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Review: Superb Piano Recital - Best of the Season at Yale's Sprague Hall

Vyacheslav Gryaznov

Russian pianist Vyacheslav Gryaznov stole the season at Yale's Sprague Hall with a phenomenal recital. While pursuing an Artist Diploma Degree at Yale School of Music, he also teaches as an assistant in the Piano Department of the Moscow Conservatory. Since this was technically a "student" Artist Diploma recital, tickets were (shockingly) free. But make no mistake, Gryaznov is a top-notch artist.

He began the evening with Beethoven's less-popular 12 Variations on a Russian Dance, WoO 71, which, while it wasn't the highlight of the program, was made interesting through his finesse. Although it took a couple variations for Gryaznov to get into it, several of the middle variations were heartfelt and tender enough to renew my interest in the piece as a whole. There is a good deal of filler and routine passagework, but he led us through it with a subtle sense of rubato and grace that kept me mostly engaged.

Next, Mr. Gryaznov treated us to his own solo piano transcription of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, L. 86. What he has done as an arranger is an impressive feat, masterfully balancing and forging so many orchestral voices into a distilled, truly pianistic work; it's no wonder that dozens of his arrangements are published by Schott Music in Germany. The most supreme moment of this transcription was his treatment of the woodwinds' secondary theme (seen above). What a perfect moment! As a pianist he played sublimely, weaving a clear tapestry of voices together almost seamlessly. There were some pacing issues towards the end and it seemed like the audience wasn't as engaged, but this could easily be remedied with a tempo that moves a little more (though the beginning was perfect).

Maurice Ravel

The best piece of the evening was undoubtedly Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, M. 55. Here, Gryaznov's dazzling technique allowed the music to shine uninhibited by the piece's enormous technical difficulties; his phrasing was never dictated by anything other than musical ideas. The voicing in Ondine was crystalline, as were the tricky double-note passages. His hyper-sensitive mixture of colors produced an extraordinary rendition of this piece. Le Gibet was intoxicatingly hypnotic and creepy; the pacing of the continual, steady rhythm created a haunting atmosphere that never lost tension. Lastly, Scarbo was filled with phantasmagoric drama. I love the way Gryaznov makes the chord pop after the first three notes in the beginning (the quick timing of his arm thrust makes all the difference). The structure of this movement wasn't quite as perfect, and it sometimes felt a little fragmented. Sometimes this was due to a dramatic pause on a chord that lingered too long; other times he took too much time on a rest. It didn't detract too much from the performance, but the momentum did lag several times. Overall, Gryaznov's interpretation of this piece was terrific, and this was my favorite part of the program.

Another of Mr. Gryaznov's transcriptions, Prokofieff's Suite from On the Dnieper, Op. 51, wasn't as successful. While he probably did a wonderful job transcribing it and played it very well, it isn't really great music by Prokofieff. It might be more effective in its intended role as ballet music, although that ballet was not particularly successful. The music meanders unmemorably and there are no interesting melodies; any interesting harmonic tricks aren't enough to hold the piece together. Gryaznov's playing in the Finale was exciting rhythmically and very clear, but it's not a work for the concert stage. I was puzzled by the programming of this piece when the line-up is so amazing otherwise.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

To conclude the evening, he ended with Rachmaninoff's colossal Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36. First, a quick digression to provide some background information on this piece. For most pianists, after grappling with all of Rachmaninoff's technical obstacles, the main problem is maintaining an overarching sense of structure. I can't stand about 95% of performances and recordings of this sonata because the structure nearly always crumbles; the outer movements need an enormous amount of energy/drive and ample awareness of the larger structure to propel it forward with a sense of inevitability, like an iceberg on a collision course. It's also common for pianists to make the middle movement and second theme of the last movement pathetically saccharine, which diminishes (even slanders) the sincerity and intimacy of the emotions. The first recording I heard that mostly addresses these issues is Matsuev's (not a definitive recording - his live Medici concert is even better). For the second movement, Horowitz's recording is untouchable. OK, back to Gryaznov. He chose the longer version without cuts, which is even more difficult to pull off. For the abovementioned reasons, I felt there were too many places where Gryaznov took too much time for a dramatic pause on a chord or a moment of silence, and the momentum and dramatic tension sometimes went slack. I think Rachmaninoff's interpretation would be more rhythmically driven, with crisper pedaling and fewer sudden shifts to a dramatically slow tempo. Overall I enjoyed it a lot, certainly more than many performances of the work, and the second movement was sincere and direct.

One last note on the acoustics in Sprague Hall. The sound in the hall could be improved with some more curtains, but as it is, the sound is naturally sustained without much help from the sustain pedal. To get passagework from brilliant to electrifying (like Horowitz), it would be difficult to pedal too little in many quick sections. In a smaller hall or room, I'm sure the pedaling would have been perfect. The acoustics were ideal, however, for the Debussy and Ravel.

Mr. Gryaznov's performance was truly inspiring and I eagerly await his next recital.

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