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Paintings and Polonaises

The Phillips Collection
11/29/2009 -  
Fra Antonio Soler: Sonata in d minor
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata no. 23 in f minor, op. 57 “Appassionata”
Frederic Chopin: Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, op. 22
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Sonata no. 2 in b flat minor, op. 36 (1931 version)

Elena Ulyanova (piano)

E. Ulyanova (© Walter Merriam)

The Sunday Concerts of The Phillips Collection is one of the oldest and most distinguished concert series in Washington, D. C. Museum founder Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) believed that “the experiences of art and music are complimentary and intertwined.” He envisioned The Phillips Collection as a venue where the public would be encouraged to establish correspondences among various art forms. The Phillips has hosted concerts and lectures on musical topics since it first opened in 1921. The Sunday Concerts were formally initiated in 1941 and continues today under the discerning ear and savvy direction of Caroline Mousset. Many important artists of the 20th century debuted or gave important early performances here. Included on this stellar list are Glenn Gould, Carmen Balthrop, Emanuel Ax, Jessye Norman, and Jean-Ives Thibaudet.

And so I found myself this past Sunday afternoon in the lovely oak paneled music room of The Phillips Collection, surrounded with beautiful paintings by Degas, Brach, Goya, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Matisse to hear a brilliantly bravura recital on The Phillips nine foot Steinway Concert Grand by the young Russian virtuoso Elena Ulyanova. Ms. Ulyanova’s svelte, petite, and alluring feminine appearance is quite deceptive. She no more than seats herself before the piano when, without even a preparatory breath, she lunges into the performance like a lioness at the keyboard, playing with a ferocity, strength, and technical prowess that can only be described as astonishing. It would perhaps be regarded as sexist, if I were to say that she plays the piano like a man, but she can hardly be compared to the likes of Dame Myra Hess, Martha Argerich, or even Alicia de Larrocha. If a comparison must be made, she immediately calls to mind the late powerhouse virtuoso Gina Bachauer.

The opening sonata by Padre Soler was teasingly delivered in a crisply articulated manner, that served as a tonic bracer for the audience to prepare them for the emotionally wrenching and jaw-dropping performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata which followed. Ms. Ulyanova’s mature understanding of the architecture of this grand sonata belies her relatively young age. And the boldness of her authority instantly recalls the playing of Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatoslav Richter. It left me aghast and breathless to see her hands in a blur over the keyboard, never missing a note, and I marveled at her musicality and profound interpretation. She will one day be recognized as one of the great Beethoven pianists.

The Chopin was a welcome respite from the turmoil of the Beethoven sonata. Miss Ulyanova sang the limpid and tender melodies of the Andante Spianato as would a great Bellini soprano like Maria Callas, articulating the fioratura and melismas as if they were ornaments in a bel canto vocal line. Her fiery and rhythmic rendition of the ensuing Grande Polonaise invited one to join in the dance. It was an enchanting rendition and worked a potent magic on the audience. Poetry and perfume emanated from the keyboard!

The Rachmaninoff sonata, however, was indeed the zenith of the concert. This sonata, in the 1931 revision, is one of the most difficult and demanding in the entire repertoire of romantic piano sonatas.
As the performance was given without an intermission (The Phillips should seriously rethink this policy), I wondered if any pianist would have the energy to continue with such a sonata as this one. Elena Ulyanova is an artist with Olympian strength, however, and once again she leaped at the keyboard with renewed vigor and eye-popping velocity.
Anyone who has heard her play will tell you that she is perhaps the greatest living performer of the piano music of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Her technique and temperament make her virtually unrivaled in this music today. It would be easy to dismiss her as just another Russian pianist who plays fast and loud were it not for the passion and depth of expression she pulls from the music. All of the myriad colors, textures, and rhapsody of Rachmaninoff’s soaring music explode from her fingertips, captivating the ears and spellbinding the audience. She was given a thunderous, standing ovation immediately upon sounding the final chord.

This was certainly one of the greatest piano recitals to be heard this season in Washington. Those in attendance will not soon forget it. The Phillips Collection is to be heartily thanked for presenting us with an artist of such astounding quality.

Elena Ulyanova’ website

Micaele Sparacino



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