Sergei Babayan marks Chopin’s birthday in style

By Richard Yates

Sergei Babayan performed at a Chopin Foundation concert marking the Polish composer's birthday Saturday night in Miami.

Sergei Babayan performed at a Chopin Foundation concert marking the Polish composer’s birthday Saturday night in Miami.

If you own the website, it would only be natural that when the birthday of this patron saint of pianists rolls around, you would be the one to host the party. And that’s exactly what the Chopin Foundation of the United States had in store Saturday evening at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami.

Marking 204 years since the composer Frédéric François Chopin was born, the event was a festive occasion with offerings by pianist Sergei Babayan.

The first part of the program offered music by Antonín Dvořák and Franz Liszt. The last set was a continuous stream of music by Chopin performed without pause.

Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 opened the concert with Babayan joined by the Amernet Quartet. The expressive viola writing in the first movement was brought out by Michael Klotz, alternating with the enlivening triplet patterns breathlessly executed by Misha Vitenson on violin and Babayan on piano.

During the second movement, Dumka, the broodingly dark tone of Vitenson’s violin along with the deep expression of Jason Calloway’s cello provided a counterpoint to Babayan’s piano, lightly surfacing from time to time like a distant music box.

The great pathos of the Dumka movement’s string writing was dispelled by the much lighter third movement. Dvořák’s finale with its faux militant themes paralleled Chopin’s Grand valse brilliant, which closed the evening’s program. The Amernet Quartet took up the charade of the finale, at one moment playing a practical joke, and at the next, acting with solemn devotion.

With Franz Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B Minor, Babayan reinforced his efficient control of the piano, emphasizing the flow of the unfolding music instead of virtuosity for its own sake. His interpretation stressed the subtly changing tonal colors, rendering a nuanced intimacy.

Chopin’s works were clearly chosen with care to represent a rich cross-sampling and to facilitate artful transitions between the individual pieces. The works demonstrated the composer’s versatility,  seemingly endless wealth of ideas, and ingenious treatment of his melodies. Indeed, the concert reminded one how central this repertoire has been to shaping our very definition of “classical” music.

The pieces performed by Babayan included the Polonaise Op. 26; Valse Op. 64, No. 2; Barcarolle Op. 60; Valse Op. 69, No. 2; Impromptu Op. 29, No. 1; Ballade No. 3, Op. 47; and finally the Grand valse brilliant, Op. 34, No. 1.

With charm, Babayan infused the sunny central Polonaise theme with rubato and an almost precious care. Many of the piano pieces were played by Babayan with an exceptionally quiet dynamic. This was especially notable in the first two Valses, where miniscule changes in the voicings of the left-hand harmonizations brought about completely newmelodic ideas.

Reflection was the quality projected throughout the performances. The playing style was almost Classical in its restraint and clarity of texture, with extreme judiciousness used to justify any fluidity of tempo. Even the normally showy Grand valse was only a momentary bit of grandiloquence, with the lightness of touch making the work seem almost like a caprice.

With a flower-laden portrait of Chopin on the one side of the stage, the musicians bringing life to his memory proved that his work undoubtedly lives on.

Posted in Performances

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Sun Mar 2, 2014
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