Continuing the 40th Anniversary celebrations of the Sydney International Piano Competition, Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin – Grand Prize Winner in 2016 – presented an eclectic program to a sizeable audience at the Camberwell Grammar Performing Arts Centre. Somewhat reminiscent of the prestigious ABC tours of international artists in the heyday era of the 40s and 50s, this recital came at the tail-end of a 32-date tour, one that culminates in a few days time in Alice Springs. By tour’s end Gugnin will surely have seen more of this vast country than many of its locals.
Playing a Fazioli piano, Gugnin’s hors d’oeuvre was Bach’s Adagio in G major, more familiar in the Baroque master’s original version which opens his third Solo Violin Sonata. With its effortless melody floating above a delicately nuanced walking bass, it proved a perfect appetizer, one that allowed both Gugnin and the audience to acclimatize both to the instrument and to the surprisingly sympathetic acoustic. Then followed the broader canvas that is Schubert’s four-movement Sonata in D major D.850. In the opening movement Gugnin employed a rich, yet unforced tone that was well-suited to the Classical dimensions of this infrequently played work, gently underlining Schubert’s harmonic by-ways without ever becoming didactic. Neat, clear articulation allowed melodies to unfold easily. Suavely balanced chordal textures characterised the ensuing con moto second movement, reminding us that Schubert’s seemingly effortless lyric bent inhabits his instrumental music just as much as his lieder. Gugnin then perfectly captured the bucolic essence of the finale drawing the first half to a satisfying close.
The second half of the program threw up some unusual and rarely heard pieces as well as one virtuoso war-horse. Gugnin opened with compatriot Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata No 1, a compact multi-sectional single-movement work that reminds one of the bleak austerity of Soviet brutalist architecture. Composed in Leningrad when Shostakovich was just 20 years old, it reflects the influence of Prokofiev and of the lesser-known Roslavets. Surely Shostakovich’s most distinctively individual work for piano, it reveals the composer’s then interest in both futurism and constructivism as artistic ideals, and is rarely heard outside Russia. Gugnin however gave a thoroughly absorbing performance making a persuasive case for this work to feature more often. It is of some interest to note that Shostakovich, himself a formidable pianist, was to be a prize-winner in the inaugural International Warsaw Chopin Competition just a year later in 1927.
Gugnin then negotiated the pianistic contortions of Michael Kieran Harvey’s moto perpetuo G-Spot Tornado with aplomb. One of Harvey’s 48 Fugues for Frank Zappa and written in 2009, it was a work that Gugnin played in the Sydney competition last year.
The most intriguing and perhaps the most interesting offering of the evening was the suite Reminiscences of the Theatre by Leonid Desyatnikov (1985). Program notes would have proved invaluable here to enlighten the audience about both the composer and about the work. Failing that, some sort of verbal introduction would have been welcomed. On first hearing, it is a finely constructed work, richly diverse in style and influences. Gugnin’s über-refined tonal palette as well as his ability to realise a sense of humour in music – easier said then done – made this a most engaging performance. Pianists in the audience will be hurriedly seeking Reminiscences out. The outer movements’ highly decorative Baroque-like imitation was especially something to savour.
Then came Stravinsky’s Petrushka – somewhat more traditional virtuoso fare. Gugnin’s reading was kaleidoscopic and aptly balletic. This was no thunder and bluster performance but one of welcome variety of touch – one is tempted to say refinement. Clarity of texture was ever-present as the various layers and lines unfolded with quasi-orchestral detail.
As encores Gugnin again offered works by his compatriots – first a barn-storming finale from Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata – you’ll have to wait a long time to hear a more precipitato reading – as well as an eloquent Rachmaninoff G major Prelude.
It is wonderful that the SIPCA organization supports its laureates with such extensive tours. Too often prize-winners quickly fade into obscurity or disappear into some over-crowded pianistic graveyard, never to be heard from again. But based on the artistry exhibited this evening and the eclecticism of the programming this does not seem to be a fate that awaits the young Gugnin. His next tour of Australia is eagerly anticipated.
Glenn Riddle heard Andrey Gugnin in Recital on August 29, 2017, at the Camberwell Grammar School Performing Arts Centre.