Sergei Babayan, Piano

By Lawrence Budmen

Sonata No.1
Carl Vine (1954- )

The Australian composer and conductor Carl Vine is a prolific creative artist. He writes in many genres with three symphonies and numerous choral and solo works to his credit. His "Piano Sonata No.1" was composed in 1990. It is in two movements. While its compositional style is conservative, its virtuoso demands require a pianist with a brilliant technique. This score has been particularly appealing to Russian musicians including the distinguished pianist and teacher Grigory Sokolov. 

After a recent performance of the sonata by Sergei Babayan, the composer wrote to the pianist: "I just had to write you to thank you for doing such magnificent work on my Piano Sonata. Your playing is quite extraordinary. I have heard the work played many, many times, but have never heard such a unique and riveting performance. Stranger still is that you do many of the things that I have explicitly asked pianists not to do. Yet you have captured a life and vibrancy that I didn't realize was possible from the notes on the page. You have opened my ears!" High praise from one artist to another! 

Fur Alina 
Arvo Part (1935- )

Arvo Part is Estonia's most world renowned composer. He studied at the Tallinn Conservatory until 1963 while maintaining a career as a sound engineer for Estonian radio. In 1962 he won national prizes for the children's cantata "Our Garden" and the oratorio "Stride of the World." Although his early scores followed official Soviet models, he later experimented with atonal and collage techniques. In the 1970's he developed an interest in plainchant and the music of the Russian Orthodox Church. For Part this was a spiritual resurrection. He has described himself as a religious mystic. Later scores have drawn inspiration from the work of other composers - Janacek, Stravinsky, and Britten. In the early 1980's Part went to live in Berlin. His new exposure to the West resulted in his embracing minimalism (the constant repetition of short musical motifs). Minimalism was sweeping New York and West Coast avant garde circles through the work of Phillip Glass, John Adams, and Terry Riley. Part infused his minimalism with a highly personal vision - inspired by mysticism and Estonian nationalism. Among his recent works "Pari Intervalli" quotes Bach's chorale preludes and the "St. John Passion" is based on ancient ritualistic incantation. The distinguished Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi (conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and music director elect of the New Jersey Symphony) has been a major champion of Part's music worldwide. The violinist Gidon Kremer has commissioned several Part scores, including the famous violin "Frates" and several chamber orchestra works (for Kremer's Kamerata Baltica). 

"Fur Alina" is one of Part's rare solo piano works. It is a brief exercise in minimalist compositional technique. Like much of Arvo Part's music "Fur Alina" is minimalism seen through an extremely personal voice. This score has found favor among a new generation of concert pianists. Werner Bartschi and Alexei Lubimov are among the young artists who have played and recorded this music.

"To the Spring," Opus 43, No.6
"Poetic Tone-Pictures," Opus 3, No.1 
"Dream," Opus 48, No.6
"The Poet's Heart," Opus 52, No.3
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Edvard Grieg was the musical voice of Norway. His musical education was deeply steeped in 19th century German romanticism. He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory from 1858 to 1862 with E. F. Wenzel. Schumann's music was a great influence on Grieg during this period. He went to Copenhagen where he came under the tutelage of Niels Gade (a composer whose symphonic works were championed by Mendelssohn). In the mid 1860's Grieg became a Norwegian nationalist - writing music filled with the grandeur of the fjords and the rustic vigor of Norwegian fiddle tunes. He would achieve fame as a pianist, conductor, and composer. Among his most famous scores are his "Piano Concerto in A Minor" (1868) and the incidental music for Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" (1875). From his base at Troldhaugen (immortalized in one of Grieg's "Lyric Pieces") he continued to fulfill commissions despite ill health. Among his most significant later works are the "String Quartet in G Minor" and the "Holberg Suite." 

The very essence of Grieg's romantic nationalist idiom is found in his ten sets of "Lyric Pieces." These characterful mood sketches are etched in delicate musical pastels. Romantic yearning and rousing peasant dances alternate in these lovely miniatures. Grieg's piano writing is elegant yet always stamped with a decisively Norwegian accent. The four "Lyric Pieces" Sergei Babayan has chosen represent Grieg at his most lyrical and melodically inspired.

"Prelude in D Major," Opus 23, No.4
Sergei Rachmaninoff
"Etude-Tableaux in E-flat Minor," Opus 39, No.5 (1873-1943)
"Etude-Tableaux in C Minor," Opus 39, No.1
"Etude-Tableaux in A Minor," Opus 39, No.2
"Moment Musicau in E-flat Minor," Opus 16, No.2
"Moment Musicau in C Major," Opus 16, No.6 

Sergei Rachmaninoff was the last great musical voice of the Russian romantic tradition. He would live to see the ultra romanticism of Mahler and Strauss, the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, the astringency and neo-classicism of Stravinsky, the atonal experiments of Schoenberg and his circle, and the jazz inspired compositions of Gershwin. Yet he would remain aloof from these (often temporary) musical trends. Rachmaninoff would remain the master of inspired melody and brilliant, aristocratic piano writing. 

Rachmaninoff had a classic Russian musical education at the Moscow Conservatory (1885-1892). He studied piano with his cousin Alexander Siloti (best known for his edition of Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No.2"). His composition teachers were Sergei Taneyev and Anton Arensky, a pupil of Tchaikovsky. His graduation work - the opera "Aleko" - was presented at the Bolshoi Theater in 1893. His initial piano works and songs would win him early success. He would eventually achieve fame as a superb pianist and conductor. His command of orchestral writing (in many ways as brilliant and subtle as Mahler's) would bear fruit in three symphonies, four piano concertos, and several tone poems. After the October Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff left Russia. He would live mainly in the United States and Switzerland for the rest of his life. His first new score after coming to the West was his "Piano Concerto No.4" of 1926. While he would continue a high profile career as a performing artist, exile would not be beneficial for Rachmaninoff's creativity. Between 1917 and 1943, he would complete only five new scores - all major works. 

The preludes and "Moments Musicau" are among the composer's early solo piano works. Their melodic appeal and glittering piano writing marked the composer as a creative artist of refined sensibilities. The Etudes-Tableaux," Opus 39 were composed in 1916 and 1917 - the last works Rachmaninoff composed before leaving Russia. Rachmaninoff played the premiere in Petrograd in 1917. The etudes marked the end of an era for Russian music and for the composer. (The score was published in 1920 by Grandes Editions Russes, a firm owned by conductor Serge Koussevitzky.) The first etude is based on the painting "The Waves" by the Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin. Musically this tempest tossed work shows the influence of Scriabin. The Dies irae (Gregorian chant for the dead) motif, which permeates many of Rachmaninoff's scores, appears in the left hand part in the central section. The second etude, which also owes a debt to Scriabin, is based entirely on the Dies irae. The fifth etude is marked "Appassionato" and is quintessential Rachmaninoff. The melody of the central section is reminiscent of the composer's "Piano Concerto No.2." Again there is a reference to the Dies irae. 

While Rachmaninoff's full blooded romanticism went out of fashion with academics and composers, the continued popularity of his music speaks to its enduring qualities. Not since Tchaikovsky has there been a composer so rich in glorious melodic inspiration and glittering romantic pyrotechnics. Rachmaninoff's scores (both large scale and miniature) are true musical masterworks! 


On November 19, 1736 the Elector of Saxony conferred the title of "Composer to the Royal Court Chapel" on Johann Sebastian Bach. When Carl von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the Dresden court, came to Leipzig (where Bach was Kantor of St. Thomas Church) in 1741, he invited Bach to write a set of variations for his youthful chamber harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. The ambassador commissioned the work "in order to be cheered up a little." He wanted the work to be "soothing and cheerful in character." Upon hearing the variations the count said he "could not hear enough of them" and he rewarded Bach with a gold goblet and a hundred louis d'or. The score that Bach actually wrote is not a light weight series of variations but one of the monumental works of western musical culture.

The thematic material for the "Goldberg Variations" (the opening aria) is the bass line of a Sarabande from Bach's "Anna Magdalena Notebook" (1725). The aria is followed by 30 variations after which the aria is repeated unaltered. The variations can be divided into three groups: character (dance) types, playful and figurative variations, and canonic. The final quodibet (Variation 30) is a combination of all three types. The quodibet quotes two existing themes -"I've known you for so long" (a Saxon tune) and "Cabbage and turnips have driven me away," an Italian bergamasca used by Girolamo Frescobaldi in his "Fiori Musicali" (1635), the score of which Bach owned. The 30 variations are by turns dance like, austere, and eloquent.

Bach was one of music's great innovators in keyboard composition. He turned 18th century court dances into high art. (The dance movements of the "Goldberg Variations" are evidence of simple dance forms becoming profound musical visions.) Bach wrote highly complex, contrapuntal music that expanded the range of the keyboard instrument. He also made intricate use of the left hand. While many composers wrote a left hand part that merely filled in a rhythmic line, Bach's left hand writing is more complex. While Bach was indeed a Baroque composer, the deep range of emotions and tonal colors in the "Goldberg Variations" look forward to a new Romantic era. The formal rigor, density, and complexity of this music are awesome. It is hard to view the history of keyboard composition without the influence of Johann Sebastian Bach. 

While Bach composed most of his keyboard works for the harpsichord, there is a long tradition of performing them on the modern piano. Such vastly different artists as Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, Murray Perahia, and Andras Schiff have brought new artistic dimensions to the performance of Bach's music on modern concert grands. Sergei Babayan is an artist with a highly individual and personal artistic temperament. His recent recording of Scarlatti sonatas found lyricism and pathos in these engaging vignettes. His Bach promises to be equally stimulating.

The "Goldberg Variations" is music of deep humanism, optimism, and intellectual complexity. This is music that speaks to us ever more powerfully in troubled times. After Bach, keyboard music would never be the same. Here then is a masterpiece by a creative giant played by one of today's gifted interpretative artists. 

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