Premier Performances of Hong Kong - Rising Piano Stars
Sheung Wan Civic Center
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata in D Major, K.576
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.4 in E Flat Major, Op.7
Frederic Chopin: 12 Etudes, Op.10
Alexander Kobrin, Piano
For those of you who follow the piano scene closely, Alexander Kobrin is a name that will not be unfamiliar to you. Gold-medalist winner of the 2005 Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Texas, Mr. Kobrin has established a reputation for his dazzling crystalline arpeggios, virtuosic scales, beautifully poetic gestures that capture gracefulness to bring a special treat for the ears.
Tonight, at the Sheung Wan Civic Center as the third invited soloists of the Premier Performances of Hong Kong (PPHK) Rising Stars Piano Series, Mr. Kobrin delivered his debut solo recital in Hong Kong performing two of the rarely heard Piano Sonatas from the two greatest Classical Masters in the first half, followed by an ambitious reading of the complete 12 Etudes (Op.10) of Chopin in the second.
Mozart’s late piano sonatas, notably the Piano Sonata in D, K.576 was written in the year of 1789, the last in its form from the composer. It was sometimes considered to be a relatively superficial work – as the key of “D Major” was always referred as a “festive” key for Mozart. Careful analysis of the score revealed the writing to demonstrate a combination of brilliant, virtuosic runs and ornaments, in which the Mozartean trill functioned as an organic voice that outlined melodic contour and arioso. Mr. Kobrin lacked nothing in brilliance, and found the music behind the notes, although at times, I found our pianist to take too lax a choice on his tempo. This is one of Mozart’s notorious Sonatas where his florid writing exposes a balance between operatic figures with dance forms; it is a combination of direct, lyrical outpouring and skilled two-part counterpart. Notably, the first movement bears the appellation of “The Hunt” because of its horn-call effects. The second movement “pendulums” between F# Minor/Major, the key of the second movement to his infamous A Major Concerto, K.488. Overall, Mr. Kobrin rendered the Sonata with brittle, crystalline clarity, and the articulation of ornaments and grace notes was the soul of suave stateliness. He never lacked in emotion or artistry, and the brilliance in his interpretation of this seemingly “superficial” Piano Sonata was evidence of an artist that placed a great deal of thought and care in the analysis into the music of Mozart. However, the occasional flux in intensity and hesitations in his playing, driven by the wide-range of emotional canvas made it at times hard for the audience to believe that this was a Mozart composition. The Yamaha concert grand gave our pianist the ease of touch, although it appeared to frustrate our pianist in the sound it produced. Nevertheless, this was an interpretation driven by an ethos that more of the same composer’s works would have made fitting encores.
In Beethoven’s early Piano Sonata No.4 in E Flat Major, Op.7, Mr. Kobrin received the least of praises, though one must appreciate our pianist to have tackled one of the most difficult Piano Sonatas of the early Beethoven period. In this instance, Mr. Kobrin’s lacked the spirit and quality of a young Beethoven – what should have been balanced harmonies and contrasts sounded at times too heavy with a touch from the “iron-wrist.” Stylistically, this composition is unique as it revealed Beethoven to transcend above the expected Piano Sonata form, and produced music which turned to be spell-binding, transfixed, and on occasion sounding modern beyond his time. Sufficiently so, Mr. Kobrin’s performance was compelling, and he has worked hard in his interpretation to bring out what turned to be a musically rich reading. The Piano Sonata was preformed crisply, civilized, lacking the diversion to indiosyncracies, though at times, the touch was inadequately heavy and pressured. Of the two Sonatas, Mr. Kobrin especially shone in this early work with a touch that was fresh and vibrant, leading as a smooth continuation from the previous Mozart Sonata. His sharp, articulated style clarified the virtuosic knots found in the sections of this sonata. Mr. Korbin’s expressivity may be bold and dynamic at times, but yet, he attempted at his best to control without being too frequent going over board. Never did he doddle or overtly ponder, but he kept his playing at an energized, moderate pace. Mr. Kobrin has been gifted with grasping the best qualities of the Russian School - pianism with effortless technique - reminding me a bit of the liquid precision and clarity of the famed Grigory Sokolov. Overall, Mr. Korbin found a nice balance between Mozart and Beethoven, the latter who himself was known to pound away at the sub-standard keyboards of his day. Hence, we shall omit the occasional exaggerations from our pianist tonight. On other days, Beethoven was remembered to sound surprisingly gentle, with playing that highlighted exquisite adagios, defined by great tenderness and poignancy, and these, Mr. Kobrin reminisced our composer’s fame most suitably. All considered, Mr. Kobrin found a nice middle-ground here in this opus, with a generally brave undertake for a debut recital in this first half of the programme. In just two works, we had a “mini-recital” of contrasting and parallel stylistic elements from Mozart and Beethoven that were overall rewarding, and a fresh experience overlooking at these works.
What turned to be the most anticipated collection of miniatures resulted to be the source of disappointments. The 12 Etudes, Op.10 of Chopin confirmed Mr. Kobrin’s call to develop a full depth and breath in mastering the compositions of this composer. The music is partially about technique, hence, there were lots of opportunities to demonstrate his technical bravura, and Mr. Kobrin’s performance of the Etudes had all the technical finesse of fellow Russian co-patriots as Evgeny Kissin, Boris Berezovsky, and even to the musicality notable to Alfred Cortot’s famous cycle. Yet, Mr. Kobrin suffered from what started to be minor slippages in the last part of the C Major Etude (No.1), to a more severe memory lost for nearly a quarter of the last pages in the A Minor Etude (No.2), that casted a domino-effect throughout the rest of the Etudes then on. However, the most impressive technical moments were brilliantly hidden as feats of subtlety. For those who are in doubt of this, do recall is incredibly balanced right hand arpeggios of the C Major Etude (No.1), the fiery fingerworks of the G Flat Major Etude (No.5, “Black-key”), to the near perfect “macho” explosion in the C Minor Etude (No.12, “Revolutionary”), which sounded “Rachmaninovian” rather than Chopinesque. Perhaps to Alexander Kobrin, unlike some pianists, technique is never an end in itself, and the quieter Etudes featured at times beautiful and natural phrasing that we left only salivating from his playing tonight. Notably, in the E Major Etude (No.3), in which he accentuated the counterpoint with wonderful clarity and lyrical grace brought a soft smile on some audience’s faces. But, Mr. Kobrin must learn NOT to overtly exaggerate his use of rubati, sostenuti, and changes of tempi throughout any given Etude, no matter how innovative this may sound. It is no longer Chopin’s original intent, and is certainly a deviation from the noted score. Rather than determining on innovations, Mr. Kobrin should continue to maintain his correct path to sensitive obedience in the finer structural elements of these etudes, which many pianists nowadays glossed over. Still, there was one aspect of Chopin’s composition that Mr. Kobrin’s playing failed to achieve: a gentle bewilderment. Anyone who has heard, for example, Sviatoslav Richter’s famed 1960 Prague Recital performance of the C Sharp Minor Etude (No.4) or C Minor Etude (No.12), or even Murray Perahia on the former will find Mr. Kobrin’s readings tame by comparison. As I recalled, Richter took both works right to their ceilings, and there were hair-raising thrill to his playing that was missing in Mr. Kobrin’s more complexed approach. Ultimately, the first of the two books of Chopin’s Etudes are so rich and various in body. Hence, not even our fabulously-talented Alexander Kobrin can master and fair in all of them, let alone suffering from fatigue, memory lost and slippages throughout these works. Nevertheless, he's given us a glimpse of excitement and solitude in these twelve miniatures, and Mr. Kobrin should be congratulated for his brave, yet ambitious, attempt to play in one breath all these apparently-easy-but-actually-very-challenging “warm-up” pieces in his debut recital.
As a way to thank a supportive audience, Mr. Kobrin, like all the artists heard from the PPHK Rising Stars series thus far, had chosen to close his recital tonight with two highly sensitive lullabies from a composer that remains close to his heart: Chopin’s Impromptu No.1 in A Flat, Op.29 and Nocturne No.4 in F Major, Op.15 No.1. Do look forward to how Mr. Alexander Kobrin will further develop and mature his artistry and pianism in the coming years ahead.
Patrick P.L. Lam