic progressions. The rush and volume of notes, their combined gravitas and incandescence, led to a truly symphonic coda in which the imp triumphs and then disappears, leaving Gryaznov’s audience astonished and delighted at once by a vision both appalling and surreal.
The second half of Gryaznov’s impressive repertory arsenal devoted itself to two Russians, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff. For the former, Gryaznov played his transcription of the relatively unfamiliar, fourth ballet of 1930, Sur la Borysthene (“On the Dneiper”), a moody love-story set after the First World War. In his prefatory remarks, Gryaznov called the music “dark, interesting, and strange,” admitting that he, too, originally had difficulty relating to this “failed”score. Here, the musical effects proved superior to the melodic tissue, and the six sections – despite the ardent and often volcanic application of huge chords and wicked glissandos – could drag, lending to an already demanding program a tedium of musical stasis. A few moments, such as the Groom’s Dance and one Dance Variation, compelled us by Gryaznov’s treating the material as an explosive etude or toccata. But the “love theme” as such pales beside such wonders from Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, in which Prokofiev’s lyric gift matches his capacity for irony and icon-smashing.
The last work, Gryaznov’s personal piece de resistance, resides in his spectacular realization of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 36 (1913; rev. 1931), which exists in several incarnations, from which Horowitz and Gryaznov feel free to extrapolate, as required. Gryaznov commented that the original score came at the time of great personal crisis for the composer, when his daughters suffered from typhoid contracted in Italy. Simultaneously working on Balmont’s treatment of Poe’s “The Bells,” Rachmaninoff carried the “repercussions” and “shock-waves” of Poe’s meditation on mortality into his Sonata, already influenced by the Chopin Second Sonata in the tonic minor, noted for its ubiquitous funeral march. Colossal and rife with affectionate vitality, Gryaznov’s performance carried a grand line and effortless vocalism, particularly in the second movement’s Lento theme in E Minor. The voluptuous opening foray soon led to Rachminanoff’s patented, manic wont for Russian bells, whether from the doxology of his religious convictions or his penchant for Poe’s intimations of mortality. The last pages culminated in an B-flat Major hymn of praise worthy of Russian compatriot and mystic Scriabin, a musical effect that bore an enthralled audience to revere composer and his musical acolyte, pianist Gryaznov, clearly a musician to the manner born.