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Karine Poghosyan Finds the Holy Grail with Russian Romantics at Carnegie Hall

“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.

A Darkly Glorious, Poignant New Album of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky and a Carnegie Hall Gig by Pianist Karine Poghosyan

It’s as validating for an audience or a critic to watch an artist move in a direction that maximizes that musicians’s talent, as it ultimately is for the artist. One ravishing example of an artist who followed her muse to a nirvana state is pianist Karine Poghosyan‘s new recording of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky is streaming at Spotify. It’s repertoire she may not have been destined to play – but choosing that destiny was a stroke of brilliance. “If it doesn’t have a story, it doesn’t exist,” Poghosyan asserts, and she goes deep into the dynamics of some of the most challenging material in the Romantic repertoire for all the poignancy and exhilaration of those narratives. She’s playing the album release show on Nov 4 at 7:30 PM at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall; you can get in for $25.

She begins the record with Rachmaninoff’s six Moments Musicaux, Op. 16. In the first, Andantino in B Flat Minor, a suspenseful, subtle rubato permeates the nocturnal lustre, Poghosyan’s starry triplets in contrast with the steady undercurrent. Then she eases the rhythm for the plaintive, Satie-esque theme that follows. The blend of bittersweetness and tenderness is exquisite. What a way to open the album.

Poghosyan plays the rivulets and daunting cascades of No. 2 in E Flat Minor with a dramatic sway, then lets the spaces in between the somber notes of No. 3, Andante Cantabile in B Minor resonate equally, ramping up the misterioso factor. But counterintuitively, she takes a muted, furtively scampering approach to the rapidfire chromatics of No. 4, Presto in E Minor, first in the righthand and then the left: the exchange of power throughout the piece is magnetic in every sense of the word.

With its understated wave motion, No. 5, Adagio Sostenuto in D Flat Major comes across as a genial canal boat theme – or Volga riverside promenade, maybe. The last in the series, Maestoso in C Major is clearly a triumphant love song, as Poghosyan sees it, rich with understatement and siklen legato, resisting any temptation to go for bombast as others might.

All that is a setup for the daunting virtuosity of Stravinsky’s own piano arrangement of three movements from Petrouchka, a Poghosyan concert favorite. The first, the Danse Russe, has a stunningly fleet-fingered pointillism: it’ balletesque in the best sense. Again, Poghosyan’s use of space to set up the phantasmagoria and funhouse-mirror disquiet of Chez Petrouchka is stunning, particularly as it sets the stage for her richly resonant approach as the music grows more lush and enveloping. So the return to pinpoint precision in La Semaine Grasse is a stark contrast – but an unexpectedly wry one. What a ridiculously funny romp some of this music is: Poghosyan can’t resist a good joke when she can find it.

As she also likes to do, she pulls out a rare gem: Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5, a rare carefree moment from someone best known for his most haunting works. A growing storm lingers as Poghosyan makes her way cautiously into his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor, then turning the drama and angst loose before spaciously backing away again. The relative calm Poghosyan brings to the rest of the first movement is a rarity: was it hard for her to resist rampaging through it, or is this (more likely) the case of someone determined to create a full portrait rather than simply going for adrenaline?

Gentle hesitancy slowly moves toward joy in the similarly restrained second movement before Rachmaninoff darkens the skies: that grimly gorgeous theme is one of the album’s most striking passages. In the final movement, Poghosyan maintains the understatement, especially when the most Stravinsky-esque, distantly carnivalesque melodies appear.

Poghosyan returns to Stavinsky to close the album with the Agosti arrangement of three movements from the Firebird Suite: a glittering, gleefully precise tour of the carnivalesque Dance Infernale, a steady, portentous Berceuse and an almost allusively regal Finale.

Whatever slight imperfection might exist in this rich interpretation of some of the most difficult music in the repertoire disappears in light of Pogosyan’s erudite, richly insightful, crepuscularly thrilling interpretations. Fans of Vladimir Horowitz’s virtuosically passionate approach to this music will find Poghosyan’s own individualistic take on it to be equally rewarding.

Bewitching Detail and Thunderous Power from Pianist Karine Poghosyan at Carnegie Hall

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.

Karine Poghosyan Reinvents Late Romantic Piano Classics with Spot-On Humor and Sensational Chops

It’s hard to imagine a more colorful pianist in Manhattan than Karine Poghosyan, which comes as no surprise when you learn that she’s the daughter of the great Armenian-American painter Razmik Pogosyan. She’s got a larger-than-life stage persona, striking costumes, fearsome technique, and an irrepressible sense of humor. No other pianist seems to have as much fun onstage as she does: anyone who thinks that classical music is stuffy needs to see this fearless spirit in action. Last night at the DiMenna Center, she earned a couple of standing ovations for her signature, breathtaking pyrotechnics but also for her counterintutive insight and unselfconsciiously deep, meticulous, individualistic interpretation of a daunting program of works by Grieg, Liszt, Komitas Vardapet and Stravinsky.

She divided the program into two parts, essentially: reckless abandon, then spellbinding, rapidfire phantasmagoria. The attention to detail and revelatory, dynamic approach she brought to a trio of lyric pieces by Grieg – To Spring, Minuet: Vanished Days, and the famous Wedding Day at Troldhaugenand – gave each a cinematic sweep that puts to shame the kind of rote versions you might hear on WQXR. The first was as suspenseful as it was verdant: Poghosyan is unsurpassed at finding fleeting details and jokes that other players might gloss over, and then bringing them front and center, whether that might have been a defiant “take that!” swipe at the low keys, or a “yessss!” moment when a big crescendo reached exit velocity. And what a surprise the last of the three turned out to be. Where others find straight-up pageantry, Poghosyan channeled sarcasm and subtle parody. As the big processional took shape, Grieg might not have been throwing a stinkbomb at the assembly of Nordic gentry, but he was definitely putting something in the punch bowl.

Poghosyan did the exact opposite with the Liszt. Where other players would most likely find bombast, she looked for poignancy and then brought that out, with shapeshifting interpretations of three Hungarian Rhapsodies. After the intermission (and a new gown, and a ponytail to keep her hair in check as she swayed and flung her head back) she followed with her own innovative, harmonically rich arrangement of three bittersweet miniatures from the Komitas Vardapet book. Komitas, widely considered to be the father of modern Armenian music, was a sort of Middle Eastern amalgam of Allen Lomax and Bela Bartok, and his exhaustive archive – compiled under cruelly difficult circumstances – deserves to be vastly better known. Hypnotically stately motives gave way to what could have been the roots of Erik Satie as the balletesque pulse grew more prominent, glistening in its otherworldly unresolve.

Poghosyan wound up the bill with three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka: how she managed to maintain such fluid, legato phrasing at such high volume, with such a pummeling attack, defies the imagination. But it wasn’t always so seamless. As clever and amusing as the first part of the bill was, she was all business, matching surgical precision to chainsaw ferocity through the anvil chorus of the Russian Dance, then the surrealism and schizophrenic contrasts in Chez Petrouchka – in Poghosyan’s hands, a loony puppet to rival anything Schoenberg ever envisioned. The closing theatrics of Le Semaine Grasse were riveting in every sense of the word, her dynamic shifts giving her extra headroom for raising the rafters with its gritty, ironic, harrowingly difficult closing cascades.

This performance was staged by Project 142, whose popularity as a house concert series on the Upper West Side outgrew its original West End Avenue digs. They’ve since found a new home at the DiMenna Center: their next concert there, on June 12 at 3 PM features solo and chamber music by female composers Jessie Montgomery, Margaret Bonds, Ethel Smyth, Florence Price and Rebecca Clark. Cover is $15.