Pianist Sofya Gulyak
By Scott MacClelland
Posted on June 17, 2019
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.
Pianist Sofya Gulyak’s Triumphant Return
by Lyn Bronson
June 17, 2019
Yesterday afternoon, by popular demand, the brilliant Russian-trained pianist Sofya Gulyak returned for a triumphant fifth recital appearance in central California. The event was jointly sponsored by Joseph Sekon’s Aptos Keyboard Series and the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist at 125 Canterbury Drive in Aptos.
Gulyak has won many prestigious piano competitions — among them first prize and the Princess Mary Gold Medal at the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition — the first woman to achieve this in the history of the competition. She has also won first prizes at the William Kapell International Piano Competition (USA), the Helsinki Maj Lind International Piano Competition, Tivoli Piano Competition (Copenhagen), Gyeongnam International Piano Competition (South Korea) and the Allegro vivo International Piano Competition (SanMarino).
In case you wondered how Dr. Sekon managed to capture such a distinguished artist as Sofya Gulyak for a post-season concert, it was a virtual target of opportunity. Ms. Gulyak was returning from a concert tour in China and headed for San Jose tomorrow to spend the week as one of several international jurors at the San Jose International Piano Competition (Antonio Pompa-Baldi, well known to local audiences, is also on the jury). This entire competition will be live streamed during the week and can be viewed at the 2019 San Jose International International Piano Competition’s web site — https://www.russianmusiccompetition.com
Ms. Gulyak’s recital program on this occasion was a huge sandwich consisting of blockbuster outer sections devoted to larger-than-life performances of two great transcriptions — Busoni’s amazing treatment of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin and the bounds-bursting solo version of Ravel’s La Valsein Ravel’s own transcription of this mighty orchestral work for solo piano.
Ms. Guylak’s powerful and sensitive performance of the Bach-Busoni Chaconnemakes a case for this work being rated one of the ten greatest works ever written for solo piano. Her performance ran the gamut of amazing virtuoso treatments of Bach’s original challenging passages in D Minor contrasted with the tender sections in D Major that Gulyak shaped with loving care. She held our attention and achieved an intense and satisfying cumulative effect that made time stand still.
Gulyak’s ending work on the program, La Valse in Ravel’s transcription for solo piano, is an amazing challenge for pianists, since the piano treatment of the orchestral passages is so dense with over-pedaled textures and bravura it can come across as ten minutes of piano bombast. Gulyak gave us all the bombast, but still managed to project the glorious big tunes and achieve a coherent and satisfying performance.
The central works in Guylak’s mighty sandwich contained some lovely performances of Brahms Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 118, the rarely heard Chopin Variations brilliants, Op. 12, the also rarely-heard Prelude, Fugue and Variations by César Franck, and the Wagner-Liszt Liebestod. Ms. Guylak’s artistic skills in managing complicated textures, achieving a tender, loving cantabile, and shaping phrases with a lovely control of dynamics were a delight for the ear.
In response to prolonged applause and a standing ovation, Guylak returned to the piano and performed one encore — a lovely rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise.
Let’s hope she will be returning for her sixth appearance in the not too distant future.
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