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Ukrainian-Style Bravura

February 19, 2006

Dinara Nadzhafova

Ilya Petrov

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By Heuwell Tircuit

Two young Ukrainian pianists gave a startling joint recital Sunday afternoon in the Florence Gould Theater at the Legion of Honor: 16-year-old Dinara Nadzhafova from Kharkov and 20-year-old Ilya Petrov from Krivoy Rog. Each has won a fistful of prizes before receiving a Guzik Foundation Award for international appearances. Sunday's Guzik pair opened the 2006 Chamber Music San Francisco season with performances in which the musicianship trumped even their formidable dexterity.

Nadzhafova played the first half of the longish recital, mostly devoted to Chopin standards: the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23, and the dozen Études, Op. 10. As a pleasant surprise, she replaced the two Chopin nocturnes originally announced for the program with the rarely played Prelude and Fugue in G-sharp Minor, Op. 29, by Sergei Taneyev. Audience reaction was so enthusiastic that Nadzhafova had to play two encores: Liszt's showbiz Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D-flat Major and a small lyric piece I know not.

The square-jawed, muscular Petrov walked on stage looking more like a shy collegiate wrestler than a sensitive musician, then proved how deceiving looks can be. He played a Liszt survey for the second part, including three of the popular "Paganini" etudes; Liszt's piano transcription of his song Sonetto del Petrarca No. 104; "Feux follets" (Will-o'-the-wisps), the fifth of the Transcendental Etudes; “Un sospiro” (A sigh), third of the Three Concert Etudes; and the big Rapsodie espagnole. The crowd was again raving, but Petrov offered only the one encore, a knock-your-socks-off performance of Horowitz' favorite encore, Moritz Moszkowski's Étincelles (Sparks), Op. 36, No. 6.

Extraordinary talents

Both of these pianists are solid technicians, but, more important, both are individual, original, and highly expressive players. I was especially impressed by Nadzhafova's performance of the Taneyev, a piece new to me by a composer of great worth who is too rarely programmed today. A student of and long time friend of Tchaikovsky, Taneyev was also a virtuoso pianist, an important teacher as well as composer. (His students included both Scriabin and Rachmaninov.) Taneyev became an academic force in Russian music, serving as teacher then director at the Moscow Conservatory. Besides writing an impressive array of music, he published a compendium, Invertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style in 1909, a tome still in use as a counterpoint text.

Little wonder that he could turn out such a large-scale, wonderfully full Prelude and Fugue. The Romantic element was present in full during the Chopinesque nocturnal Prelude, elegantly flowing under Nadzhafova's tasteful fingers. Then came the brilliant ripple of the triplet-heavy Fugue, as fully achieved as most of Bach's, only with the big return of the Prelude's theme near the close — a 19th century cliché, yet handsomely accomplished by virtue of Taneyev's steady craftsmanship. Taneyev is a major composer, waiting in the wings for a major revival.

Chopin's two volumes of 12 etudes each are among the most fiercely difficult things in piano literature, real knuckle busters. Indeed, that's why even major piano virtuosos in general never played all of them in public. That's even been true of great Chopin specialists like Artur Rubinstein, a pianist who recorded nearly all the major Chopin canon but never included the popular etudes. When I asked why, during an interview, Rubinstein closed his eyes, pulled back his head as if praying to heaven, and began vigorously fingering the coffee table before him as if playing one. Suddenly, he stopped, stared at me, shrugged and said, “Because I'm afraid,” before we both had a good chuckle. Most famous pianists play a few, but only the dreadnoughts attempt an entire opus dozen. It's not merely their individual difficulties, but the emotional extremes required to get through them, as well. When it happens and comes off well, as it did on Sunday, the result is enormously impressive.

Broad variety of mood

The maturity of Nadzhafova's performances was as impressive as her dexterity. Her timbral variety, her formal clarity, and her perfect tempos were irreproachable. She could roar through the stormy first and final “Revolutionary” etudes, bring fairy tinkle to the “Black Key” and “Butterfly,” but turn around into the dark Romantic musings of the E-flat minor Sixth Etude with equal aplomb. The more overtly flashy horrors of the C-sharp Minor didn't seem to phase her; it was as though she were breezing through a lesser piece of Erik Satie. If I have any one quibble, it's that she had a slight tendency to overemphasize the left hand's bass line, but this was only a momentary problem here and there. That problem did not show up at all for her Liszt dessert, played largely for its pyrotechnical effect, but transfusing new blood into that old warhorse, the Sixth Rhapsody. And all this from a 16-year-old? Unreal.

Still, in all, I found her playing of the First Ballade the most impressive performance of all. One rarely hears this disconsolate piece played so poetically, so unhurried, or with more profundity of concept. Only when she reached those final pages of Chopin's violent outburst did she let go with a quickened tsunami of keyboard bravura — and all the right notes. (Neither is a commonplace event.) Total command of the keyboard, yes, but it was Nadzhafova's innate musicianship which floored me. What will she play like in 10 years?

One of Nadzhafova's many awards was a second place in the 2004 Tchaikovsky Competition for young pianists, at age 14. But if she was second, who on earth could have been first? Perhaps Petrov?

Strength well modulated

Here was the big Russian style of Anton Rubinstein's playing in full bloom. There is no lack of delicacy in his playing, but even in the lyric items, such as the Petrarch sonnet and “Un sospiro,” Petrov displayed assured strength that rather reminded me of Emil Gilels. He can tinkle his way through “Feux follets,” the music tingled and flickered at even ultrasoft dynamic levels. But for the once standard Spanish rhapsody, the grand sway of the traditional “La Folia” theme and equally famous “Jota aragonesa” section, Petrov let loose the full power of his dynamic control while avoiding any hint of pounded brute force.

That formed an amazing contrast to the refinement he brought to the three best known of Liszt's Paganini transcriptions: the playful No. 2 in E-flat major, subtitled “Scales and Octaves”; No. 3, “The Little Bell”; and the dizzying No. 5, “The Chase.” Here, as in his entire program, the beauty of his piano sound and his ability to slip into and out of fleeting accents struck me as major pianism of the first rank.

If Petrov displayed any flaw it's that he was a little too straightforward for items such as the “Scales and Octaves” Etude's campy connotations. One should toy with it a little, while enjoying Liszt's joking frivolity. Petrov contented himself with accuracy, which is desirable, but literal playing can also deflect the ultimate pleasure of the piece — any piece of music.

This, however, was not true during the Moszkowski Sparks, which bubbled with effervescence like a top-class champagne. Played quickly and delicately, that was as fine a rendition as I've ever encountered — and considering that I've heard Horowitz play it something like a dozen times in recital, that's saying something. Some orchestra should grab up Petrov while the early option is still open. I sensed a terrific Brahms Second Concerto in his future.

(Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer, who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan, and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for the Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.)

©2006 Heuwell Tircuit, all rights reserved