Alexander the Great

March 12, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Those fortunate enough to have heard Alexander Gavrylyuk in the first of this year’s Pianists in Recital series will wonder if classical piano playing can get any better…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Alexander Gavrylyuk

Alexander Gavrylyuk

Now just 30 years of age, Gavrylyuk is knocking on the door of a small room in which sit the world’s best pianists. His Recital Hall concert was nothing short of superlative, combining blistering technique with a deep understanding of what the music is saying to its listeners. To that you can add the magic ingredient of stage presence – a feeling that Gavrylyuk is taking you on a musical journey for the first time even though you thought you were familiar with the pieces.

He began with Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) and immediately captured the poetry and the innocence of these 13 short musical pictures. This is not music for children incidentally, but remembrances for adults.  In Gavrylyuk’s hands, there was a clear separation of mood and texture between the scenes. Although simple in concept, the execution calls for occasional virtuosic bursts separated by almost imperceptible notes that might be likened to the breathing of a sleeping child. This is one of the first qualities you notice in Gavrylyuk’s playing: his ability to melt sound down to a murmur and still remain audible. And when you blend this ability with earth-moving thunder you get piano playing that exudes colour. The legacy that is now most cherished in the playing of Vladimir Horowitz was his colour palate – even though he was also a giant of technique. Gavrylyuk seems to be made of the same ingredients.

Next came the familiar Mozart Sonata in C Major, K330. A clearly researched interpretation gave Gavrylyuk’s reading a freshness, although not everybody would have agreed with the rapidity of the third movement. Having said that, and again citing Horowitz, Gavrylyuk plays Mozart (especially) with what I call assumptive phrasing, where a passage seems to bloom in the middle and then fall away towards the end. It is the hallmark of a pianist who feels ownership of the score and shares that with his audience.

Liszt’s Lacrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem is a curious piece in that it has no Lisztian frills but, instead, blocks of massive forte chords that express tragedy and wrenching sorrow. Played seldom in recitals, Gavrylyuk used it as a short, but dramatic link between his Mozart Sonata and the final offering before interval: Liszt’s Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli. Here we needed to buckle our seat belts and hang on, because we were in for a rare show of pianistic fireworks. I can’t imagine a more exciting rendition of this very demanding piece, made all the better by the staying power and precision of the Steinway Model D grand piano. While many of the passages were played at blur speed and enveloping volume, Gavrylyuk never lost control of it or missed a chance to caress a quieter section of ventilation while the engine cooled a little.

Interval saw everyone hurry panting into the foyers to recover from the Liszt and probably wonder what could possibly top what they’d just heard. When they returned, they found out. Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.6 Op. 82 awaited them.

This is the first of three ‘war’ sonatas, written under the influence of the Second World War and the subject of enquiry and theory by commentators since. In pure musical terms it comprises four movements. Typical of Prokofiev’s style, there is continual switching between major and minor, a preference for atonality that doesn’t stray too far from home and a coverage of sounds in which no piano key goes home unused.

The sonata is right in line with what Gavrylyuk does best: scale virtuosic cliffs with ease and then rest in velvety valleys before the next assent. I’ve listened to recordings of this sonata by some of the leading Prokofiev interpreters but none has outshone Gavrylyuk’s. Certainly, a live performance in the Recital Hall with its excellent acoustics and a big Steinway in perfect tune has a considerable advantage over a recording, but Gavrylyuk’s playing was nonetheless extraordinary.

Alexander Gavrylyuk was born in Ukraine but spent his formative years on a music scholarship in Sydney. He became an Australian citizen as soon as he turned 18. His potential as a world-class pianist was recognised early in his sub-teen years and he won several major piano competitions. They launched him on a worldwide career. He currently lives in Berlin but makes a point of ‘coming home’ to Australia each year. He and his wife Soki have a baby daughter.


One Response to “Alexander the Great”
  1. Just wondering if Alexander Guvrylyuk is Jewish. I heard him tonight in vancouver, canada and have to say I have never been so transported. He played Rachmaninov and his encores were astounding.
    Please answer this question for me. Thank you.

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