Alexey Yemtsov – Piano Recital…a review by Fraser Beath McEwing

March 30, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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When Ukrainian born pianist, Alexey Yemtsov, tackled an extensive and punishing Russian composer program for his recital at the Art Gallery of NSW on the weekend, he did more than play the required notes.

Alexey Yemtsov

He blew his audience away. I’d heard him on several occasions and he was always up there with the best Australian resident pianists but this recital marked him as a performer who would stand out anywhere.

The Art Gallery has been running its ‘Resonate’ concerts for 14 years featuring a diverse selection of musical styles. This year’s opening offering was titled ‘Russian Fireworks’ which drew Alexey Yemstov back to deliver on the promise. He’d performed with acclaim at the gallery previously.

Rachmaninov and Prokofiev were the featured Russian pyrotechnicians. Their technical demands alone would daunt many good pianists but to that you have to add interpretation under extreme dexterity duress and then stamina to last the distance. Yemstov excelled in all of these.

He began with what looked like diving in at the deep end, playing five Etudes Tableaux, Op. 39 by Rachmaninov, but this was just the entrance to the technical minefield ahead. These five pieces, with their great walls of sound and deeply coloured textures, immediately established Yemtsov’s mastery of multiple voicing. Anybody who has played a Bach invention has come across the challenge of bringing a melody to the sound foreground where it will make a statement and then step back in favour of another melody that has been patiently waiting its turn. Rachmaninov does this too, but in his hands there are more layers of complexity through multiple harmonies, clusters of chords and foundation bass notes. To bring it off, a pianist must listen with some detachment to his own playing. This was most noticeable in Yemtsov’s Rachmaninov.

Yemtsov chose two arrangements by contemporary pianists, Volodos and Kocsis, of Rachmaninov’s non-piano works to provide some respite between the high voltage of the Etudes-Tableaux and three preludes. They were the Andante from the cello sonata in G minor, Op.19 and the much-loved Vocalise.

The program was rounded out by two works of Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet before parting (the last of ten pieces for piano Op.75) and the Sonata No.6, Op 82.
The audience was thus taken from love to war, since the sonata was one of the three famous Prokofiev ‘war sonatas’.

While Romeo and Juliet was a sympathetic evocation of the well-known love tragedy, I was holding my breath for the sonata. It goes to war in several ways, expressing the violence of war as Prokofiev saw it and also declaring a war between pianist, piano and score. Played well, it is one of the most exciting pieces in the piano repertoire – although many will argue that it is eclipsed by the No 7. Each to his own taste, but in Yemtsov’s hands it was simply electrifying. It demands extraordinary technical skill and, above all, the staying power to be able to sprint most of the way. Only in the third movement were there reflective passages, which enabled the audience to hear what the piano could do in the pianissimo department. The fourth movement belies belief in the sound it can produce in the right hands; on this occasion abundantly so from Yemtsov.

A word about the piano. It was a Steinway Model D supplied by Theme and Variations, Steinway distributors. Although all Steinways are made to incredibly high standards, they each have a personality: a soul if you’re esoteric. This particular piano, a great favourite of Alexey Yemtsov, originally came from the Hamburg Concert Hall. Built in 1993, the piano has been played by some of the world’s finest pianists.

Alexey Yemtsov will be roaming the country commencing 20 April in Yass, then appearing in Mosman, The Woodend Festival and The Peninsula Music Club (both in Victoria) and the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith, NSW. His full schedule can be checked on his website: www.yemtsov.com.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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