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When Competition Winner Sounds Like A Real Musician

New York
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall
02/10/2019 -  
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 9, “Black Mass”, Op. 68
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sinfonia No. 9 in F Minor, BWV 795 – Partita No. 6 in E Minor, BWV 830
Robert Schumann: Arabeske in C Major, Op. 18 – Gesänge der Frühe, Op. 133
Nicolas Namoradze: Arabesque (World Premiere) – Etude I: Major Scales – Etude II: Mostly Triads – Etude III: Moving Mirrors

Nicolas Namoradze (piano)

N. Namoradze (© Honens Archives)

In the vocabulary of piano aficionados, there’s no worse description you can hurl at a pianist, especially a young pianist, that “ah, he plays just like a competition winner”. That’s a type of playing that is usually characterized by fast tempi, loud dynamics, super-accuracy and virtuoso effects needed in competition-demanded repertory (fast octaves are de rigueur!) and generally not much insight, subtlety, poetry or sensitivity. That doesn’t mean that we are unable to encounter pianists who have won competitions and don’t play in the manner crudely described above.

Nicolas Namoradze, who performed at Zankel Hall on February 10, won the prestigious Honens International Piano Competition held in the Canadian city of Calgary, Alberta last summer. He is a pianist who proved that, once in a while, the distinguished members of the jury make a good choice and select a winner who plays like a true artist; who impresses not with pyrotechnics but rather with keen intelligence, a rich tonal palette and refinement. Lest there should be any doubt: in the demanding and technically challenging etudes by Scriabin, 4 of which were offered as encores, Namoradze showed that when necessary he can play as well as any virtuoso.

The very first look at the program demonstrated the unusual mind of an artist who goes against the obvious. Not often do we hear Scriabin Sonata No. 9 as an opener especially if followed by a single Bach Sinfonia (No. 9 also in F minor and perhaps the most profound of the fifteen that make up the set known as BWV 795). I don’t attempt to read into a pianist’s mind and won’t speculate if it was done to suggest a relation between those two composers or to show their intense chromaticism and dissonant harmonies, but still it was an intriguing and atypical idea that I salute.

I guess many of the people of my generation came to know this particular Scriabin sonata through the two Vladimirs: Horowitz and Sofronitsky, and their performances, for many of us, served as a yardstick. Well, with his impressive, varied and nuanced touch and keen imagination, Mr. Namoradze captured the character of this turbulent, and in the finale well-nigh hysterical, sonata as well as any of the above mentioned masters.

My first encounter with the artistry of Mr. Namoradze was during a private event at which he treated a group of his listeners to just one movement of Bach’s Partita No. 6; it was then that I declared that anyone who can navigate the thorny, capricious and densely chromatic Sarabande must be an artist with which to be reckoned. Here at Zankel, we heard the whole Partita taken with repeats. Mr. Namoradze adheres to the relatively new tradition of playing Bach without the use of the sustaining pedal, just as one of his masters, Sir András Schiff, advocates. It was playing very much in the mold of that Hungarian master (read: the best currently possible), though by no means was it a copy. Namoradze has his own ideas and presents them with authority and sense of style: his ornamentation, especially in the repeats, was a model of good taste, his clarity of articulation immaculate and mercifully he doesn’t attempt to imitate the sound of the harpsichord. In the concluding Gigue he also opted for the rarely encountered double-dotted rhythm which gives this music an extra jolt of energy. It was a model of Bach playing: highly idiomatic, historically informed and superbly executed.

The second half of the programs was also devoted to only two composers: Robert Schumann and some works by the pianist himself. Here he nicely juxtaposed the famous Arabeske with his own, very recent (2018) Arabesque. If we accept the definition of this title as offered by our pianist: “...based on principles that define arabesques in visual art: those ornate, spiraling and interlacing patterns”, Mr. Namoradze’s own Arabesque was much more close to that ideal than its more famous namesake. The stylish, subtle, gentle and devoid of turbulence or self-indulgence performance of Schumann’s Op. 18 was followed by a relative rarity in the form of Songs of Dawn, five late piano miniatures that the composer called “musical pieces that describe feeling at the approach and growth of morning, but more as expression of feeling than painting”. It was an audacious choice to include these five miniatures that could almost be sight-read and which offer the demands nowhere near as daunting as other more famous works of Schumann.

In the first one (Im ruhigen Tempo), time seemed to stand still and yet miraculously there was no sense of immobility. On first hearing, the second movement (Belebt, nicht zu rasch) appeared to be almost a variation on the first with the same opening motif and constantly shifting textures and moods. In the obsessive dotted rhythm that permeates the third movement (Lebhaft), one had to admire the restraint and control shown by Mr. Namoradze. A thought crossed my mind, for only 24 hours earlier we heard another set of Schumann pieces in a hard-driven – if often exciting – performance, and I now regretted that the famed Mr. Trifonov didn’t for a few moments displayed the similar reserve and self-control that his less famous peer demonstrated at his Zankel Hall recital. In the arabesques of the Bewegt (No. 4), one marveled at the evenness, delicacy and variegated touch. There it is already possible to glimpse at the restless soul of composer and asymmetrical line of melody interwoven in the glittering garlands. The last piece (Im Anfange ruhiges, im Verlauf bewegtes Tempo) was also a marvel of controlled textures and evenness of pianissimos, which seemed to be the preferred dynamics of the evening. To those of us who know a little about piano playing, playing softly and playing slow is very often more difficult that displaying bravura sonorities and speed. Just like in human speech, the whispered parts sometimes create an effect of shouting. As a good actor might, this young pianist often possesses a perfect control of timing and knows how to let the musical phrase breathe. The whispering, sometime barely audible, continued in the Arabesque, where the voices in the upper regions of the keyboard conversed: first it was a single line, then the counterpoint morphed into a form of soft chords moving inexorably ahead. A dissonant chatter intensifies, than dies out and ends with the three hammered out single notes. Actually, a more correct way to describe that miniature would be to add the third source of sound in form of a loud subway rumble, something for which this hall is infamous.

The first of Mr. Namoradze’s etudes Major Scales is an exercise of some swirling wild scale-work up and down punctuated by chords. A most effective exercise/etude and superbly controlled: for those who don’t realize it, playing scales evenly is a great art and visibly/audibly presents no fear to this pianist-composer. Mostly Triads alternates between various types of chordal textures. The ostinato chords reminded this listener at first of some Rzewski “industrial pieces”, commencing in the upper register, and crests with some loud moments – Namoradze even in his compositions shies away from loud percussive sounds – then fades into the lowest regions of the keyboard, reminding this listener of Prokofiev’s “Suggestion diabolique”. To quote the composer’s description of the last one, Moving Mirrors (not dedicated to the light trucking industry), ”short figurations undergo several forms of inversions and distortions in pitch, accentuation, register, melodic shape and rhythm and as the rate of these transformations increases the passage-work gets increasingly frenetic”. And it sure did! Of the three this one was the most virtuosic and I suppose the technical demands for the performer are quite formidable.

It is good to see young virtuosos –whose number seems to be increasing – augment their concert activities with composing. Today alongside the two “old masters” Marc-André Hamelin and Stephen Hough, we have a younger generation of pianists-composers represented by such artists as Daniil Trifonov, Michael Brown or Roman Rabinovich who on occasion treats their audiences to their own work, and now Mr. Namoradze joins them in a most effective manner.

The enthused audience didn’t let Mr. Namoradze leave the stage too soon and he rewarded us with a mini-recital of four Scriabin etudes, which he played in an exquisite manner. In the dramatic ones such as the D sharp minor, op. 8 No. 12, or C-sharp minor, op. 42 No. 5, he presented again something I’d call tasteful virtuosity. In other words, even in the thorniest passages he was able to bring out detail and inner voices along with the ardent character of those works. There, in the two middle ones, Mr. Namoradze showed us again that his reluctance to force the sound, to stray from the “fast and loud” type of playing is his personal choice, not his inability. For in those Scriabin etudes he showed himself to be on par with the best in business and that probably included the old masters who, once upon a time, played the same repertory in the same building.

So it was a most auspicious debut – in Carnegie Hall if not exactly in New York City – by an artist representing that rare breed, a thinking virtuoso. There are young pianists whom I like or admire very much for their strictly pianistic accomplishments. Nicolas Namoradze deserves not only admiration but a deeply felt respect.

Roman Markowicz



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