Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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From the wings: Sergei Babayan opens final season of Bach Week with eclectic recital

Photo Courtesy to Marco Borggreve
Pianist Sergei Babayan opened the 51st and final season of Evanston’s storied Bach Week with an eclectic recital featuring composers ranging from J. S. Bach to Arvo Pärt.

Nichols Concert Hall bustled with concertgoers last Friday for the opening of the 51st and final season of Bach Week Festival, an annual Evanston celebration of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, his contemporaries and disciples.

Globally acclaimed pianist and Juilliard School faculty member Sergei Babayan was invited to play the opening recital, and he chose a diverse program for the occasion, pulling the listeners gradually into Bach’s time.

After welcoming applause, Babayan gently pressed the low B that commenced Estonian contemporary composer Arvo Pärt’s “Für Alina.” This piece exemplifies Pärt’s “tintinnabuli” style, creating an ethereal soundscape with melodic notes in the right hand and harmonic notes in the left, the layering of which Babayan masterfully realised.

The closing notes of “Für Alina” naturally led into Franz Liszt’s Ballade No. 2. Liszt indicated to play softly in the opening to create an effect of distant ocean waves, but Babayan’s rumbling bass notes transformed the audience themselves into the sailors battling out the tempest. He seemed to storm through many passages and rests, something I had never before heard in the piece.

Following the Ballade, Babayan performed Liszt’s solo piano transcriptions of five of Franz Schubert’s “lieder,” or songs. From the simple and anguished “Der Müller und der Bach” to the mobile yet pining “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” the five short but impactful pieces created an arc of storied despair and melancholy.

Before the intermission, Babayan took a detour into the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff with selections from his “Études-tableaux, Op. 39” and “Six Moments Musicaux,” in which Babayan’s formidable technique pushed the piano to its limits. The music was intense, but the sound was never unpleasant. Rachmaninoff’s lengthy cascades of notes, often spanning the entire keyboard, can easily become disorienting; Babayan gave them the requisite direction and shape to keep the music engaging.

Babayan dedicated the second half of his recital to the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach — it is Bach Week, after all. A defining trait of Bach’s music is counterpoint, the strict yet harmonious layering of melodies in different registers. Bach’s creation of ornate musical textures using multiple voices influenced many composers such as Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Liszt and even Pärt.

Beginning with one of classical music’s most well-known pieces, Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in C major,” the three selections of prelude-fugue pairs from “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1” were played with the noblest sensitivity to Bach’s counterpoint. Amidst the elaborate texture full of simultaneous, independent melodies, the main tunes were appropriately brought to the fore, and the ever-so-rare dissonances were painfully emphasised.

The recital concluded with 10 short selections from the “Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach,” a booklet of keyboard pieces Bach compiled for his son Wilhelm Friedemann. The pieces were much simpler, yet did not lack any of Bach’s ingenuity. Babayan’s interpretations were imbued with more modern colours (rather than what Bach likely had in mind), with frequent pedalling, gradual dynamic changes, and sometimes a Romantic-era sound.

The audience wanted an encore, and Babayan answered with one: the aria from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” another popular staple in keyboard music. He played exactly what Bach wrote, with no frills or extravagant colouring. It was a plain interpretation; sometimes it’s best to let the music express itself, perhaps just as Bach intended.

The recital was an eventful promenade backwards in time, starting from contemporary music through the Romantic era and leading to Bach, who many regard as the father figure in western classical music. Babayan proved an excellent guide, gradually leading the audience into Bach’s time and preparing them for one last celebration of the legendary composer.

The Bach Week opening celebrations carried on after the recital with a reception and a vocal performance. The week continued with a chamber performance of the music of Bach’s contemporaries Sunday and will culminate with a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor in Evanston next Sunday, May 5.

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