The Sound of Many Bells
Constantin Silvestri: Baccanale
George Enescu: Suite No. 3, Op. 18: 7. “Carillon nocturne”
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Alexander Scriabin: Three Preludes, Op. 11
Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from the “Firebird Suite” (arr. Guido Agosti)
Daniel Ciobanu (pianist)
I suppose I was among a scant number of patrons for whom the name Daniel Ciobanu from Rumania meant something as he walked on stage at Weill Recital Hall to perform his recital, which was also his New York City debut. This event was presented by The American Friends of The Arthur Rubinstein International Music Society. At the prestigious 2017 Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv, Mr. Ciobanu was the winner of the Silver Medal and recipient of the Audience Favorite Prize. We all knew that he didn’t win that competition, but his performance reinforced my belief that he also did not lose it. A year ago, also at Weill, I had a chance to hear the winner of the 2017 Rubinstein Competition based in Tel Aviv; he is Polish pianist Szymon Nehring and now, upon hearing this young Romanian, I am not sure that as a judge I would not rather have given a nod to Mr. Ciobanu instead. Granted, I was not present to hear the performances at the competition and it is perhaps unfair to cast such a determined opinion.
I was privileged to hear Ciobanu in virtually the same program less than three months ago at the Duszniki International Chopin Festival in Poland, where he enchanted a rather demanding audience with his masterly and imaginative performance. Whereas in Poland he was able to offer a full-length recital, here at Weill Hall he played an uninterrupted program of about 60 to 70 minutes in duration.
Just as he did in Duszniki, Ciobanu commenced his program with a speech in which he not only introduced the works (which were already discussed in the program booklet) but also announced “a change” – or rather an addition – to the program. In both cases it was an effective, frenetic etude-dance by Romanian composer Constantin Silvestri entitled Baccanale, which, in my opinion, showed similarity with some early compositions of Stravinsky, whose music closed the evening. From the Romanian dance-floor we moved then to the monastery, whose bells sounds were brilliantly imitated in a composition by George Enescu, “Carillon nocturne”. This way the piece which was to have opened the program preceded a large work, whose final fragment, “The Great Gate of Kiev” is also suffused with bell sounds, and I suppose Mr. Mussorgsky could have learned a thing or two about evoking bells from his Romanian colleague who was born when Mussorgsky prematurely concluded his life.
In both works by his countrymen Ciobanu explored a rich variety of sounds, textures, colors, and shades: his control of a tonal palette was consummate, magisterial, striking. During his summer recital Ciobanu had already left us breathless with his unusually colorful, strikingly original, visionary version of Mussorgsky’s perennial Pictures at an Exhibition, which in my ears – at least in live performance – had never sounded more gripping, and imaginative, let alone played better. And we are talking about a work that is a staple of piano recitals. The young Romanian played not only with colors, harmonic structure, or hidden voices, but even more importantly with the timing: sometimes the slightly extended moment of unexpected rest left the listener momentarily unsettled; yet it seems to me that the composer would have approved of that approach. Those of us brought up on the famous pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s Pictures with a “pianist’s own graffiti” – to use a rather spiteful description first used by the late and sorely missed music critic Harris Goldsmith – could feel that this performance was revelatory because our pianist resorted more to his vivid imagination rather than to added chords and octaves, which are indeed very impressive. Ciobanu has a very distinctive touch, clear, pointed, precise and that allows him to paint with a sharp relief. As I already mentioned, his timing is commanding and allows for creation of a special tension in fragments such in the “Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuyle” section, which gains tellingly with added feeling of nervousness and uneasiness. “Limoges” impressed with its lightness, speed, precision, accentuation, contrasts, and furious coda. Ciobanu achieved striking effects with his consummate use of pedal when on one chord he was able to change the sound of the instrument, as demonstrated in “Catacombs”. And the ferocity of “Baba Yaga” was stunning as well; in its middle section with its mad sounds of chimes in the clock of the witch’s hut.
The Mussorgsky work was followed by a short selection of Preludes by a fellow Russian, Alexander Scriabin. The time constraint probably did not allow Ciobanu to alternate each Scriabin prelude with a Chopin prelude in the same key, as he had managed to present in his Polish recital.
Scriabin in turn lead to another set of pianistic fireworks in the form of the last three movements from the Firebird ballet by Stravinsky and arranged for piano solo – with the composer’s permission – by an Italian pianist-pedagogue-composer, Guido Agosti. Just as Stravinsky’s own transcription of the Three Movements from Petrushka, the suite we heard at Weill Hall is equally well made, immensely colorful; much of the rich, varied orchestration is preserved in this transcription. It was, needless to say, another wonderful chance for Ciobanu to showcase his command of the keyboard and his keen ear for colors and variegated timbre. Just as in Pictures, he found myriad nuances and gradations of sound in the Stravinsky.
The only encore was a jazzy sounding piece based, if I heard correctly, on tunes from Tom and Jerry.
I suppose many patrons who came to listen to the young Romanian became as enchanted as I did. It is possible that this type of extraordinary personality doesn’t sway all the judges. At international competitions, playing that is more even, more commonplace, and more careful is regarded as preferable. There are pianists whom one can admire for their technical accomplishments, for dexterity, for musicality: Ciobanu goes one step further and forces his listener to rethink the way that a piece of music is engraved in his mind.
Thus he is a name to remember and a pianist who should be invited back here on one of the major concert series. He deserves nothing less.