Sergei Babayan Artist in residence -‘Bewitched,bothered and bewildered ‘

I have rarely seen the Wigmore Hall so full as for the charismatic teacher of Trifonov,Sergei Babayan .The announced first book of the ‘48 had been changed to a mixed programme with Bach Busoni as near as we got to the original.
Followed by a selection of Schubert songs transcribed by Liszt (one of which he left out,Aufenthalt- surely the most beautifully haunting ) and 3 Etudes tableau instead of the two advertised and a Moment musical by Rachmaninov.


Some serious work was needed from the piano tuner in the interval which gave some indication of the power and physical onslaught the piano had endured.


His playing is of the old Russian school of massive sonorities that are never hard due to the complete relaxation of his arms .
I remember just the same overwhelming sonorities in the Festival Hall with Lazar Berman ( known by some as Laser Beam) playing the 12 transcendental studies by Liszt -I had a hard job to get out after the third one ,due to my student choir seat,but I just could not take these offensively overwhelming sounds.
Babayan even jerked his arms down with all his force into the keyboard to produce ever more overpowering sounds.
The massive amount of pedal did allow some ravishing sounds in the quieter passages but with some rather too personal rubati that in the Bach could be best described as grotesque.
The Schubert songs a favourite warhorse of Russian pianists produced a mixture or ravishing almost improvised playing that one felt it a pity he could not keep more control as the temperature rose.
I was hoping for better things in Rachmaninov but his search for massive overwhelming sonorities with such enormous amounts of pedal meant that the clarity and beauty of Rachmaninov was lost in a general rather vague haze.


I was interested to hear Liszt’s B minor Ballade but it was so wayward with such violent sudden accents and notes thrown off with astonishing bravura more of a general impression than a measured interpretation.
I had hoped to leave discreetly before Kreisleriana but as no one had realised the Ballade was over he immediately ‘attacked’ the Schumann with such strange accents and wayward rhythms that was to be the key to his whole interpretation .
There were many ravishing things in the second piece but without any real sense of logic or line that after a while became just sounds without form or direction and were ultimately just boring .
I managed to leave before the contemporary final piece and listen from outside whilst I wrote this chronicle.
An ovation with cat calls and shouts rarely heard in this hall brought forth the Aria from the Goldberg variations.


A good rest which I think the piano deserved.
It seemed very beautiful from behind the doors .Measured ,simple with subtle ornamentation and it was a wonderful cleansing of the air that had been too full of passionate sonorities and improvisations.Obviously even Babayan craved for the simple beauty that he gave us at the end – he had been hammering away at the piano hours before the public was let in the hall – somewhat reminiscent of a recent experience in Rome with Pogorelich. https://christopheraxworthymusiccommentary.wordpress.com/2019/12/02/the-return-of-the-rebel-pogorelich-is-back-in-town/. It had me thinking what a pity he had changed the original programme where his fantasy and colours might have fitted into Bach’s mathematical structure and illuminated the knotty twine in a revelatory way.
Unfortunately this was not to be and has left me feeling perplexed and not a little offended by his performances today.


Anyone who reads my personal chronicles often complain that I only write positive things and I often say that if I don’t like a performance I do not feel it necessary to share my opinion with others .Playing in public is never easy and I take my hat off to all those that dare tread the boards and if an interpretation does not convince who am I to criticise?
Today I feel so offended not only by what I heard but also the reaction of an audience who have known the excellence of artists like Andras Schiff,Angela Hewitt ,Paul Lewis,Igor Levit,Martha Argerich or Steven Isserlis to mention just a few of the eminent musicians who play in this hallowed hall.


I cannot help thinking of another Russian pianist who played here last week to an empty hall giving one of the finest interpretations of Beethoven op 111 that I have ever heard.
https://christopheraxworthymusiccommentary.wordpress.com/2022/05/09/dinara-klinton-at-the-wigmore-hall-rcm-benjamin-britten-fellow-recital/
Or Paul Lewis’s 50th birthday concert in a half empty Barbican yesterday with revelatory performances.
https://christopheraxworthymusiccommentary.wordpress.com/2022/05/20/paul-lewis-at-50-celebration-of-a-poet-and-musician/

Rachel Cheung flew in today from Singapore to record in Germany and was unable to find space in London to give a recital.A great talent from Yale University where she was mentored by Peter Frankl whom she has flown in to see and play to at his home tomorrow. https://christopheraxworthymusiccommentary.wordpress.com/2018/11/13/rachel-cheung-at-st-marys-perivale/


Could it be that the ever diminishing public for classical music is happy to be entertained rather than moved?
Babayan is an artist in residence at the Wigmore Hall which is certainly food for thought.


I am sure that in his teaching his fantasy and preoccupation with the message behind the notes might be illuminating for someone with an already classical training.
It is a school of thought that other eminent teachers from the Russian school impart to their talented students.I was told just the other day that there is no such thing as style but it is the emotional content that counts more than the frame it is in!
An interesting point of view but in the end surely the composers very precise indications should be the starting point for any interpretation -just look at Liszt’s own very faithful edition of the Beethoven Sonatas or Debussy’s Chopin.


Anything less than respect for the composers written wishes is a free improvisation which may have moments of illuminating certain passages but without a frame or sense of architectural shape it ultimately become boring.The underlying rhythmic current is continually disturbed by not seeing the wood for the trees.
A true artist with integrity,honesty and much suffering should be able to show us both.
The artist who does that more than any other in my day is Murray Perahia who alas has been away from the concert stage for too long for health reasons.
For his mentor Rufolf Serkin the score was the absolute bible,as it was for mine Guido Agosti (a disciple of Busoni who was a disciple of Liszt).
Perahia was ready to be illuminated by his other mentor Vladimir Horowitz who on his appearance in Paris like Liszt before him was considered by many to be the greatest pianist alive or dead!
Tonight at the Wigmore Hall I left ‘Bewitched.bothered and bewildered ‘

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