Review/Preview: Pianist Sergei Babayan’s Great Performance on Tuesday Gives an Insight into How He Will Perform Tonight

It is always a good sign to find myself perspiring in the middle of a performance in a venue with a working air conditioner. This is exactly what happened during pianist Sergei Babayan’s recital at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston on Tuesday evening. While part of the Bach Week Festival, the program, which had been revised from the one originally published, was more geared toward the romantic composers who flourished 100 years after Bach’s time.  

The one piece by Johann Sebastian Bach that was on the program happened to be a transcription for solo piano of my favorite movement of my favorite work by Bach. This is the Chaconne that concludes the Partita for Solo Violin in d-minor, BWV 1004. Comprising 64 variations on an eight-bar theme, the Chaconne Is longer than the rest of the Partita. Several composers have transcribed it for solo piano; on Tuesday Babayan played the most popular version, that by Ferruccio Busoni.  

It is impossible to put into words the sheer genius Bach demonstrated when he wrote music of such depth and complexity for a solo violin. Aside from the violin’s largely treble tonal range, a violinist can only play two notes at once, three if they stretch. Yet, the music Bach created for such a limited tableau is nothing short of a miracle.  

While preserving Bach’s basic musical architecture, Busoni took full advantage of the expanded capabilities a piano provides. It transcends the Chaconne into a whole new level. The best example of this is Busoni’s treatment of the repeated, three-note passages in the D-major variations. It gives some insight into the sort of music Bach could have created had he lived a generation later when the pianoforte was readily available.

Sergei Babayan takes a bow. Photo by Louis Harris.

On Tuesday night Babayan’s performance was amazing. His fingers went beyond the mere notes on the score to produce a cornucopia of feelings, emotions, and auras. His runs on the keyboard were even and crisp, and, for dramatic effect, he uses slight tempo shifts mid phrase. His performance of the Chaconne was better than the others I’ve seen, mainly on YouTube. It was so absorbing, I found myself sweating.

My only quibble is that the Chaconne should have been programmed last because nothing on the program tops it–not Schubert, not Schumann, not Liszt, not Rachmaninoff–nothing. While those composers are fabulous by any measure, even Babayan’s excellent performances of their works seemed like an anti-climax.

Following the Bach/Busoni was Franz Liszt’s transcription of three songs by Franz Schubert. In addition to writing wonderful, original music, this pianist/composer extraordinaire also transcribed the music of others into solo piano. In doing so, he made accessible songs, symphonies, operas, and other music requiring ensembles to perform. (Of course, you must be a great pianist to pull them off, but it’s a start.)  

Pianist Sergei Babayan performed a great recital. Photo by Erin Fusco.

Like Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chaconne, Liszt took the music he transcribed to a whole new level. This was especially true of songs written by Franz Schubert, who himself elevated the role of the piano accompaniment. Liszt had lots of material to use in his transcriptions, and Babayan had plenty of charming music with which to display his performance prowess.  

The concert’s first half ended with four pieces by another Sergei, this being Sergei Rachmaninoff. The challenge in performing music with so many moving parts is making sure the finger playing the melody stands out while the other nine fingers play what sounds like 12 other notes in Rachmaninoff. It takes great strength in the wrists and fingers to pull this off, and Babayan was up for the task. The two Études-Tableaux from Op. 39 and two Moments Musical from Op. 16 are intense even by Rachmaninoff’s standards. Yet, Babayan extracted as much feeling and emotion as one could ever want.

The second half opened with Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in b-minor, S.171, after which Babayan went straight into Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana suite of eight pieces, Op. 16. Coming from the heyday of the romantic era, both works feature stormy passages broken up by dreamy, peaceful reflections. Babayan continued his excellent performance, milking everything possible out of this music.

The program ended with the Chicago premier of a contemporary work commissioned for Sergei Babayan. Echoes of Light by Andrius Zlabys opens with misty feelings created by quiet rills. It doesn’t start with much melody, but eventually melodies do emerge, taken from Mozart’s Requiem. It was a fascinating work that fit right in to Babayan’s subtle playing style.

For an encore, Babayan returned to Bach, the opening Aria from the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. Every so often, I encounter a chestnut I’ve never explored. Thanks to Sergei Babayan for providing a lovely introduction to this classic.

Bach Week Festival wraps up today, Thursday, May 12, with “Bach and Quantz: Concertos for Flute, Violin, and Keyboard.” In a slight change from the program originally announced, Babayan returns with a performance of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in d-minor, BWV 1052. The program also includes flutists Jennifer Gunn and John Thorne to perform Johann Joachim Quantz’s Concerto for 2 Flutes in g-minor, QV 6:8. Violinist Desirée Ruhstrat as soloist in Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in E-Major, BWV 1042.

Tonight’s concert is at at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, 7:30 pm. Proof of vaccination is required for entry, and face masks must be worn. VIP $50, Adults $35, Seniors $25, Students $15. For tickets, click here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.

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