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A Russian-American Tuneful Truce

New York
07/14/2023 -  
Frédéric Chopin: Nocturne in D‑flat major, Opus 27, No. 2 – Sonata No. 2 in B‑flat minor, Opus 35
Alexander Scriabin: Prelude for Left Hand, Opus 9, No. 1 – Preludes, Opus 11, No. 1, 5 & 20 – Piano Sonata No. 5, Opus 53
Fritz Kreisler: Liebesleid (arr. Sergei Rachmaninoff)
William Bolcom: The Serpent’s Kiss

Olga Vinokur (Pianist)

O. Vinokur (© Boris Gnip)

As a moment illuminating eternity...I am affirmation...I am ecstasy.
Alexander Scriabin

I consider this (Fifth Sonata) to be the best of my works for piano. I do not know myself what kind of a miracle has happened.
Alexander Scriabin

Olga Vinokur, the Russian‑born Israeli‑American virtuoso, started her recital and encored with a Chopin miniature. No matter the rest of her Bargemusic recital, these two works showed a mastery of her instrument. Immaculately played, elegant, frankly beautiful.

The remainder of the concert was a mixture of the unimpressive and the brilliant. Her Chopin Second Sonata was played with propriety, with an occasional sloppiness of fingers (always forgivable) yet strangely without personality. The notes of the first two movements were speedy, impressive enough, but lacking even a scintilla of Chopin’s images.

After all, no matter what Stravinsky and other 20th Century pundits might say, music does have extra‑musical references. Chopin’s Sonata was more than an exercise for the fingers.

And now comes the “Funeral March.” As mentioned in my review of Martin García García earlier this week, pianists approach this movement like actors approaching “To be or not to be.” How to give a new meaning to an old (and most worthy) chestnut.

Ms. Vinokur performed with the right stolidity, the funereal respect. But the middle section seemed charmless. Proper, yes, but without feeling. The one‑minute whirlwind finale–puzzling, cryptic, but which I have the audacity to think of as leaves whirling around a tombstone–Ms. Vincour showed what a fine technician she can be.

Before the Scriabin highlights, Ms. Vinokur was enthralling in three American multi‑voiced composers. First the late William Bolcom, who could make Blues sound like Beethoven, and Joplin‑style ragtime sound like Ravel. Not a household word to the peasants, but Bolcom should be music for a suicide hotline. He was life incarnate.

Then two encores. An excerpt from Bernstein’s West Side Story, a nice arrangement of Gershwin’s The Man I Love.

Finally, to quote the late Alan Arkin’s movie, The Russians Were Programed, The Russians Were Played, Rachmaninoff’s mutated Kreisler bagatelle was a charming bijou. (With the Barge rolling swaying in the rain, one was tempted to title it “Rach ‘n’ Roll.” But this would not be appropriate.)

The substantial highlights on the concert were the five pieces by Alexander Scriabin. The preludes, after the Left‑hand Prelude, were all early, Opus 11. So if Ms. Vinokur’s Chopin had been a wee bit disappointing, these “post‑Chopin redux” works were filled with personality, all caught with Ms. Vinokur’s finesse, virtuosity and Romantic elegance. She didn’t toss them off: she played them with feeling and the finest texture.

The Fifth Sonata was Olga Vinokur at her finest. The start in the bass (equivalent to the Chopin’s chthonic beginning) led her to play with the widest emotional range. On the cusp of Scriabin’s mystical period, the piece quivered with melodies turning into frantic whirlwind, with constant rhythmic alterations, and with an uninhibited bravura calling forth unreserved bravos.

Harry Rolnick



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