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The Fate of Van Cliburn Winners

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
12/19/2019 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat Major, op. 7
Robert Schumann: Waldszenen, op. 82
Johannes Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, op. 5

Alexander Kobrin (piano)

A. Kobrin (© Yamaha Artists Services)

It would be nice to start a review stating that “after an absence of a few years, Alexander Kobrin came back to Carnegie Hall to perform a recital that consisted of...”. Yet, despite an international career which started with winning the Van Cliburn International Competition in 2005, arguably one of the major ones in the world, Carnegie Hall never saw fit to invite the Moscow born and trained Kobrin to perform in any of their venues or series, and thus the recital we heard on December 19, 2019, which was organized and presented by Yamaha Artist Services, was his Carnegie Hall debut.

In that respect Mr. Kobrin happens to be in prestigious company: just a few weeks earlier, another Cliburn winner, this time from 2013, the superb Ukrainian virtuoso Vadym Kholodenko made his New York recital debut presented by the People Symphony Concerts; he has yet to appear at Carnegie Hall, where apparently there’s a long wait for Cliburn Winners...with the exception of few, such as the wonderful Beatrice Rana, who was able to appear there three times in the span of seven months during 2019.

At least Alexander Kobrin is known as a regular participant of the New York yearly summer International Keyboard Institute and Festival (IKIF). Due to my frequent absences from New York during the summer months, I missed several of Kobrin’s recent recitals, thus it was a valuable opportunity to hear him again. Since his recital took place at Zankel Hall, there was, as always, a persistent, relentless accompaniment: the obtrusive rumble that comes from the subways just behind the wall; for someone with a delicate touch such as Kobrin it presents formidable competition. In many of the softer passages the rumble was almost louder than his Yamaha concert grand.

Mr. Kobrin devoted his recital to three composers always dear to him and it was good for us to have a chance to revisit his interpretations, first heard during those IKIF festival concerts. In evaluating any performance, one of the first question a reviewer would ask is “would the composer be happy hearing that performance?”. That was especially valid in case of the Beethoven Sonata op. 7, which the composer himself must have performed as a young virtuoso. He realized that it was a unique work for he even added to it the title “Grand Sonata”; indeed it is one of his longest piano works. It seemed to me that our soloist would have made “the Master” happy. In this sonata Beethoven explores a much more advanced style of writing than even his previous virtuoso Sonata Concertante, the one in C Major op. 2 No.3. There is a plenty of drama in this music: sudden pauses, not at all of a humorous nature as in earlier works and brutal loud outbursts that give us a glimpse of the composer abilities as an active pianist.

Kobrin attempted to illuminate all these characteristics and offered an especially vivid interpretation of the opening Allegro molto e con brio, which under his mostly infallible fingers had an urgency and yet a sense of exhilaration. The second movement Largo con gran espressione, with its question-and-answer dialectic and oppressive pauses which create an enormously tense mood, foreshadows yet another great, profound slow movement that would come in the midst of the Sonata in D Major op. 10 No. 3. Here Mr. Kobrin showed himself as a dramatist and effortlessly created the needed tension: his “playing with the silences” paid dividends as well in the other parts of the program, where breathing space between phrases was also of the utmost importance. But in the third movement Allegro, a combination of minuet and scherzo, Kobrin didn’t shy from being a little brusque and abrupt, which as we know were the characteristics of Beethoven’s own personality at the piano or elsewhere. The finale had a nice amiable feeling, save for one stormy episode that some consider more humorous than dramatic.

It is known that Schumann frequently gave his piano pieces titles after already having written them: sometimes they were added only as a guideline to the interpreter. In case of the Forest Scenes, the nine pieces originally had a poetic motto as well as a title, though by the time of publication only No. 4 “Haunted Spot” was left with the two verses from Hebbel. The whole is probably best regarded as a series of musical mood and scene paintings of woodland life, sensitively and poetically realized on the keyboard.

Already in the first piece “Eintritt”, Kobrin gave some indication of what to expect in his interpretation, which was whimsical, impulsive and improvisatory. Even in its quieter section, simplicity didn’t seem to be Kobrin’s goal: there was rhythmic freedom, capriciousness and even impatience – traits that perhaps are characteristic of Schumann’s writing, yet here there was that dominant sense of urgency sometimes taken to the extreme: simplicity was surely in short supply. Perhaps the most individual and even challenging reading awaited us with the most famous of the scenes “The Prophet Bird”, in which the bird’s uttering could be regarded as either revelatory or aggressive.

During his frequent recitals at IKIF, Kobrin offered some of the most memorable performances of Brahms piano music I have been privileged to hear. Among them, there was an unforgettable rendition of the Four Ballades op. 10 and also a very fine Sonata in F minor. This time around his rendition was perhaps a little less assured from the strictly technical point of view yet as always it had plenty to offer when the sheer musicality was in demand.

This work is the largest of the three early Brahms sonatas and remains the most challenging for performers. It already shows magnificent command of the form, thematic development and inventiveness which prompted Robert Schumann’s enthusiastic reception and response as well as Clara Schumann willingness to learn the mighty difficult score and play it for the young composer who commented that she played it “just as I conceived it, but more nobly, with more serene enthusiasm, and on top of that cleanly and with purity...all kinds of small advantages she has over me”.

What impressed me from the beginning was Kobrin’s majestic, noble treatment of the opening theme and mature, patient treatment of the development section which, in a Beethovenian manner, explores the opening motif. My “private litmus test” of any pianist’s musicality is his ability to play triplets: in case of this sonata it is the Beethoven’s “fate” motif (we talk of course about the Symphony No. 5) and here Kobrin, unlike many others, was able to treat that three-note motif in a musical and non-mechanical manner. The second movement Andante espressivo is a pastoral tone poem and quotes Otto Sternau’s poem at its head, but it should be noted that all three Brahms sonatas, written when he was barely twenty years old, contain literary references in their content. Kobrin’s was a deeply felt, poetic reading and he brought out in the music the yearning qualities and the sense of love described by the poet. The exuberant Scherzo Allegro energico possesses such abandon that one might almost call it a waltz fantasy. Here I regretted that, on occasion, the increased dynamic marking resulted in consequent surges in tempo, which was a jarring effect especially in comparison with the well controlled first movement. As I mentioned, the sonata was written by a barely 20 year old composer, but for all practical purposes when we see Brahms’ command of the rhythmic and melodic transformation that occur in his massive edifice, it could have been be composed by a fifty year old master. And just as in his First Symphony, which was composed some 23 years after the F minor Sonata, Brahms introduces the fifth movement Finale with a large formal introduction Intermezzo: Rückblick (“Reminiscence”), a sort of funeral march where both the second movement theme and the first movement three-note “fate” motif reappear.

Initially, I was impressed with Kobrin’s measured approach to the opening of the Finale: Allegro moderato ma rubato, but soon the proverbial difficulties in some of the passage work took its toll on the pianist and we experienced some muddy details. Since it was a live recital and not a studio recording, such momentary imperfections can be forgiven. Generally, Kobrin displayed fine control of the ardent Romantic episode and virtuosic concluding Presto where Brahms skillfully, if mercilessly for the performer, combines all the themes of the movement.

Throughout the concert our pianist demonstrated a good, rich, warm sound in the louder passages, which never sounded “bangy” or brutal. Yet there was also a certain peculiarity in his quest to create expressive pianos which, alas, often sounded anemic, subdued and poorly projected. Yes, there are moments in Schumann and/or Brahms where one may delight in listening to humming rather than singing. Still, I was surprised by Kobrin’s unlikely sound production in soft playing: lovely sounds that in my ears sounded too submissive and too restrained.

Mr. Kobrin received a very warm welcome from his audience, in which there seemed to be a large number of adoring fans, and he treated us to two encores: a lovingly presented Debussy Prelude, “La Fille aux cheveux de lin”, and then humorously introduced Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G-sharp minor op. 32 No. 12, equally beautifully and touchingly played. Those masterfully rendered encores, in addition to the numerous impressive moments throughout the program, brought back some fond memories of Kobrin’s past recitals and allowed us to appreciate again his fine artistry and musicianship.

Roman Markowicz



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