Sofya Gulyak the mastery and poetic vision of a great artist

Sofya Gulyak at the Chopin Society in London with playing of mastery and poetry.
A fascinating programme which was on a wave of ravishing sounds where notes just disappeared in a continual outpouring of sumptuous sounds.
Bar lines just did not exist as she breathed as a singer bringing poignant meaning to all she recreated.

Sofya with some of her many students after the concert .

Surrounded by illustrious students and friends who had flocked to hear such mastery from an artist who rarely plays in London.
As one of her students ( winner of the Chappell Gold medal at the RCM this year) exclaimed : she was so proud and lucky to have such a master as her mentor.
Streams of glorious sounds and phenomenal technical ease even in Ravel’s daunting transcription of La Valse.An architectural vision of Franck that did not exclude the ravishing exultation and seduction of a true believer.
It was ,though,in the waltz in A minor op 34 by Chopin that her artistry was even more revealing,as she showed us that so few notes could mean so much.A performance of aching nostalgia similar to that which has remained in my memory from one of Rubinstein’s last performances in London in the 70’s.

Lady Rose Cholmondeley thanking Sofya after the concert

I suppose it was fitting that Chopin should have stolen the show for the Society in his name that is so valiantly run by Lady Rose Cholmondeley and Gillian Margaret Newman.But even an encore of a sonata by Clementi showed off more colours as the clarity of sound that she so brilliantly etched was of purity and refreshing radiance.A crystal clear light after the sombre depths of brooding intensity of Ravel.

Sofya with Bryce Morrison the distinguished critic who had been on the jury of the William Kapell Competition when she was awarded first prize in 2007.
Clara Schumann’s variations immediately showed the beauty of movement as Sofya drew sounds of great delicacy with caressing horizontal movements.Stroking the keys with a fluidity as though wading through wondrous waters.There was also the breath control of a great singer and a technical command that was always at the service of the music.Even in the most passionate outbursts there was a sound that was never allowed to leave this wondrous architectural shape that was being created before our very eyes.Ravishing wistful beauty on a wave of etherial sounds.It made one wonder why this hauntingly beautiful work is so rarely played.

A curiosity was the Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann op 20 by Clara Wieck Schumann. A work from around 1854 and one of the few of her own compositions that she would love to play in her recitals.It is based on the theme from Schumann’s ‘Bunte Blatter’ op 99 n 4.
It was dedicated to her husband and was one of the very few compositions that she wrote before Robert was committed to an asylum where he died .Leaving Clara to bring up alone their eight children when in order to survive financially she had to maintain her concert activity to the exclusion of composition.
Robert Schumann suffered from a mental disorder that first was manifested in 1833 as severe depression,recurring several times alternating with phases of “exaltation” and increasingly also delusional ideas of being poisoned .After a suicide attempt in 1854, Schumann was admitted at his own request to a mental asylum in Endenich (now Bonn ).Diagnosed with psychotic melancholia he died of pneumonia two years later at the age of 46, without recovering from his mental illness.The Variations on a theme of Schumann op 20 were dedicated to her already sick husband and were completed just in time for his 43 birthday with a dedication :’For my dear husband a renewed and weak attempt to compose from your dear old Clara ‘.It was infact completed just in time as in 1854 Robert attempted suicide and was admitted to an asylum.
The theme is from Robert’s own ‘Bunte Blatter’ and it is the same theme that Brahms ,a close family friend ,was to use for his own Variations on a Theme of Schumann op 9.Seven variations from Clara where Brahms had written sixteen that he had dedicated to Clara.
There was a great fluidity to Clara’s variations and there was the chordal simplicity of the second alternating with the slow harmonically varied third.Sumptuous beauty in the fourth with the theme in the tenor register surrounded by exquisite embellishments.The great drama in the octave variation with the pompous chordal declamation of the theme dissolved so beautifully into the delicately shadowed mellifluous theme.A ending of arpeggiando chords was spread over the keyboard with ravishing beauty.
It was fascinating to hear this rarely performed work.Apparently Brahms had studied Clara’s unpublished score and on his own manuscript he wrote, “Little variations on a theme by him dedicated to her”.

Robert Schumann’s also rarely heard Allegro op 8 was a revelation with it’s imperious opening leading to jeux perlé expressive shifts of harmony.It was played with mastery and a control of the pedal that allowed the numerous notes that were pouring with such ease from her fingers to be merely waves of romantic sounds on which mere glimpses of melody were allowed to float.

Schumann’s Allegro op 8 where a contemporary critic said:’Everywhere only confused combinations of figures, dissonances, passages in short, for us torture’ He only published the opening movement “Allegro di bravura” of what was originally meant to be a sonata the other parts were apparently destroyed. Clara, who was otherwise rather reserved as far as Schumann’s early works were concerned, soon incorporate this piece into her repertoire. Ernestine von Fricken, the dedicatee with whom Schumann was still engaged at its time of composition, often played it after their separation, even if ‘with quite curious expression.’

Chopin’s Variations brillante op 12 was the third work in this refreshingly chosen programme of works rarely heard in the concert hall.Of course these variations were written for the virtuoso Chopin who would be feted in the music salons in Paris.It was the earlier variations op 2 that Schumann had reviewed with his famous comment:’Hats off gentlemen a genius !.’Sofya played them with all the jeux perlé brilliance for which they were composed.A sense of dance too as she brought subtle virtuosity and exhilaration to the work of a young virtuoso.

In May 1833 Chopin heard Louis Joseph Ferdinand Herold’s (1791–1833) opera Ludovic, finished by Hálevy. The Variations brillantes “Je vends des Scapulaires” Op 12, based on the homonymous aria from the opera, are Chopin’s final variation set and a virtual farewell to the virtuoso style cherished in Paris. Written after the early nocturnes and etudes and in the year he wrote his first ballade, it almost represents a regression or a final concession to the bravura stile brillante, so much clichéd—in particular in variation form.Schumann called it ‘writing à la mode’ and thought that ‘they belong altogether to the drawing-room or concert-hall, and … are far removed from any poetic sphere’. This piece, together with Bolero and Rondo, Op 16, represents Chopin’s last attempt at such conventional and fairly anonymous writing that perpetrated the tradition of contemporary concert-hall crowd pleasers. Nevertheless, Franz Liszt apparently referred to the set as Chopin’s favourite piece of his own, commenting after hearing Chopin play it for himself: ‘Such a poetic temperament as Chopin’s never existed, nor have I ever heard such delicacy and refinement of playing. The tone, though small, was absolutely beyond criticism, and although his execution was not forcible, nor by any means fitted for the concert room, still it was perfect in the extreme.’

Brahms Four Klavierstucke op 119 .Beauty and simplicity combined in Sofya’s delicate hands as there was an outpouring of melody where bar lines did not seem to exist or be necessary.The purity of sound in the first Intermezzo in B minor created an atmosphere where time stood still with pungent sounds of sublime beauty.There was a gentle forward movement to the Intermezzo in E minor and mystery too as it built to a climax of romantic effusions of great shared intimacy only to reveal a melody of simplicity and purity before the return of the opening.It was like a gentle breeze carrying us along on some wondrous journey.The Intermezzo in C major was indeed played ‘grazioso’ and ‘giocoso’ as it wove its way lightly and quietly to an ending thrown off with great nonchalance and easy elegance.It was immediately interrupted by the sumptuously rich sounds of the Rhapsodie with the beautiful fluidity of the central episode before the excitement and frenzy of the final exhilarating chords.

The Four Pieces for Piano Op. 119, were composed in 1893 .The collection is the last composition for solo piano by Brahms. Together with the six pieces op 118 ,Op. 119 was premiered in London in January 1894.

In a letter from May 1893 to Clara Schumann ,Brahms wrote: I am tempted to copy out a small piano piece for you, because I would like to know how you agree with it. It is teeming with dissonances! These may [well] be correct and [can] be explained—but maybe they won’t please your palate, and now I wished, they would be less correct, but more appetizing and agreeable to your taste. The little piece is exceptionally melancholic and ‘to be played very slowly’ is not an understatement. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritard[ando], as if one wanted to suck melancholy out of each and every one, lustily and with pleasure out of these very dissonances! Good Lord, this description will [surely] awaken your desire!

Clara Schumann was enthusiastic and asked him to send the remaining pieces of his new work.

There were etherial sounds of beauty and majesty in the Prelude which was allowed to flow naturally with a forward movement before the absolute silence that was so poignant and expressive before the rather solemn organ like chords.Chords of the Chorale that immediately dissolved into celestial heights with arpeggiandos spread over the entire keyboard.An ever present bass that allowed the music to move inexorable forward to a climax of fervent exultation.A break before the announcement of the fugue subject cleared the air of such refined sounds as it had done before the Chorale.There was a clarity to the fugue as it built to a tumultuous climax and the explosion of the cadenza was sustained by deep bass notes on which the clouds subsided to reveal the opening motif whispered from afar.Building to the final tumultuous declaration of a true believer.
A remarkable performance in which Sofya had been able to give an architectural shape to a work that so often can seem fragmented or over emphatic.It was played with a simplicity where every detail was allowed to shine but on a great wave that took us from the first to the last note.The sumptuous sounds even in the most powerful episodes showed again her ability to draw the sounds out of the keys as a painter would add colour to his canvas.

Prélude, Choral et Fugue, FWV 21 was written in 1884 by César Franck with his distinctive use of cyclic form.Franck had huge hands ,wide like the span of emotions he conveys,capable of spanning the interval of a 12th on the keyboard.This allowed him unusual flexibility in voice-leading between internal parts in fugal composition, and in the wide chords and stretches featured in much of his keyboard music.Of the famous Violin Sonata’s writing it has been said: “Franck, blissfully apt to forget that not every musician’s hands were as enormous as his own, littered the piano part (the last movement in particular) with major-tenth chords… most pianistic mortals ever since have been obliged to spread them in order to play them at all.”The key to his music may be found in his personality. His friends record that he was “a man of utmost humility, simplicity, reverence and industry.” Louis Vierne a pupil and later organist titulaire of Notre-Dame, wrote in his memoirs that Franck showed a “constant concern for the dignity of his art, for the nobility of his mission, and for the fervent sincerity of his sermon in sound… Joyous or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful or ethereal: Franck was all those at Sainte-Clotilde.”In his search to master new organ-playing techniques he was both challenged and stimulated by his third and last change in organ posts. On 22 January 1858, he became organist and maître de chapelle at the newly consecrated Sainte Clotilde (from 1896 the Basilique-Sainte-Clotilde), where he remained until his death. Eleven months later, the parish installed a new three-manual Cavaillé-Coll instrument,whereupon he was made titulaire.The impact of this organ on Franck’s performance and composition cannot be overestimated; together with his early pianistic experience it shaped his music-making for the remainder of his life.

Ravel’s transcription of La Valse was a tour de force with a technical command and a phenomenal kaleidoscope of colour.Glissandi played with an ease and beauty as they shot sounds from one end of the keyboard to the other.A boiling cauldron that burst into flames at the end with an excitement and hypnotic frenzy of exhilaration.The tension relieved only by Ravel’s own hand deep in the bass.

La valse, poème chorégraphique pour orchestre (a choreographic poem for orchestra), was written between February 1919 and 1920 and was first performed on 12 December 1920 in Paris. It was conceived as a ballet but is now more often heard as a concert work.In Ravel’sown words he describes it thus: ‘While some discover an attempt at parody, indeed caricature, others categorically see a tragic allusion in it – the end of the Second Empire, the situation in Vienna after the war, etc… This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion… pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement.”He also commented, in 1922, that “It doesn’t have anything to do with the present situation in Vienna, and it also doesn’t have any symbolic meaning in that regard. In the course of La Valse, I did not envision a dance of death or a struggle between life and death. (The year of the choreographic setting, 1855, repudiates such an assumption.)” The idea of La valse began first with the title “Vienne”, then Wien as early as 1906, where Ravel intended to orchestrate a piece in tribute to the waltz form and to johann Strauss 11.Ravel described his own attraction to waltz rhythm as follows, to Jean Marnold, while writing La valse: ‘You know my intense attraction to these wonderful rhythms and that I value the joie de vivre expressed in the dance much more deeply than Franckist puritanism.Ravel described La valse with the following preface to the score:’Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855.’ Apart from the two-piano arrangement, which was first publicly performed by Ravel and Alfredo Casella ,Ravel also transcribed this work for one piano that used to be rarely performed due to its difficulty – that is not the case these days!

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