A Tough Mountain to Climb
Baruch Performing Arts Center
Alexander Borodin: String Quartet No.2: “Nocturne” (tr. Gryaznov)
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, opus 71: “Waltz of the Flowers” (tr. Gryaznov)
Sergei Rachmaninov: The Night is Sad, opus 26 No. 12 – How Peaceful, opus 21 No. 7 – Vocalise, opus 34 No. 14 – Italian Polka (tr. Gryaznov)
Mikhail Glinka: Fantasy-Waltz (tr. Gryaznov)
Franz Liszt: Twelve Transcendental Etudes, S. 139
Vyacheslav Gryaznov (pianist)
To anyone who attempts to climb one of the pianistic Everests that the Liszt Transcendental Etudes represent, I humbly take off my hat. The most recent attempt was made at the Baruch Performing Arts Center by the Russian pianist-composer-arranger Vyacheslav Gryaznov, who presented an unusual program that in addition to the Liszt Etudes featured Mr. Gryaznov’s own transcriptions. One can be certain that Mr. Gryaznov, trained in the Moscow Central Music School and later in the famed Moscow Conservatory, would have enough skill to conquer the difficulties that this repertory demands. After all, the Moscow Conservatory to this day produces about the most skilled pianists anywhere.
The recital was presented jointly by the Drozdoff Society and the Leschetizky Association, and was introduced by Natasha Cherny who informed us not only that the event was a birthday tribute to the great Polish teacher, among others, of Vladimir Drozdoff, but also about the fact that our performer does not object to anyone recording or videotaping his performance. A rarity indeed! Mr. Krystian Zimerman, are you listening?
The first half of the recital was devoted solely to Mr. Gryaznov’s transcriptions of music by Russian composers and he presented himself as quite a skillful transcriber. In the program note our pianist writes about his activity as a transcriber: “it helps me to realize various dreams...it is an opportunity to interpret my favorite symphonic pieces not being a conductor and to do it with this special psychology and subjectivity that are possible only in a solo performance”... Well, I was not entirely aware of the dreams and psychology, but for sure we had an ample choice of orchestral repertory in works by Tchaikovsky and Glinka.
It would be too difficult to analyze each and every of the seven transcriptions we heard, but one was left with a general impression that there is less pyrotechnics and pure virtuosity than in better known transcriptions by such past giants of the keyboard as Horowitz, Earl Wild Godowsky, Pabst or Andre Schulz-Evler, known for his reworking of the Strauss Blue Danube waltz. It is possible that thanks to its accessibility some pianists who would be unwilling to tackle the aforementioned works of the great pianists-transcribers will find Mr. Gryaznov’s less daunting scores attractive.
The program started with Borodin’s famous “Nocturne” from the String Quartet No. 2, and whereas I liked in that transcription a lot of ideas, I felt that dispatched rather matter of factly. The “Flower Waltz” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker flowed and built up nicely each time the theme came back, but over all it produced no surprises. The most impressive of the lot that showing the virtuosity of our performer were the last two of the seven offered: the Italian Polka by Rachmaninov and Glinka’s Valse-Fantasie, a well known orchestral work in which Mr. Gryaznov demonstrated a wonderful fleetness of fingers and a hugely impressive command of
the keyboard. One could question the wisdom of creating yet another transcription of the ofttranscribed Vocalise by Rachmaninov, let alone programming an entire half of a recital to works that hail from the same time period and/or the Russian school: perhaps fewer pieces or sprinkling the program with works – even transcriptions! – by other composers and of more diverse styles would ultimately create a better effect.
For the second half, Mr. Gryaznov took off his jacket, rolled his sleeves up and proceeded to slay the Transcendental Etudes, which he did without much visible effort. Before that he offered his audience an extended commentary on the work. That impromptu monologue proved to me yet again that giving a pre-concert talk is sometimes as dangerous as the performance itself. How much more useful it would be to have it all printed out and given to the audience in
the form of program notes. I begin to understand one of my fellow-reviewers who always bemoans musicians who talk before their performance. Yes, it is an art and not too many musicians have mastered it.
Well, times have changed since Hector Berlioz summed up the Liszt set with these words: “Unfortunately we cannot hope to be able to hear music of this kind very often. Liszt wrote it for himself and no one else in the world should flatter himself into thinking that he could even begin to do it justice”. Those twelve pieces can be divided into two groups: the etudes that are of a strictly virtuosic nature – not that they have to be played as technical exercises – and the more reflective, slower ones, those of much more poetic nature. They are the earliest tone poems in the piano literature and, needless to say, demand from the performer somewhat different skills: a varied tonal palette, attention paid to the singing vocal line of the melody, seamless legato even when playing chords, Romantic expression, delicate touch and great emotional depth.
In Mr. Gryaznov’s performance, one was impressed with the obvious ease he commanded over the most taxing pages in Liszt’s piano music; here we talk about the physical rather than emotional aspect of his playing. Hence, in my opinion he was far more successful with the
monstrous difficulties that need to be conquered in the etudes such as No. 4 (“Mazeppa”), No. 7 (“Eroica”), No. 8 (“Wilde Jagd”) or No.12 (“Chasse-Neige”). In these, he left no doubt that he possesses plenty of strength, has an ability to negotiate huge jumps, and play blindingly fast chords, octaves, or double notes.
Alas, the slower etudes, the ones of a more reflective nature, where subtlety, tone-painting and creating distinctive colors are paramount, Mr. Gryaznov was far less successful. Here the playing was often devoid of true legato, a singing line was hard to find and sometimes one had the feeling of minimal involvement with the music he performed. The good news is that with proper guidance he will be able to find some beauty and will infuse with feeling the most beautiful etudes of the set such as “Harmonies du soir” or “Ricordanza.” It is still much more difficult to play the truly hard ones and here he is on safe ground. Mr. Gryaznov allowed himself even some editorial touches which could raise the eyebrows of connoisseurs but bothered almost nobody else.
Overall, this young, very talented pianist and arranger showed himself already a full-fledged virtuoso, and a very talented, skillful arranger. One hopes that soon we will also admire his tone production and affection for the music. For now, as I said, my hat’s off to him for a mostly successful endeavor in presenting one of the most demanding scores in the piano repertory.