by Paul J. Pelkonen
[republished from the reliably entertaining music blog Superconductor]
The season is winding down but there are still some extraordinary artists to be heard (and covered) in the pages of Superconductor. On Thursday the sixth of June, it was the New York-based Armenian-born pianist Kariné Poghosyan, playing her first recital at Zankel Hall, the subterranean concert venue that sits underneath Carnegie Hall.
Ms. Poghosyan wrote her thesis on the piano music of Aram Khachaturian, a composer from her homeland now chiefly remembered for imaginative and flashy ballets that (mostly) drew the approval of the Soviet Union’s finicky censors. For this concert, she chose a theme of composers associated with living and working in New York City, playing sonatas by Samuel Barber, Béla Bartók and Sergei Rachmaninoff, alongside works by Gershwin and Khachaturian. (The latter was the one exception to the theme, as he was only ever here as a visitor. We’ll make exceptions: he is, after all her specialty.)
The concert opened with Samuel Barber, a composer who is revered for his orchestral Adagio for Strings. His Op. 26 piano sonata is a very different beast, challenging the soloist and the listener with masterful use of atonal ideas, chromatic harmonies and bitonal music, fluctuating between keys and forcing the audience to follow his rapid train of musical thought. Ms. Poghosyan was at once nimble and brilliant in this work, following in the fingersteps of Vladmir Horowitz as she sailed through the four movements.
The lush Khachaturian “Lullaby” came next, in an arrangement by the pianist herself. The lyric passages of this work resounded for the piano, with Ms. Poghosyan choosing to emphasize the post-Romantic qualities of the music instead of the score’s more nationalist elements. The Bartók sonata followed, with folk-songs bent into almost unrecognizable shapes and played with fury and power.
As a pianist, Serge Rachmaninoff possessed almost incalculable physical skills, including abnormally large hands with long fingers that could stretch farther than most musicians. These skills also influenced his writing style: no pianist-composer combines such a gift for melodic invention with music that requires the artist to stretch themselves to the utmost limit.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Rachmaninoff instructed that his Piano Sonata No. 2, played here as the first work on the second half of the program, be played attacca, with each movement segueing into the next without a break. Happily, Ms. Poghosyan had the right mix of melodicism and athleticism to navigate this long and difficult work, sailing her big black vessel smoothly through the dangerous straits of its four movements.
The concert closed with a final showpiece: George Gershwin’s own solo arrangement of his most popular instrumental work: Rhapsody in Blue. From the transcription of the wailing clarinet run that opens this work to the pounding Jazz Age rhythms that drive it forward, this was a thrilling ride. The famous cadenza passage (rendered orchestrally with horns) does not have quite the same beauty and sweep when played on a piano, but through canny use of the pedals, Ms. Poghosyan produced something approximating the desired effect. She ended with a final Khachaturian encore: an astounding Toccata that gave the Rachmaninoff a run for its money in terms of bravura passages and sheer technical difficulty.