Subject: I have found a CD that I think you would enjoy
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 06/21/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Sergei Babayan is a pianist who is not nearly as widely known as his abilities would seem to dictate. An Armenian who studied with Mikhail Pletnev at the Moscow Conservatory, he arrived in this country from the Soviet Union in 1989 and took up residence in Cleveland where he is the founder and head of the International Piano Academy at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The Academy is a summer program that provides an intense two weeks of study with Babayan. He also maintains a concert career which has not, alas, taken off as one might have hoped. I have previously reviewed his CD of sonatas by Scarlatti and gave it my highest recommendation.
This CD contains a nicely balanced program that includes Ravel's 'Gaspard de la Nuit' and that composers transcription of his own orchestral gem, 'La Valse,' as well as Liszt's 'Second Ballade in B Minor' and Prokofiev's 'Sarcasms.' I will focus primarily on his rendering of that benchmark work of early twentieth-century piano writing, 'Gaspard de la Nuit.' The work's three movements call for all the technique and musicality a pianist must possess: an ability to maintain a line, finest filigree, brutally difficulty fingerwork, and poetry. 'Ondine' calls for a depiction of underwater fluidity, 'Le gibet' requires utter steadiness in the incessant tolling of the church bell with all manner of music going on above, below and around the repeated tone. In 'Scarbo,' Ravel attempted to write a piece "more difficult than [Balakirev's] 'Islamey,'" and in this he succeeded. It contains some of the finger-twistingest passages ever written, most gnarly of which are increasingly rapid chromatic runs of minor-second chords in the context of almost cinematic layering and cross-cutting of musical scenes. Babayan's playing is perfectly suited to each of the three movements. The only criticism I could make would that the tolling of the bell in 'Le gibet' sometimes is just slightly irregular. The subaqueous atmosphere in 'Ondine' and the demonic intensity of 'Scarbo' are stunning. In comparison with other well-known performances of 'Gaspard' this performance is probably most like that of Martha Argerich's but his 'Ondine' is more satsifying in that it does not threaten to erupt into a tidal wave as hers does. One notes that in 'Scarbo' Babayan manages the repeated notes that begin in measure 2 much more distinctly than Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli does, although one will otherwise admit that ABM's 'Gaspard' is singularly beautifully done. My point is that this performance deserves to rank among the best recorded performances of the work.
Ravel's piano transcription of 'La Valse' is a masterpiece; perhaps because I'm a pianist I prefer it, even, to the voluptuous orchestral original. Babayan captures much of its luxe et volupté in his performance and its hard to imagine it bettered.
Liszt's 'Second Ballade,' although it contains some lovely lyrical moments, is so rife with musical boilerplate of the virtuosic crowd-pleasing kind, that it is hard for me to feel it is anything but a second-rate piece. Beyond that, though, Babayan gives it a performance that emphasizes its lyrical strengths. His 'Sarcasms' do perhaps lack the last little bite that exists in the recording by Barbara Nissman but not by much, and Nissman's is only available, I believe, in a three-CD set. All in all, this Babayan disc is a recording to seek out.