Review: Russian pianist Sofya Gulyak shakes the rafters in Southminster concert

Sofya Gulyak: Photo: Anastasya Chernyavsky

On Friday night, a handful of die-hard piano fans braved the elements and frigid windchill for the opening concert of the 2017-18 Masters Piano Recital Series at Southminster United. Mid-December is a late start for this excellent three-year-old series, one of several organized by hardworking local impresario Roland Graham. But it was worth the wait to hear some barnstorming, rafter-shaking playing by Russian pianist Sofya Gulyak.

In 2009, Gulyak became the first woman to win the Leeds International Competition, joining a list that includes Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu, and Canada’s own Jon Kimura Parker (who won in 1981). She recently released a CD of music by Brahms, her favourite composer, including his monumental Variations on a Theme by Handel, which made up the bulk of the first half of her recital.

But first, Gulyak presented a dazzling interpretation of Clementi’s C major Sonata. I’m always excited when a pianist picks something unexpected as their opening salvo, instead of the usual Beethoven or Mozart. This flashy, sassy little sonata, with its concerto-like first movement cadenza and buffo themes, fit the bill very nicely indeed, giving the audience a taste of Gulyak’s remarkable technical bravura and innate sense of storytelling.

With their huge scope and inventiveness within a rigorous framework, the Brahms Handel Variations are a test of musical imagination as well as virtuosity. Gulyak has no issues in either department: titanic power and enviable facility on the one hand, sensitivity, romantic sweep, and wonderfully detailed voice leading on the other. The enormous fugue had a breathtaking, almost three-dimensional feeling of mass and stately grandeur.

Gulyak does, however, have a tendency to keep pushing her already eager tempi. I also would have liked to hear a less uniform dynamic range, but to be fair this was likely due to the excessive reverb of the nearly empty church, coupled with the dull tone of the Heintzman grand. Together they created an unflattering acoustic mush.

It’s hard to find a Russian pianist who doesn’t excel in the repertoire from their own country, and Gulyak is no exception. Rachmaninoff’s Élegie was delicately poetic and lusciously phrased. Mikhail Pletnev’s fantastic transcription of the Nutcracker Suite manages to be both orchestral and intensely, idiomatically pianistic, the seven movements sounding almost like a set of virtuoso études. Gulyak performed this seasonal fare with charm and theatrical charisma.

She ended with a gutsy, no-holds-barred performance of Ravel’s monstrously difficult solo piano transcription of La Valse. Gulyak’s ferocious, outsized performance perhaps lacked that cool overlay of glittering “French” sound. But good golly, at least nobody can call her timid. She didn’t just slay this giant, she demolished it like a one-woman army.

Gulyak returned with an ambitious encore, Handel’s Chaconne in G. It was dazzling in its crystalline articulation.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.