Few contemporary pianists have received quite the acclaim that has been bestowed on Alexander Gavrylyuk in recent years. Born in Ukraine, Gavrylyuk moved to Australia at the age of 13 and lived in Sydney until 2006. He has been described as “a world class pianist” by The New York Times, “vivid and characterful” by Gramophone, and “the most compelling pianist of his generation” by Limelight. In 2003, when he was just 19, Maestro Vladimir Ashkenazy described him as “an extraordinary talent”. Gavrylyuk and Ashkenazy would go on to collaborate extensively, recording Prokofiev’s five Piano Concertos with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2011. Now based in the Netherlands, the virtuoso concert pianist is preparing for a return to Sydney, presenting a solo recital at City Recital Hall in Sydney this June. Limelight caught up with him to talk about his love of the Romantics and the return to live performance.

Alexander Gavrylyuk Alexander Gavrylyuk. Photograph supplied

First things first, how has the pandemic been for you? You’re based in the Netherlands, how has performance been going there over the past year?

It has had a mixed effect. In one way [there’s] the obvious struggle it has brought to all of us music orientated souls; in another way the pandemic brought a sobering realisation – a realisation that without truly being connected we are extremely weak as a society. All our conventional means of communication are of course important, but in my view, the most important tool we have is music and live concerts with audiences. That’s the place of an opportunity to connect to oneself and others on a deeper level. 

How has it been returning to live performances for you?

These experiences of live performances are far more precious compared to pre-pandemic time. 

You have quite a history with Australia, how does it feel to be returning now for the concert at City Recital Hall in Sydney?

Australia is home and a big part of my heart stayed in City Recital Hall after my initial performance there many years ago. [It’s a] wonderful hall with an amazing audience. 

The program for the concert is very Romantic-era based. Is there something in particular that draws you to that repertoire?

The first half of the program is a kind of a love story involving Clara Schumann (or should I say Clara Wieck!). The love story is indeed based on a true story and is between Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Robert Schumann’s innocent, pure and theatrical Kinderszenen will be followed by a deeply moving and tormented Intermezzi as well as a Rhapsody by Brahms. The duality of the first half will be concluded with the ferocious and darkly humorous Danse Macabre – the dance of death seasoned by Vladimir Horowitz’s genius in his piano transcription of it. The second half of the program is the well-known and captivating Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky.

You’ve previously recorded some of the repertoire, has your approach or understanding of the music changed over the time you’ve been playing it?

My relationships with pieces change all the time and reflect directly my own personal environments. For example, the Kinderszenen by Schumann sounded completely different after my daughters were born. I do notice that I’m able to become much more selfless now and just allow for the music to take the lead. At some stage of my life I’ve stopped ‘creating’ an ‘interpretation’ and just give in to the music instead. 

You have performed the entire cycle of Prokofiev concertos here with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. What is the difference in how you prepare something like a concerto as opposed to a solo work like Pictures at an Exhibition?

The preparation is quite similar except one also needs to know the orchestral part when preparing a concerto on top of everything else. My preparation has a few stages. I start with familiarising myself with the technical side of a given piece first. I would then work separately with every voice and every line and create individual “members of the chamber group or an orchestra”. Once every line has a distinctive and convincing voice, I then let them rehearse together. The next step is the opposite to control – letting the inspiration and music itself lead the way forward. 

Is there a piece that has eluded you? A piece you haven’t approached that you’d like to?

I’ve played the Brahms 1st piano concerto. I would love to prepare both Brahms Concerti to perform them in the same concert. 

What are your plans for performances and projects in the future?

After a rather empty 2020, my next few seasons are getting quite busy. I look forward to returning to play with the Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and of course all of the much-beloved Australian orchestras, as well as giving recitals. 

Alexander Gavrylyuk performs at City Recital Hall, Sydney on 17 June.  More information

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