The first time I attended the Cirque du Soleil, I sat in utter amazement at the acrobatic prowess of the performers and the imaginative flare of the production’s designers. About two-thirds of the way through the show, however, I turned to the other members of our party and asked, “Just what is this supposed to be about, anyway?”
Somewhat earlier in Nikolay Khozyainov’s glittering recital of brilliant piano showpieces Saturday (Jan. 31) at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium I found myself asking a similar question. In addition to the 22-year-old Russian’s prodigious technique, what is he attempting to communicate through his avalanche of stunningly execulted runs, trills, and cascading octaves?
The heart of Khozyainov’s program, Franz Liszt’s “Rhapsodie espagnole,” S. 254, and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Sonata in D Minor, Op. 28, took the substantial La Jolla audience on a magic carpet ride over some of the most technically daunting peaks and ravines of the Romantic era’s piano soundscape. But after this thrilling excursion, did he leave us with anything to ponder, anything to make us think more deeply about the human condition?
In his account of the Liszt “Rhapsodie,” I particularly admired the slightly macabre overtones he pulled from the “La Folia” theme as it transformed into a curious, elfin march. He deftly modulated the gentle exposition of the second theme, the “Jota aragonesa,” into its shattering crescendo with stunning control. Unfortunately, Rachmaninoff’s seldom programmed Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor is a sonata in name only: it is more of an unruly three movement rhapsody whose earlier themes make—on occasion—unexpected reappearances. Eric Bromberger, in his always insightful program book notes, documented the composer’s own doubts about the wisdom of constructing such a “wild an interminable” piano solo, and Khozyainov’s performance reinforced this weakness in spite of the technical finesse he lavished on every detail of the 45-minute work.
Composer Aaron Copland, commenting on the his reaction to hearing the larger works of Rachmaninoff, mused, “All those notes, think I, and to what end?”
The few reflective moments in the program included Ravel’s familiar “Pavane pour une infante défunte,” which began with an air of dreamy deliberation, but in retrospect seemed overly calculated. A set of three contrasting Chopin Waltzes offered the evening’s only poetic respite, along with the program-opening Chopin Ballade No. 2 in F Major.
Tchaikovsky’s Theme and Variations in F Major, Op. 19, No. 6, are as pedantic as most of his piano music, save the piano concertos, and this pianist did not persuade me otherwise.
Khozyainov offered three encores, including two extravagant opera paraphrases, one on Bizet’s Carmen and the other on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
All those notes: to what end?
This program on January 31, 2015, was presented by the La Jolla Music Society at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s Sherwood Auditorium. The organization’s next offering on the Frieman Family Piano Series is a recital by András Schiff on February 20, 2015, at 8:00 p.m. in the same venue.