Alexander Gavrylyuk’s electrifying performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto at the BBC Proms on August 13, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra directed by Thomas Dausgaard at the Royal Albert Hall, London, was a revelation. BBC Radio 3 and Channel 4 Television transmitted a truly grand musical occasion in which Gavrylyuk redefined the work’s dimensions as perhaps only the composer and Horovitz themselves managed.
In recent years, the only performances I heard which travelled anywhere near the Gavrylyuk galaxy were Grigory Sokolov’s. Both artists pay more than credible homage to Sviatoslav Richter at his best as well as to certain performances of Rachmaninov, Horovitz and Scriabin. Alexander Gavrylyuk is, easily, the most compelling pianist of his generation. As Schumann said of Chopin: “Hats off gentlemen, a genius.”
As soon as the soloist walked on stage and made his way to the piano the hall’s vast lighting apparatus was extinguished; what happened next was a magnificent bit of Prom planning. Unexpectedly, the visiting Latvian Choir emerged from the hall’s darkness singing a Russian Orthodox hymn from the Kiev region, Little Russia (Ukraine) – based on an ancient znamenny chant which holds a haunting affinity to the opening melody of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto – “Thy tomb, O saviour, soldiers guarding” – a melody which dominates the entire work. We melted as the transcendental beauty of Sigvards Kjava’s superb direction of the four-part a cappella writing enveloped, then transported us back to the fin-de-siècle nostalgia of the composer’s childhood, in musical imagery saturated with reminiscences of Ivanovka where the work was completed in 1909. As unobtrusively as the choir had entered and exited, the orchestra then set out on its epic 44-minute journey as brilliant lighting flooded the stage and our soloist followed four measures later.
Gavrylyuk’s personal abandonment to the spirit of the work demonstrated a pre-conceived architectonic conception which dominated throughout like the giant span of some miracle of nature. His love of Rachmaninov’s searing cantilena shone like a beacon, as it unfolded phrase by phrase, cadence by cadence, to crucial dramatic points. His pacing of motivic development and tempi rubato throughout revealed a deep understanding of the work’s elusive inner dialogue. From a palette of a thousand softs, he recalled the tenderness of: Sviatoslav Richter’s Schubertian caresses, of Ashkenazian thunder and lightning, and of the Argerich maelstrom. The 33-year old’s equally loving attention and mastery of sequential suspensions and fermata was, at all times, the result of a formidable intellectual grasp. I was struck most especially, by the soloist’s mesmeric handling of the opening movement’s longest cadence which builds for the most part, on an extended dominant pedal for the main cadenza. I was equally impressed by his mastery of Rachmaninov’s enraptured resolution of the main cadenza.
A few years before, colleagues had e-mailed me from Los Angeles about Gavrylyuk’s prodigious account of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. He has since recorded all five Prokofiev Piano Concertos with Valery Gergiev! Over the past few years, I had heard similar reports from friends in Israel, Poland, Germany and The Netherlands (where Gavrylyuk now lives with his wife and two daughters in Amsterdam). His more recent performances of Rachmaninov’s D Minor Piano Concerto with the Concertgebouw were received with enormous acclaim although I could only imagine that it was little more than a dress rehearsal for London where his unswerving focus and absorbing meditative presence uplifted all who witnessed the event. The capacity audience’s applause was deafening; it seemed endless and although after the performance of certain works, an encore might be inappropriate, it was, on this occasion, more than appropriate when the soloist performed Rachmaninov’s heart-rending Vocalise.
It is refreshing to experience completely new interpretations of traditional masterpieces by a monumental master of the piano who is, also, modest (and not falsely so), who is unassuming and completely dedicated to his art. In 2005, I was present for his performance of the two books of Brahms’ Paganini Variations in Miami. I sat with the Cuban pedagogue Jorge Luis Herrero Dante and at the end of the performance we looked at each other and, together with an audience of perhaps 80, rose to our feet and applauded until our hands were red raw. His sound, his highly charged engagement with music and with his instrument, created a force field which was unforgettable, leaving a hall bathed in a kind of healing one associates with a heightened sense of well-being and renewal.
Often advertised as a “Russian-Australian” artist, if this giant visits your city, drop everything you are doing and go and hear him. His towering spirit carries the future of Music as few are destined in any century.