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Not your typical competition winner

New York
Weill Hall
06/07/2017 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Six Bagatelles, op. 126
Robert Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, op. 6
Nikita Mndoyants: Variations on a Theme by Paganini
Sergey Prokofiev: Sonata No. 8 in B-flat, op. 84

Nikita Mndoyants (piano)

N. Mndoyants (© Cleveland International Piano Competition)

Before Nikita Mndoyants appeared as a winner of the prestigious Cleveland Competition (formerly known as Robert Casadesus Competition) at New York’s Weill Hall, at Carnegie Hall) he was already known to American audiences as a finalist of the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition. In New York he previously played a recital at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival. Already a seasoned performer, the 28 year old pianist hailing from Moscow is the son of Alexander Mndoyants, also a well-known pianist and pedagogue at the Moscow Conservatory. If I were asked to guess his pedigree and/or schooling I would not immediately think of the Russian School; it was bot refreshing and rewarding that he didn’t sound like a “typical competition winner”. What also sets him apart from the majority of his colleagues is the fact that Nikita is a composer: here he joins the ranks of a few other pianist-composers such as M.-A. Hamelin, Fazil Say and more recently Mndoyants’ peer, Michael Brown.

Mndoyants opened his program with Beethoven’s last work for the piano, Six Bagatelles op. 126. If they are on occasion played in bits and pieces – and one could think of a worse encore than Bagatelle No. 4 in B minor – they were specifically designed to be played as an entity.
Length-wise these are miniatures, but there is in them a wealth of material and temperament. Supposedly Beethoven himself thought highly of this work that in my opinion can very well serve as a psychological profile of the composer, as they reveal his character more intimately than almost anything else he ever wrote. They also lay bare the strange polarities of his personality: the violent mood changes demonstrate his tender, gently humorous side one moment and his rudeness and ill-temper the next.
Mndoyants approached the score a bit too literally and with a certain reserve. For example, his reading of detached notes was accurate but made me wonder if this is the sound and articulation that Beethoven had in mind. When bringing forth those violent mood swings one has to be careful not to fall into a grotesque manner but at Weill Hall our pianist seemed to err rather on the side of carefulness. Yet it was a cultured, varied and immaculately played version that I wished had dared a tad more wildness. That last characteristic was demonstrated with a great deal of caution; he is a cool, objective and cultivated player who doesn’t allow emotions to control his playing.

The same approach and objectivity worked extremely well in another, twice longer set of miniatures that create Schumann’s cycle Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David). It is not to be understood that Mr. Mndoyants showed any sort of indifference to the music or treated it with a lack of understanding and empathy. I do know why, but in my concert-going career I have encountered more poorly executed performances of Schumann op. 6 than almost any other of Schumann’s works. Here at Weill Hall Mr. Mndoyants luckily offered us a technically flawless version that was at the same time richly satisfying.
In this composition Schumann juxtaposes sections which were marked in the original with letters E for Eusebius and F for Florestan, who on the title page of the first edition were listed as authors of the composition. Florestan embodies the rational side of Schumann’s own personality, intellectually astute and self-confident in his judgments yet capable of impassioned outbursts, while Eusebius represents his sensitive, dreamy, gentle side. They were the leading members of the composer’s imaginary League of David whose self-appointed task in life was to wage war on narrow-mindedness and philistinism in music.
There were numerous examples of beauty, tone quality and intelligence in our Russian pianist’s version of Schumann’s extended suite of 18 pieces: a significant delineation of a bass line in No. 4, the tenderness and marking out of inner voices in No. 5, a lovely treatment of No. 7, simplicity in No. 11 and generally beautifully delineated melody. There are also the proverbial difficulties which more than once have derailed a performance by even an established virtuoso. Such might be No. 6, a study of staccato in single and double notes here attacked fearlessly by Mndoyants. Elsewhere as in No. 8, another trap for a pianist, our soloist adopted a minimally slower tempo which paid dividends in allowing not only for accuracy but also in addressing seldom heard accents in the left hand. A composer’s view was evident in penultimate No. 17, where Mndoyants brought out rarely encountered polyphony. In this performance the young Russian brought to mind intensely musical if unpretentious, straightforward versions of Schumann by the great German master Wilhelm Kempff. Not a small compliment, if I may say so.

The second half of the recital was devoted to the pianist’s own Variations on a Theme by Paganini and Prokofiev mighty Sonata No. 8.
The Paganini theme from the 24th Caprice in A minor, as we all know, served many composers previously for their variations: Mndoyants’ version dating from 2007 is especially impressive taking into account that it was composed by an 18 year old. Here our virtuoso goes through some striking motivic development, harks to composers whose music he must have known, keeps everything in a mildly acerbic harmonic language and gives each variations a different character. On first hearing one may miss some subtleties and instead concentrate on the influences mentioned above. Yet there is no doubt as to the young composer’s inventiveness. The seven minutes long piece effectively builds to an impressive coda and ends in a whisper, just like Rachmaninov’s famed Rhapsody on the same theme.

The concluding piece on that ambitious program, the Prokofiev Sonata No. 8 received a richly satisfying performance due in equal measure to the terrific pianistic ability of Mndoyants and the fact that he was able to look at the score with the eye of composer. In the sprawling, mostly introspective first movement I appreciated an unfailing clarity of articulation and sense of calm. The fact that Mr. Mndoyants is now an instructor of orchestration at the Moscow Conservatory must help in his paying extra attention to the multi-colored canvas. This movement is a long story to tell but the pianist possesses all the tools of the story teller and this listener’s attention never flagged. Mndoyants attacked the volatile moments of the bravura finale fearlessly, yet his approach to the music never descended to crudeness or coarseness. It was not the first time during the evening that he showed his regal command of the keyboard.

There were three short encores: “Le Rappel des oiseaux” by Rameau, Mazurka by Chopin and Sonata by Scarlatti. While Rameau was elegant and stylish, the Chopin Mazurka in C-sharp minor op. 63 No. 3 was a bit too chaste and reserved for my taste. I loved, however, the final Scarlatti Sonata in G major: virtuosic, brisk, bouncy and fleet-fingered. It was a memorable moment when after the recital our artist was greeting his fans and one of them happened to be the great Russian pianist Bella Davidovich. She could be called his musical grandmother, as she taught his father at the Moscow Conservatory.

I am looking forward to the future performances of this superb pianist, and for me the next one will be this August, during the International Chopin Festival in Duszniki, Poland. I hope to report about this recital and other Festival events on these pages.

Roman Markowicz



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