Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 26, 2023

REVIEW: Valley Classical Concerts, "Sergei Babayan"

Smith College, Northampton, MA 
April 23, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Sergei Babayan
Billed as featuring “music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth,” this sensational concert by Armenian-born, New York-based pianist Sergei Babayan also included music by other composers whom Rachmaninoff favored in his own career as a pianist. 

Opening with the monumental 1893 transcription for piano by Ferruccio Busoni of the Chaconne (a Spanish Baroque dance rhythm) from Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1720 second partita for violin, Babayan spared himself no challenge. His technical and interpretive command yielded spectacular results, shifting seamlessly from delicate lyricism to thunderous climaxes, and capturing both Bach’s classical balance and Busoni’s passionate romanticism. 

Next came Franz Liszt’s virtuosic transcriptions for solo piano of three songs by Franz Schubert for voice and piano: a poignant, rocking “The Miller and the Brook,” from the song cycle “The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter” (1823/1846); a restless, haunting “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” (1814/1838), inspired by Goethe’s “Faust;” and a gently flowing “To Sing on the Water” (1823/1837), reflecting on the passage of time. 

The heart of Babayan’s program was a four-piece set of Rachmaninoff’s most difficult pieces - two 1917 “Etudes Tableaux” (“Study Pictures”): a stormy Op. 39/5, and a tumultuous Op. 39/1; and two 1896 “Moments Musicaux” (“Musical Moments”): a shimmering Op. 16/2, and a jubilant Op. 16/6. All four express an almost continuous state of agitation, the first three (in minor keys), like anguished outcries, but the last (in C Major), like a burst of joy. Babayan played their torrents of notes with staggering power and clarity. 

A dramatic version of Liszt’s 1853 second Ballade alternated luminous calm with majestic rapture. And a protean reading of Robert Schumann’s kaleidoscopic 1838 “Kreisleriana,” an eight-part portrait of a manic-depressive fictional musician, closed the program. But time stood still when Babayan answered a standing ovation with as quiet an encore as his program had been bravura – a ravishing account of the sublime aria that launches Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” It reflected the no-nonsense modesty and stamina of a pianist who played most of the concert without pause and seemed to channel Rachmaninoff himself.    

The 2022-2023 Valley Classical Concerts season will close with the Balourdet Quartet at the Bombyx Center in Northampton on May 21, 2023.