They emerged from the twilight of Russian romanticism and forged wildly different paths into the 20th century.
Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin studied with the same strict Moscow piano teacher. They went on to produce brilliant compositions for their instrument, Rachmaninoff taking a traditional Romantic approach, while Scriabin skidded off into mysticism and harmonic adventurousness that left his works on the fringes of the repertoire.
The Miami International Piano Festival opened a four-concert tribute to the two composers Sunday at the Amaturo Theater of the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. While Rachmaninoff has produced a few extremely popular piano works, a lot of his output is rarely heard. And none of Scriabin’s works have attained anything like the popularity of Rachmaninoff’s. So this event, which continues Monday with an all-Scriabin program to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death, is a welcome addition to the South Florida concert season.
The festival’s Master Series opened Sunday afternoon with a performance by the Moscow-born pianist Zlata Chochieva, a 30-year-old winner of many international competitions who now lives in Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg.
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Anyone tackling these works needs a virtuoso technique, and that she clearly has. But with so many excellent pianists out there these days, it’s hard to be awed by that sort of thing, even though it represents world-class talent and years of hard work. What really distinguished her playing was an extraordinary richness of tone, a sensitivity to the musical phrase and the way she used her first-class technical skills to serve the music.
In Rachmaninoff’s rarely heard Variations on a Theme of Chopin, all of Chochieva’s virtues were on display. Her technique was so solid that she could spin complex embroideries of notes with both hands at high speed, yet with the main melodic line always clear, phrasing and pacing it in a manner to make it sing. The work is full of those big Rachmaninoff melodic climaxes familiar to anyone who knows his piano concertos, and she played these passages as powerful anthems, drawing an orchestral sonority from the instrument.
From Scriabin, she first played his early Piano Sonata No. 2. Throughout the work, but particularly in the lyric and melancholy second theme, which could have come from the pen of Chopin, she played in a deeply felt manner, personal without being self-indulgent, drawing attention to the composition rather than the interpretation. She played the concluding Presto at stunningly high speed, but with a force and drive that never let it become a blur.
Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, known as the “Black Mass,” offered an entirely different work in tone and harmonic language. Chochieva entered into its pensive, eerie mood and brought a rumbling, clanging power to the wild, increasingly dissonant passages with which the work ended.
Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-tableaux, Op. 33, are a series of short pieces, each with a different color and mood. From thundering virtuosity to intimate melodic passages, Chochieva delivered whatever the music required. In even the most rapid-fire passages, her technique never turned brittle, always producing sounds that were rounded and sonorous.
As an encore, she gave a smooth and delicate performance of Rachmaninoff’s Daisies.
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