Last night the thunderstorm over Carnegie Hall was no match for what Karine Poghosyan was doing inside. New York’s most charismatic classical pianist played for more than two hours, completely from memory – including five pieces by Liszt. Flinging her hair back, swaying on the piano bench, she embodied the grace of a gymnast and also the strength and stamina of a boxer. Her response to the standing ovation at the end was to flex her biceps and give everybody the revolutionary salute, left fist triumphantly in the air. She’d earned it.
There’s a fleeting moment in Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole where instead of a new thematic variation, the composer offers a split-second shadow of a doubt: are we really going in the right direction, toward real Romany-inspired bliss, he asks? Other pianists capable of playing the piece would likely burn through that moment. But Poghosyan caught it, as she did so many similar instances throughout the rest of the program.
Poghosyan has a righthand with a quicksliver precision but also crushing power, and a left hand so ferocious that she could ride the pedal, as she frequently did throughout the show, and still Liszt’s stabbing low-register chords would resonat cleanly. But ultimately, what differentiates her from the hundreds of other hotshot pianists around the world who can play on her level is that that she goes much deeper into the music, for narrative, and emotion, and especially amusement.
This bill was conceptual, springboarded by an epiphany she had after an apparently disheartening meeting with a top agent a couple of years ago. After that, Poghosyan swore off trying to please people and instead decided to concentrate on what she likes playing most. She offered this program simply as a collection of works that make her feel the most alive. Truth in advertising: she could have woken the dead.
Sporting a crimson jumpsuit, she leapt from the piano after nimbly negoatiating the cruelly challenging octaves and jackhammer flamenco passages of the night’s first number, DeFalla’s Fantasia Betica. After changing to a shiny copper dress for the second half of the program, she closed with two pieces by Khachaturian, a composer whose work she has fiercely advocated. An arrangement of the adagio from his opera Spartacus came to life as a coy flirtation, a cat-and-mouse game between possible lovers, jaunty precision against airy, balletesque joy laced with caution and bittersweetness..
Khachaturian’s 1961 Piano Sonata was a study in far more intense contrasts, from gorgeously glittering yet enigmatic Near Eastern tonalities, a Debussy-esque garden in a hailstorm, and finally the crushing volleys of a dance with far heavier artillery than mere sabres. And she approached the Liszt with almost shocking sensitivity and attention to detail. Poghosyan shifted with seamless verve between angst and exhilaration, dazzling upper righthand constellations and stygian terror from the low left, in the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 7, the Grande Etude de Paganini, No, 3 and the lilting Spozalizio, from his Annees de Pelerinage. And as hubristic as Liszt’s arrangemetn of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 was, Poghosyan was undaunted as she worked the counterpoint with High Romantic flair. She encored with the romping finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird.
In academia, both piano faculty and students refer derisively to “sovietization:”a cookie-cutter approach to performance. Last night, Poghosyan reaffirned her status as the least Sovietized pianist in the world.