Brilliant Performance to What End?

The first time I attended the Cirque du Soleil, I sat in utter amazement at the acrobatic prowess of the performers and the imaginative flare of the production’s designers. About two-thirds of the way through the show, however, I turned to the other members of our party and asked, “Just what is this supposed to be about, anyway?”

Nikolay Khozyainov {photo (c) Grzymala Design]

Nikolay Khozyainov {photo (c) Grzymala Design]

Somewhat earlier in Nikolay Khozyainov’s glittering recital of brilliant piano showpieces Saturday (Jan. 31) at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium I found myself asking a similar question. In addition to the 22-year-old Russian’s prodigious technique, what is he attempting to communicate through his avalanche of stunningly execulted runs, trills, and cascading octaves?

The heart of Khozyainov’s program, Franz Liszt’s “Rhapsodie espagnole,” S. 254, and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Sonata in D Minor, Op. 28, took the substantial La Jolla audience on a magic carpet ride over some of the most technically daunting peaks and ravines of the Romantic era’s piano soundscape. But after this thrilling excursion, did he leave us with anything to ponder, anything to make us think more deeply about the human condition?

In his account of the Liszt “Rhapsodie,” I particularly admired the slightly macabre overtones he pulled from the “La Folia” theme as it transformed into a curious, elfin march. He deftly modulated the gentle exposition of the second theme, the “Jota aragonesa,” into its shattering crescendo with stunning control. Unfortunately, Rachmaninoff’s seldom programmed Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor is a sonata in name only: it is more of an unruly three movement rhapsody whose earlier themes make—on occasion—unexpected reappearances. Eric Bromberger, in his always insightful program book notes, documented the composer’s own doubts about the wisdom of constructing such a “wild an interminable” piano solo, and Khozyainov’s performance reinforced this weakness in spite of the technical finesse he lavished on every detail of the 45-minute work.

Composer Aaron Copland, commenting on the his reaction to hearing the larger works of Rachmaninoff, mused, “All those notes, think I, and to what end?”

The few reflective moments in the program included Ravel’s familiar “Pavane pour une infante défunte,” which began with an air of dreamy deliberation, but in retrospect seemed overly calculated. A set of three contrasting Chopin Waltzes offered the evening’s only poetic respite, along with the program-opening Chopin Ballade No. 2 in F Major.

Tchaikovsky’s Theme and Variations in F Major, Op. 19, No. 6, are as pedantic as most of his piano music, save the piano concertos, and this pianist did not persuade me otherwise.

Khozyainov offered three encores, including two extravagant opera paraphrases, one on Bizet’s Carmen and the other on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

All those notes: to what end?

This program on January 31, 2015, was presented by the La Jolla Music Society at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s Sherwood Auditorium. The organization’s next offering on the Frieman Family Piano Series is a recital by András Schiff on February 20, 2015, at 8:00 p.m. in the same venue.

Nikolay Khozyainov Program

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Photo of La Jolla Music Society
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  1. Mary Shaw on February 2, 2015 at 11:20 am

    Ken, You’re always looking at the big picture. Comes from the wisdom you’ve gathered so far, and which allows you to observe from a place of coherent personal philosophy. Thanks for your words about this performance.

  2. Geoffrey Clow on February 2, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Cirque du Soleil seems useful as an analogy in a few aspects: The technical skill is breathtaking. The material is selected primarily to display that skill. The performances are not so much artistically satisfying as merely thrilling.

    Nikolay Khozyainov’s concert was all of those things, for me. The program material was chosen primarily to display technical skill, not to provide musical artistry. What musicality the program could have provided was mostly crushed by Khozyainov’s youthful inability to harness his talent to a purpose other than unrestrained exhibitionism.

    The analogy that came to my mind during the performance was of high-power pneumatic pistons being driven dangerously fast. Exciting yes, pleasing no. I would be willing to see Cirque du Soleil every few years. I hope that Nikolay Khozyainov comes under some nurturing adult influence before I’m exposed to him, again. His talent is boundless, and its application is completely out of balance.

    Thank you for the review.

    • KMW on February 2, 2015 at 3:01 pm

      I agree w/you and the reviewer. I also think the recital would have been more interesting with a more varied program. What happened to the classicists and more contemporary music.

      • Geoffrey Clow on February 3, 2015 at 11:36 am

        Good point. There are hundreds of years of interesting keyboard literature available, and Mr Khozyainov is focusing on a thin slice of it. A fun way for him to expand his horizons and explore the literature might be through the transcriptions done by Liszt, whom Mr Khozyainov already knows and presumably admires. Liszt studied other composers deeply, and much of his work as a composer was the transcription of others’ work.

        One of the most satisfying performances that I have attended by a journeyman pianist — and one that broadened my horizons — was Martina Filjak’s appearance with members of the SD Symphony at TSRI Auditorium last Spring. She soloed Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in a minor B543 transcribed by Liszt (S 462/1), and collaborated in Brahms’ late Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano Op 114. Her playing managed to be both exciting and musical. Keeping in mind that Brahms is a generation younger than Liszt, these are two composers squarely in the middle of Mr Khozyainov’s target period, yet Filjak’s program offered infinitely more musical and historical interest than Mr Khozyainov’s program.

        Of course, any token 20C work would be appreciated like water in the desert. Surely he could find exhibition material in Bartók and Prokofiev at least — and any number of others, depending on how much confidence he develops.

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