Alexander Gavrylyuk, the Ukrainian/Australian pianist, who shot to fame winning the Hamamatsu Piano Competition in Japan as a teenager and later the even more prestigious Arthur Rubinstein competition in Tel Aviv, has sustained a successful international career over the last decade with little sign of his performance trajectory waning. On Saturday night he returned once again to the Melbourne Recital Centre to deliver an audience-friendly program, big on Russian Romanticism, but prefaced in the first half with works by concert staples Bach, Haydn and Chopin.
Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni was one of the giants of European pianism at the beginning of the twentieth century, not only writing one of the most monumental, albeit rarely played piano concertos, but also transcribing large chunks of Bach’s keyboard music, adapting it for the modern piano in the grand Romantic style. Gavrylyuk opened his recital with Busoni’s arrangement of the Baroque Kapellmeister’s celebrated, and much-transcribed organ Toccata and Fugue in D minor, known to many in its orchestral version in Walt Disney’s film Fantasia. Exploiting the modern piano’s various pedals and Busoni’s richly enhanced textures Gavrylyuk gave an authoritative reading, one that revelled as much in the transcription’s generously rich sonorities, as in its often complementary quasi-Impressionistic palette.
Haydn’s three movement Sonata in B minor followed – a Classical mini-masterpiece of the ‘Storm and Stress’ manner. Once again eschewing any trace of historically-informed-performance-practice imperative, Gavrylyuk gave a reading replete with elegantly shaped melodies, neatly executed ornaments, and, particularly in the lightning-fast finale, immaculately nimble finger-work. While Gavrylyuk’s was perhaps a modern pianist’s approach to a work originally conceived for fortepiano, it suffered not at all for that, as interest was sustained through a well-paced and musically-detailed reading, one that was not afraid to exploit the delicate hues of the una corda pedal.
To close the first half, Gavrylyuk offered six Etudes by Frédéric Chopin, composed when the Polish composer was in his early twenties. Bookended by two of Chopin most popular works – the slow so-called ‘Tristesse’ étude and the more dramatically turbulent ‘Revolutionary’ étude – these were richly nuanced, spacious readings that found the pianist in his creative element. One really had the impression that such is Gavrylyuk’s commanding technique, he could have taken all manner of interpretative twists and turns, and that what we were hearing was just one of the many possibilities that the virtuoso had at his disposal. Considered, thoroughly-worked-through compositional innovation meets spontaneous, re-creative inspiration.
After interval it was the Russian piano school that prevailed. Alexander Scriabin’s demanding and ground-breaking Fifth Sonata was explored authoritatively, perfectly embodying the duality of its almost schizophrenic essence. Then followed three Préludes by Scriabin’s Moscow conservatory classmate, Sergei Rachmaninov. A poignantly lyrical F sharp minor Prelude was followed by a tempestuous reading of the popular martial-like G minor Prelude which prematurely provoked spontaneous applause from the enthusiastic audience, before Gavrylyuk continued with a beautifully-crafted, rubato-laden, G sharp minor Prélude.
And finally to the main course for the evening – Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata, a work whose genesis was prolonged, the self-critical and ever-doubtful composer revising it substantially 18 years after its first publication. Pianists differ as to their preferred version, with Gavrylyuk on this occasion opting for the later 1931 revision. Here Rachmaninoff’s ardent lyricism came to the fore, as Gavrylyuk oscillated between the work’s abrupt volcanic eruptions of sonority and the more perfumed delicacy of its sustained, gently poetic moments. This is a work that has long been in Gavrylyuk’s repertoire, and he gave an impassioned reading, one that bore witness to the broad scope of his multi-hued tonal palette, and one made all the more interesting for his wont to highlight hidden counter-melodies. The sonata brought the official program to a barn-storming conclusion, inspiring the majority of the enthusiastic audience to its feet. A deliciously eloquent and soulful offering of Zoltan Kocsis’s transcription of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise proved to be a much-appreciated encore.
One small quibble – the threadbare program contained neither biographical details of the artist, nor program notes about the works presented. While many are familiar with Gavrylyuk, having heard him in the past, it would have been interesting to read of his recent and future projects, Google searches notwithstanding. This is a pianist to follow.