This May, Alexander Gavrylyuk takes to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall stage to perform as part of Melbourne Recital Centre's International Classics series. Explore the program in this excerpt from the official program notes, written by Phillip Sametz.
Alexander Gavrylyuk’s recital begins with a work that says as much about Beethoven’s expectations for the piano of his day as it does about his development as a composer. In Beethoven’s youth the piano was still a relatively marginal instrument; in England, it was not played at a public event until 1767, yet by 1795 it had replaced the harpsichord in the King’s Band. Beethoven’s inexhaustible desire to innovate is almost unthinkable without the rapid developments made in piano building and design during his lifetime. By the time Schumann composed his first keyboard works in 1829, the piano’s invasion of the Western world’s drawing rooms had begun, but the instrument also had the carrying power to be heard in public performance; in its rich expressive possibilities, it had become the keyboard instrument of its day – and the next day as well, the one that belonged to Chopin, Liszt and Brahms.
Just as Beethoven transformed the string quartet and the symphony, so he did the piano sonata. His two Op.27 sonatas of 1801 broke new ground in many ways, not least in their designation ‘quasi una fantasia’. Op.27 No.2 begins with perhaps the most widely recognised movement in all of Beethoven’s work. ‘Moonlight’ was not the composer’s nickname for this sonata (it was coined much later by poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab), but it seems fitting for a first movement sustained by slow-moving harmonies, and Beethoven’s keen understanding of the singing qualities that could be achieved on a piano of his day when played quietly. There is a short, gentle Allegretto (described by Liszt as a ‘flower between two abysses’) before the storm breaks in the final Presto agitato – the only movement in sonata form. Beethoven asks that all three movements be played without a break.
In pianist Susan Tomes’ memorable description, Schumann ‘can conjure up almost better than anyone else an atmosphere of heart-to-heart intimacy,’ one in which he tries to share a private meaning, from the imaginary masked ball of Carnaval to the make-believe forest of the Waldszenen. If you’ve ever studied piano you might think of the Kinderszenen as a ‘way in’ to Schumann for young pianists; if that’s your connection, the pieces in the cycle that recall your own childhood practice – perhaps From Foreign Lands and Places or Dreaming (Traumerei) – may be ‘madeleine moments’ that transport you back to your own Kinderszenen. But Schumann didn’t create the Kinderszenen for children to play, as witness the technical challenges of Blind Man’s Buff or Knight of the hobbyhorse; this is an adult meditation on childhood, almost as if Schumann is giving advice to his younger self.
He and his future wife, pianist Clara Wieck, were passionately in love when the Kinderszenen were written but, thanks to the stern opposition of Clara’s father, she and Schumann were not allowed to be together. In 1838, with Clara away on a long concert tour, they corresponded constantly, and in one letter he wrote to her: “Perhaps it was an echo of what you once said to me, that ‘sometimes I seemed like a child’; anyway, I was suddenly visited by inspiration, and then I knocked off about 30 quaint little things, from which I have selected about 12… You will enjoy them – though you will have to forget you are a virtuoso.”
In the end the set included 13 pieces, each one as exquisitely crafted as any of Schumann’s more apparently sophisticated works. There is, for example, the lovely story-within-a-story told by the two adjacent pieces Pleading Child and Happy Enough, and the way in which Schumann steps out of the frame at the end, no longer his inner child but a Greek chorus speaking to you haltingly of what has come before. I can think of no better description of this work than the one by Australian pianist Ernest Hutcheson (1871-1951) in his book The Literature of the Piano: “Games, storytelling, make-believe, moods happy, sad, humorous and pensive are touched on with inimitable grace and comprehension. In every number a gentle hand strokes a fair face.”
Liszt’s epic keyboard cycle Years of Pilgrimage contain some of his finest original music. Volume I concerns the sights and sound of Switzerland, while Volume II immerses itself in the art and literature of Italy. To Volume II Liszt added a supplement, Venice and Naples, which comprises three works based on music by earlier composers. The brilliant Tarantella takes Neapolitan songs by the French composer Guillaume Louis Cottrau (1797-1847), and turns them into a riotously energetic showpiece, full of Vitamin D.
“At this moment Liszt is playing my Études, and transporting me outside of my respectable thoughts,” Chopin wrote in June 1833. The way in which Chopin’s music was heard and promoted in the 19th century had a great deal to do with Liszt, as interpreter and teacher. Chopin was not an unqualified admirer of Liszt’s more fanciful playing, but he frequently praised it, and could hear in it facets of his work he did not highlight in his own performances.
You can hear Chopin’s admiration for Bellini in the singing line of his D flat Nocturne, of 1836. Writer and lecturer Joan Chissell wrote that Chopin’s ‘genius lay in transforming the miniature into great art,’ and the Nocturne is a case in point. He took as his model the Nocturnes by the Irish composer John Field, yet in Op.27 No.2 moves from that world of simple elegance to one of finely graded, exquisitely decorated emotion.
The polonaise had become a dance of the aristocracy by the time of Chopin’s youth, and he would have known many examples created by Polish composers specifically for dancing. His first known composition is a Polonaise, as was his last extended solo work (the Polonaise-Fantaisie of 1846); to this courtly dance, he brought an intensely personal imprint. The so-called ‘Military’ Polonaise of 1838 is epic in every aspect except its length. It’s the work of a patriotic Pole in exile, and contains, in the words of musicologist Max Harrison, “some of the most fiery and masculine music written for the piano.” It ends as defiantly as it begins, with a brusque restatement of the main theme and no coda.
“In the world of Brahms”, writes music critic and author Alex Ross, “it is, above all, always late. Light is waning, shadows are growing, silence is encroaching.” In 1890 Brahms, then 57, told a friend that he was probably too old to continue composing. But the muse kept calling, and in 1892, while holidaying in the Austrian resort of Bad Ischl, he began creating the 20 pieces we now call his ‘late piano works’, published as Op.116-119. It’s hard to think of any keyboard music which so conveys the sense that you are eavesdropping on a creator’s private thoughts. As pianist Stephen Hough has written of this music: “I don’t see anyone in the room with Brahms.” The composer had recently lost some of his relatives and closest friends, and he referred to these Op.117 Intermezzi as ‘the cradle songs of my grief.’ The dynamics rarely rise above piano, and there is a powerful sense that they may have started life as improvisations.
Few composers lived through as much cultural history as Saint-Saëns. When he was born Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was only five years old. Before he died, he’d written a film score (The Assassination of the Duke of Guise) and a chorus in honour of the airmen of WWI (The Conquerors of the Air), and had heard The Rite of Spring.
In its first incarnation, in 1872, his Danse Macabre was a song, set to a text by the symbolist poet Henri Cazalis (1840-1909), which concerned the appearance of Death at midnight on Halloween to summon the dead. Death plays the fiddle as the temporarily undeceased dance until dawn; when the cock crows they slink back to their graves for another 12 months. Singers declared the song unsingable, so Saint-Saëns turned into an orchestral work, in which guise it’s far better known. Liszt’s poetic, transcendentally virtuosic transcription appeared in 1876. One look at the music and you might think it sufficiently challenging, but superstar pianist Vladimir Horowitz didn’t; in 1942 he amended Liszt’s transcription to create an even more extravagantly acrobatic one. Don’t try this at home.
©Phillip Sametz 2023
A stunningly virtuosic pianist, Alexander Gavrylyuk is internationally recognised for his electrifying and poetic performances. Gavrylyuk launched his 2017/18 season with a BBC Proms performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto described as “revelatory” by The Times and “electrifying” by Limelight.
Highlights of the 2021-22 season include debuts with San Diego Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Bergen Philharmonic, Rheinische Philharmonie and Antwerp Symphony Orchestras, as well as return visits to Chicago Symphony, Sydney Symphony, New Mexico Philharmonic and Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestras.
Born in Ukraine in 1984 and holding Australian citizenship, Alexander began his piano studies at the age of seven and gave his first concerto performance when he was nine years old. At the age of 13, Alexander moved to Sydney where he lived until 2006. He won First Prize and Gold Medal at the Horowitz International Piano Competition (1999), First Prize at the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition (2000), and Gold Medal at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Masters Competition (2005).
He has since gone on to perform with many of the world’s leading orchestras, including: New York, Los Angeles, Czech, Warsaw, Moscow, Seoul, Israel and Rotterdam Philharmonics; NHK, Chicago, Cincinnati and City of Birmingham Symphony orchestras; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Philharmonia, Wiener Symphoniker, Orchestre National de Lille and the Stuttgarter Philharmoniker; collaborating with conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Alexandre Bloch, Herbert Blomstedt, Andrey Boreyko, Thomas Dausgaard, Valery Gergiev, Neeme Järvi, Vladimir Jurowski, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, Kirill Karabits, Louis Langrée, Cornelius Meister, Vassily Petrenko, Rafael Payare, Alexander Shelley, Yuri Simonov, Vladimir Spivakov, Markus Stenz, Sir Mark Elder, Thomas Søndergård, Gergely Madaras, Mario Venzago, Enrique Mazzola and Osmo Vänska.
Alexander Gavrylyuk delivers a riveting evening of Romantic masterworks for piano in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on Friday 5 May.