Gavrylyuk stunned his audience – literally: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

November 21, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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I’ve never been to a piano recital quite like this one. Ukrainian pianist, Alexander Gavrylyuk, took his audience on such an emotionally demanding journey that, in the end, they felt as exhausted listening as he probably did playing and demanded only one encore before escaping into the balmy Sydney night.

Alexander Gavrylyuk

For another pianist, this may have been a disappointment, but if I’ve read the signs correctly, it was a triumph for Gavrylyuk. From my perspective, it was the most exciting piano recital I can remember in the many years I’ve been covering them. And although I have a great capacity for listening, I didn’t want any more after his melting encore of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise. I was wrung out.

Gavrylyuk is now one of the world’s most sought-after pianists. At 33, he is receiving rave reviews from critics wherever he plays. Two months ago, he was invited to play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto at the London Proms, a great indictor in itself, and enthralled audience and critics alike.

His Sydney recital was generous in its length and comprised familiar piano music, much of it calling for a stratospheric technique. This was always Gavrylyuk’s strength and it made him stand out from the crowd, but maturity has added the other side of the coin: playing pianissimo notes that can heard at the back of the hall, an ability shared with Horowitz.

Gavrylyuk opened the recital with the Busoni transcription of the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ. With only a piano at his disposal (albeit a wonderfully prepared Steinway Model D) he was able to infuse such colour into his playing that it took on an organ quality. In this opening work, he also established his immense percussive power which he was able to call upon throughout the concert when something akin to an earthquake was required.

When the Bach/Busoni grand statement was over, Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Op.14 No.6 brought us back to earth with light fingered delicacy and that ability to fire tiny arrows of sound to the back rows of the sold-out Recital Hall. Again, maturity is arming Gavrylyuk with the fading phrase, giving the impression of familiarity and ease, especially in the classical period repertoire. I imagine his Mozart would now have the same quality to it.

Six Etudes from Op.10 by Chopin followed, giving Gavrylyuk the opportunity to interpret this composer’s musical poetry. He often enhanced these etudes with unique shapes, always backed by his peerless technique. The final ‘Revolutionary’ is a piece which has become somewhat overworked, but it was played with such sizzle that it sounded fresh.

Although interval was due, Gavrylyuk was called back three times by a wildly enthusiastic audience reacting as though this was the end of the concert. Which brings me to the belief that his playing was so engaging it was going to run everybody out of emotional puff before the program had finished.

Fraser Beath McEwing

As soon as he returned to the keyboard, Gavrylyuk exploded into the Scriabin Sonata No.5, Op.53 with astonishing ferocity. This one movement sonata gives the impression of a madman and a maiden trying to make themselves heard against each other. One minute there are crashing chords and shattering rhythms and the next a plaintive, pleading single note melody. To bring it off you need lightening changes of mood and movement – a situation eminently suited to Gavrylyuk’s way of playing.

Rachmaninov completed the program, firstly with three preludes (Op.23 No.1, Op.23 No.5 and Op.32 No. 12.) and then the dragon-slaying Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op 36.

Gavrylyuk is very much in sync with Rachmaninov’s requirement for Bach-like voicing and deep, chunky harmonies. He dispatched the three preludes with great emotional colour, although the Op.23 No.5 was too heroic for my liking and didn’t serve enough honey in the middle section. However, the audience loved it so much they broke into the set of three preludes to applaud.

And finally came the super-charged Rachmaninov sonata, the 1931 version that had been reworked into a sleeker form. Again, Gavrylyuk began with a volcanic attack – to be relieved by the contrast of soft, contemplative passages.

This is a work calling for extreme power and extreme gentleness – both of which Gavrylyuk has in spades. His playing of the finale was almost beyond belief as he ripped up and down the keyboard and finished in a huge shower of sparks. He threw back his arms as though he’d been shot – and it was done.

Sydney Recital Hall Piano Series 20 November 2017

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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