The pianist-composer is back. Not quite like past years, when pianists such as Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni and Sergei Rachmaninoff regularly performed their own compositions. But it’s no longer an oddity when some of today’s leading pianists, including Marc-André Hamelin and Daniil Trifonov, perform their own works in concert. To this concertgoer, it’s definitely a welcome trend.
A potential addition to this list is the pianist I heard for the first time on Thursday evening. Roman Rabinovich was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 1985, immigrated with his family to Israel in 1994, and studied at both the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School. He gained particular recognition in 2008 when he won the prestigious Rubinstein competition.
I’ll get to his composition in a minute, but let’s begin at the beginning. His opening work was one of the later Haydn sonatas, the Sonata in E-flat Minor, Hob. XVI:52. Compared to some of the earlier sonatas, it is longer and more complex, but presents a similar dose of whimsy and mild surprise. Rabinovich is something of a Haydn specialist; he has performed the complete cycle of Haydn’s piano sonatas. On his website, this pianist calls Haydn “the most underestimated of the great composers.” Why does he admire this composer so much? Rabinovich sums it up rather nicely:
No one had an arsenal of ideas like Haydn. You never know what to expect around the corner and he will always be ahead of you. He is like a magician who sets up expectations, and when you start following him he completely defies them. It really keeps you on your toes.
Given his strong identification with this composer, it was no surprise that Rabinovich’s performance was a total delight, featuring exquisite articulation and polish.
Then it was time for Rabinovich’s own Sonatina
, composed in 2020. It’s a relatively brief four-movement work which is instantly appealing. The first movement, entitled “Fantasia,” is appropriately dreamy and only mildly dissonant. The second movement, “Interlude,” is much more stormy than the title suggests, although there is a peaceful interior section. “Noaly,” the third movement, is based on a lullaby which Rabinovich sang to his infant daughter. The brilliant final movement, strangely entitled “When Joe Met John,” provided a fitting finale to an imaginative and fascinating work.
Many composers have attempted to paint a picture with music. There are many fine examples, but I would suggest that none has been more successful than Claude Debussy in his triptych, Estampes
(Engravings or Prints). Pagodes
is shimmering in its beauty, while Soirée dans Grenade
(Evening in Grenada) softly evokes the Spanish locale. The concluding piece, Jardins sous la pluie
(Gardens in the Rain) is a stunning, virtuosic work which brings to life the titled picture. Again, I was struck by the clarity of Rabinovich’s playing. His rendition of these works showed that Debussy can be clearly articulated and “impressionistic” at the same time.
Rabinovich concluded with one of the great works of the piano literature, Beethoven’s Appassionata
Sonata, Op. 57. The music itself is so wrought with emotion that the pianist need not pile on the passion. Rabinovich’s performance was just right—dramatic and passionate, but not overcooked. In contrast to the high emotion of the outer movements, the sublime variations in the second movement Andante con moto call for a calm and steady approach, which this pianist supplied with his magisterial playing.
I should add that this recital was entirely virtual. In past performances this season sponsored by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, such as Amy Yang’s October 4th recital, 25 audience members were in attendance in the auditorium of the American Philosophical Society; the rest of us experienced the concert via livestream. However, recent tightened restrictions by the City of Philadelphia eliminated even the small audience in the concert hall. Unfortunately, this deprived viewers of a key component of a live concert—audience reaction. I’m sure a live audience would have delivered an enthusiastic ovation for this gifted pianist.