Yakushev Delivers the Whole Package

Salon Piano Series remains a Madison treasure

 

Wonderful things always happen at the Salon Piano Series, but it was particularly gratifying to see what appeared to be a couple of extra rows of chairs squeezed in at Farley’s House of Pianos last Sunday. The occasion was the second of this year’s Salon Piano Series recitals, and while the soloist, Ilya Yakushev, was something of a known quantity locally, some listeners were more enthusiastic than usual in anticipation of his program.

Playing on a 1914 Mason-Hamlin keyboard, Yakushev (pictured above, courtesy of ilyayakushev.com) opened with a pristine Haydn sonata, Hob. XVI: 37. The outer movements sparkled with a subtly inflected Classical sensibility, while the brief slow movement created the illusion of color changes within a chord.

The Sentimental Waltz, Op. 51, No. 6 of Tchaikovsky emerged with a charm that elevated the slight but beautiful trifle with a new level of nurturing usually reserved for works of greater weight.

And then all the stops were pulled out for program attraction #1: Gershwin’s solo arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue. This is one of those warhorses—at least in famous Ferde Grofe orchestration—that I don’t always go out of my way to hear anymore. But one rarely gets to hear the solo version, which in and of itself refreshes the sturdily attractive opus, and to have Yakushev apply his own technique to this American icon would undoubtedly be a treat.

Yakushev has indeed offered up the accompanied version, with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in 2011 (he was also with that group under Andrew Sewell in 2015). But as rhapsodic as the usual version is, few pianists can resist the opportunity to attack the piece while unfettered by even a sympathetic conductor. Of course that carries the possibility of over the top pushing and pulling of the music’s episodic sections, but Yakushev gave us the same kind of balanced, respectful treatment as he applied to Haydn. It would be a treat to see what he would do with some other 20th century American composers…

In the second half, Yakushev returned to his roots, in the original solo version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. As he had done earlier, Yakshev spent a few minutes giving some insightful comments regarding the work’s origins; his pianistic charm carries over as a speaker, and one wouldn’t have minded if he had elaborated a bit on each “picture.”

But Yakushev, like most great artists, knows that he is at his most expressive when he can make the piano speak as eloquently as he does. This listener has only heard this solo work live one other time, more than twenty years ago from the impetuous mind and dazzling hands of Ivo Pogorelich. Many pianists have no interest in tackling the work, let alone programming it: aside from the fact that Mussorgsky had a highly unique approach to the instrument (tapping into its percussive nature, for one thing), most audiences will sit there unable to shake the ubiquitous Ravel orchestration from their ears. (By the way, almost as unknown as the fact that Mussorgsky never intended to orchestrate the work, but more than two dozen composers did so after his death).

What is gained in returning to the solo version is the chance to be startled by Mussorgsky’s harmonies, and the spacing of the chords; Ravel’s unmatched transformation has been heard so often that once-bracing progressions are now familiar territory. Yakushev restored all of that primeval power, and gave us a couple of astonishing moments along the way: a dynamic shift in “Bydlo” that took one’s breath away, a structure of sonic building blocks in the “Catacombs” that played with dark filters and eerie flickers. Perhaps his only minor miscalculation was too rapid a pace in the still amusing “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.”

After the towering “Great Gate of Kiev,” and a truly earned standing ovation, Yakushev brought us down gently with an Earl Wild arrangement of the Adagio from Marcello’s Oboe Concerto. We didn’t need an oboe—or anything else—with Yakushev on hand to illuminate the gentle composition. Come back soon!

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