Pianist Sofya Gulyak

By Scott MacClelland

JOE SEKON’s Aptos Keyboard Series, which has grown up dramatically over the past few seasons, hosted a sensational recital by Sofya Gulyak on Sunday, and an unusual program to boot, a mixture of the familiar and the rare.

In the opening Busoni piano transcription of JS Bach’s Chaconne (from the solo violin partita in D Minor) Gulyak gave the work tremendous power, as great as I have heard to date from the Kawai grand at St John’s Episcopal. But it wasn’t non-stop, with many changes of mood as the work’s variations played out. Halfway through its 15 minutes, the somber minor character gave way to more circumspect variations in the major, it seems a tender, loving recollection of the composer’s first wife who, on his return home from travel found her dead and buried, while the piece opens with an unmistakable shriek of pain.

I have long held that it is the greatest single piece of instrumental music in the Western canon. Violinist Joshua Bell said it is “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.” Composer Johannes Brahms, who wrote a left-hand piano version, declared—with even greater authority—“On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

The Chaconne remains controversial, not only for its various arrangements for other instruments, but among violinists as well. How many variations it contains depends on who among them you ask. And it bedevils them. In his book, Violin Dreams, Arnold Steinhardt complained that just when he thought he had captured it, it slipped away.

But in this arrangement, and this performance, it was all about Busoni, the gifted pianist and composer, often at the expense of what violinists struggle to find: the human character and expression of an 18th century provincial German musician whose music, when correctly understood, still lives timeless and profound.

Something quite similar happens in Franz Liszt’s transcription of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, heard in the second half of Gulyak’s recital. In this case she played it too fast and too loud from the beginning, giving her no room to build from mystery to climactic release. This is erotic music of the greatest intensity, not a rush job of six short minutes. Gulyak would do well to go back to the original Bach and Wagner before taking Busoni and Liszt at their word. (The great Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet would be a good place to start.)

In Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces, Op 118, Gulyak showed much wider and more convincing expressive imagination. Among the composer’s late piano pieces, Op 118 is my personal favorite. From it, the Intermezzo in A, the Romance in F and the Intermezzo in E-Flat Minor are the very definition of ‘autumnal Brahms,’ reflections from age on the yearnings and disappointments of his life. Here is where I fell in love with Sofya.

Likewise with the Prelude, Fugue and Variations from the early 1860s by Cesar Franck, originally composed for organ, with other versions for piano and harmonium and piano alone. The piece is built on a haunting theme, twice rising once falling, that qualifies as an earworm—as the Germans call it—a tune once invaded you cannot get out of your head. For Chopin’s Variations brilliantes, Op 12, Gulyak maintained a luminous sensitivity that avoided the bombast I’ve heard from others.

Finally, the full range of her power, authority and color was loosed on Ravel’s La valse, that most impressionistic mockery of the Viennese waltz composed in the wake of World War I. A brilliant ‘tone poem’ for piano probably better known in the composer’s orchestration, though the piano reduction offers its executants an absolute tour de force opportunity and Gulyak took full advantage. With exploding colors, swirling prestidigitation, sweeping glissandos and thundering volleys, her performance was breathtaking. And she packed it all into just a brief eleven minutes!

Bravas rang out. She thanked them with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise.