BABAYAN PLAYS STELLAR GOLDBERG VARIATIONS
By Lawrence Budmen
Johann Sebastian Bach's "Goldberg Variations," BWV 988 is one of the great monuments of Western musical culture. The score was a private commission from the Russian ambassador to the Dresden court in 1741. Bach never intended the work for public performance. Yet Bach was such an inspired creative artist and musical craftsman that he created a set of 30 variations on the single bass line of the Sarabande from his "Anna Magdalena Notebook" (1725). Here is music filled with formal rigor and complexity that is, by turns, dance like, austere, and eloquent. While Bach originally conceived this masterwork for the Baroque harpsichord, there is a long tradition of performing the "Goldberg Variations" on the modern piano. Such vastly different keyboard artists as Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck have brought new insights to this magnificent score on modern concert grands. The Armenian piano virtuoso Sergei Babayan played a stimulating, deeply compelling performance of the variations on November 16 at the University of Miami Gusman Concert Hall - the pinnacle of a stunning recital for the Sunday Afternoons of Music series.
Babayan was first prize winner of the Robert Casadesus Competition in Cleveland in 1989, the Hamamatsu Competition (Japan) in 1991, and the Scottish International Piano Competition in 1992. He is not a typical note perfect, rhythmically robotic competition winner. Babayan processes an incredible technique but he is an artist who combines brilliance, intellect, and musical insight in every score he performs. In the "Goldberg Variations," the Aria theme was played with radiant beauty. His pianissimos are exquisite. In the repetition of the theme at the score's conclusion, Babayan varied his shaping of the musical line ever so slightly - producing the most dulcet conclusion imaginable. His tempos in the variations were taut and bracing. Here was Bach newly reconsidered - a freshly minted interpretative approach for a new century! (Piotr Anderszewski and Babayan are today's great Bach interpreters!) Babayan always allowed the music to sing and breathe. Every inner voicing was clear and transparent in his flawless performance. Every bar was imbued with aristocratic fervor and musical personality. Instead of the monochromatic sound many pianists bring to Bach's music, Babayan offered a full tonal palette. (This was definitely not a stodgy 1950's era Bach performance.) Every moment of this great work was filled with beauty, pianistic brilliance, and artistic temperament - a magisterial performance. Babayan had the good judgment not to play an encore after this remarkable musical achievement.
Babayan is a highly versatile artist. In a Rachmaninoff group (the "Prelude in D Major," Opus 23, No.4; "Etude-Tableaux," Opus 39, Nos.1, 2, and 5; and "Moment Musicau," Opus 16, Nos.2 and6) he played with grand romantic passion. This was magnificent Rachmaninoff that made the hall resound! Babayan's technique is formidable. He played these vignettes with sweeping bravura, but he did not ignore the music's dark side. The recurrent Dies irae motifs and the contrasts of light and dark were given full interpretive sway. Babayan's pianistic power was stunning - exciting Rachmaninoff!
That the same pianist could play delicate, finely etched Grieg miniatures (from the "Lyric Pieces") was further evidence of Babayan's incredible talents. "To the Spring," Opus 43 was rendered with a sweetness and elegance that was mesmerizing. The tempestuous "Poetic Tone Pictures," Opus3, No.1 was a cascade of subtle musical hues. "The Poet's Heart," Opus 52, was a gentle outpouring of lyrical melody .In Babayan's hands these vignettes became small scale masterpieces.
"Fur Alina" by the Estonian composer Arvo Part (1935- ) was a gorgeous, heartfelt piece of trance music. Part has been deeply influenced by the musical minimalism of John Adams and Phillip Glass. He is also a mystic who builds his scores on a combination of minimalist repetition and mystical incantation. Babayan held the audience spellbound with his lovely, pure toned rendition of this unique composer's music. He opened the concert with the "Sonata No.1" by the Australian composer Carl Vine (1954- ). This 1990 work is part Messiaen, part Henry Cowell (complete with tone clusters), and part John Adams with a smattering of Debussy. And what a riveting tour de force this music can be in a powerhouse performance! Babayan unleashed a pianistic torrent that swept all before it. His explosive virtuosity and full range of dynamic contrasts were magnificent.
Babayan's programming was a paragon of innovation and variety. The music of Bach and Rachmaninoff seemed boldly audacious in the company of Vine and Part. Babayan reinvented familiar music and introduced exciting contemporary works - a great concert by a consummate artist!