“You’re not going to believe how funny this is,” Karine Poghosyan alluded as she lit into a puckishly rhythmic passage in La Semaine Grasse, from Igor Stravinsky’s solo piano arrangement of Petrouchka at Carnegie Hall last night. She didn’t say that in as many words, relating that information with her fingers and her face instead. By comparison, practically every other pianist’s version of the piece seemed at that moment to be impossibly tame.
On the surface, Poghosyan’s modus operandi is simple. Like a good jazz singer, she approaches the music line by line, sometimes teasing out the meaning, other times illuminating it with the pianistic equivalent of fifty thousand watts. Art for art’s sake is not Poghosyan’s thing. She’s all about narratives, and emotional content, and good jokes – even in the case of the evening’s program of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff works from her latest album, where humor is so often fleeting. Matching a buttery, perfectly articulated legato to a thunderous lefthand attack, Poghosyan reaffirmed the album’s fullblown angst, and glory and triumph. She’s found her holy grail with this repertoire.
Poghosyan wears her heart on her sleeve: her features are just as entertaining to watch as her fingers. When her eyes grew wide and the muscles of her jaw grew taut, that was a sign to hang on for dear life. That held especially true in the encore, a machinegunning romp through the lightning cascades and jackhammer intensity of Khachaturian’s Toccata, not to mention the most demanding, intricately woven staccato passages of the Stravinsky. But there was just as much rapturous, closed-eyed cantabile reverie (Poghosyan played the whole program from memory) in Rachmaninoff’s six Moments Musicaux, which she delivered as a contiguous suite.
Her approach underscored how these relatively early works comprise some of the composer’s most ravishingly beautiful, shapeshifting melodies. But Poghosyan was just as attuned to momentary glee or sudden stressors as longscale thematic development. A sotto voce strut and a couple of emphatic “Take THAT!” riffs stood out amid spacious, achingly anticipatory resonance, several tributaries of ripples that would eventually coalesce to rolling rivers of notes, and eerie proto-Satie close harmonies and chromatics. Her gentle, endearing take of Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5 made considerable contrast, a rare carefree moment in the notoriously angst-ridden Rachmaninoff catalog.
She went deep into that with his Piano Sonata No. 2, spotlighting its persistent, unsettled quality. She really let the introduction breathe, taking her time, parsing the dichotomy between struggle and guarded optimism. Similarly, when the clearing finally came into view in the first movement, the effect was viscerally breathtaking. Others tend to interpret it as sentimental. To her, it seemed like genuine relief, knowing that the turbulence would return in full force, if balanced by moments of relative calm and even dancing ebullience.
Poghosyan’s precision throughout the daunting, icepick staccato of the trio of pieces from Petrouchka was astonishing. Other pianists with the virtuosity to play the Danse Russe tend to make a Punch and Judy show out of its relentless phantasmagoria. Generously employing the pedal, Poghosyan approached it as the grandest guignol imaginable, Stravinsky’s sardonic call-and-response notwithstanding. And her take of the first three movements of the Firebird was unselfconsciously revelatory: the famous symphonic hooks seemed practically muted amid the rest of the bustling, sometimes stampeding, often starkly distinct countermelodies.
The spectacle didn’t stop with the music. After big codas, Poghosyan didn’t throw her arms up quite as dramatically as she usually does, but she had her usual striking stagewear. This time, it was shimmery black slacks and a matching top for the first half, then after the intermission she switched to an ornate red gown. And she could have started a wholesale florist business with all the bouquets after the encore: in a world where people onstage and off are too often expected to behave sedately, this fan base didn’t hold anything back.