July 2003 

Last week I went to another concert during this year's piano festival Ruhr (www.klavierfestival.de); I had never heard Andrei Gavrilov live, although I own several of his CDs. As I don't like them all equally well (his Bach and Scriabin are fine to my ears, his Chopin is awful), I wanted to hear him in a recital to re-assess him in a concert situation. What's more, he hasn't recorded much during the last 15 years, so that his approach to some composers may have changed somewhat.


He opened his recital with two of Chopin's Nocturnes. First of all, the well-known op. 27/2, played as an encore at so many occasions I can hardly remember them all. From the beginning, Gavrilov succeeded in capturing the audience with an extremely subtle tonal control, nuances between piano and pianissimo that were really outstanding and a singing tone that fit this piece very well. The second Nocturne was somewhat less successful, in my opinion. It was the Nocturne in c sharp minor op.post., that has become famous as an opening for the film "The pianist". First of all, it was announced wrongly: On the program was printed he would play both of the op. 27 Nocturnes. By the way: Not a single of the reviewing press journalists (I have read at least three reviews) was able to recognize that he had changed his
program a little bit - all of them wrote about the two op. 27 Nocturnes...says something about their musical knowledge! I found that Gavrilov used a bit too much rubato in that piece, and in the first bars separated every single note, letting this introduction sort of stand alone in an empty space, without linking it to the rest of the piece.

Next came three Études from the same composer. First of all the "fast and furious" op. 10 no. 4, played with lightning speed and an impressive accuracy. The music in it seemed to be missing a bit, but then the piece sounds a bit like a Toccata in any case, so that his interpretation fit it quite well. The following op. 10 no. 11 was finely chiseled and a welcome respite from its predecessor. Lastly came, as a sort of closing piece for this section of the recital, the op. 25 no. 12. Here I witnessed a tendency that Gavrilov has and which became even more obvious in Ravel's Scarbo later on: He gets carried away by the music (not a bad thing in itself), goes faster than he should and loses control over the notes. Of course, you have to play the op. 25/12 real fast; nevertheless, it shouldn't sound like a banging virtuoso showpiece where everything is fortissimo and the scales get drowned out in pedal. Other pianists (Freire, Pollini, Berezovsky) show that you can play fast AND form the piece musically. Gavrilov didn't - he just played it as fast as he could and as loud. It confirmed my impression of his Chopin Etudes (EMI) which all have that tendency and are none too subtle.
The recital continued with Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit. For me, Gavrilov didn't succeed the first movement (Ondine) - his mermaid rather jumped over some rocky shores than gliding elegantly through the waves. It was clear (at least to me), that he didn't have the mechanical facility that is necessary to play, for example, the opening repetitions in pianissimo and still hit every note equally. Some years ago I had heard it played by Ashkenazy who, even at his age, had a far superior touch and control. The second movement was far better: Here Gavrilov didn't have to play fast, but could rather form the piece with the subtle colouring that had already impressed me in his first Nocturne. Here he succeeded: The "gibet" had a haunting,
somewhat menacing quality that was almost macabre in a way; and Gavrilov never let the tension down, really got his audience to follow him without coughing too much or otherwise expressing their boredom. - The last movement - the hellish dwarf "Scarbo" - was, as I mentioned before, not convincing. He tended to go to extremes every time there is an outburst of energy in that movement: Not only that he played too harshly then (not only loud, but with an unpleasant tone), but also much too fast, at least for his technical equipment. He chose Argerich's tempi, but one couldn't follow the notes anymore - it was just a loud heap of them all over the piano. Again, too much pedal, and a musical red line was completely missing. The audience roared, naturally - it was fast and loud, that's enough for them... Added to this his histrionics - throwing up of the hands, contorting of the face (that already had been there since the beginning - during the Chopin Nocturnes he always opened his mouth so wide you feared his jaw would get stuck) etc. After some curtain calls he did a curious thing: making the V-sign for victory. I've never seen that before...

The second half of the concert was dedicated to Gavrilov's compatriot Prokofiev, featuring the composer's own transcription of the Ballet "Romeo and Juliet". That music fitted the sometimes erratic temper of the pianist far better than Chopin or Ravel. Although I sometimes missed some poetry in the more lyrical parts, it was an altogether enjoyable performance that captured the music's dance-like spirit very well; and the last movement - the two lovers' farewell-scene - was just as impressive as his "Gibet" had been somewhat earlier. As I had attended the original ballet some weeks before the recital, I could often remember how the Ballerina had danced to some of the pieces - which naturally added to the pleasure of hearing it played on the piano.
After an applause that was more exuberant than I've ever heard it during that festival, he gave two encores: One sonata by Scarlatti in d-minor, and the "Suggestion diabolique" that he has already played quite often as an encore - and his interpretation was just as devilish as the piece itself; he clearly owns that one. All in all it was a good recital that I didn't regret to have attended, although I wouldn't recommend him in Chopin or Ravel in general. He certainly is one of the foremost Prokofiev players around, though.