Beethoven
Sonata in F, Op.10/2
Sonata in E flat, Op.27/1
Handel
Suite in F (HWV 427)
Prokofiev
Sonata No.8 in B flat, Op.84
Rachmaninov
Preludes – in G flat minor, Op23/10 & E minor Op.32/4
Scarlatti
Sonatas in D (K33), E (K135) & C sharp minor (K247)

Alexei Nabioulin (piano)
This was a recital that resembled a visit to a modern Japanese sushi bar, one where morsels – some delicious, some not – come by the diner on an automated conveyor belt, and the drinks trolley, operated by remote control, moves robot-like across the floor.
Alexei Nabioulin, most notably in the initial moments of the opening Handel, showed his ability to produce beautiful tone, and almost every moment in his recital seemed well planned and carefully intended, but the overall effect was strangely remote and mechanical. Occasionally, as with the false start in the last movement of the Prokofiev, or in the occasional chords where neighbouring notes were sounded in sympathetic error, it was as if the control mechanism had suffered some kind of glitch.
It is not that Nabioulin does not understand gradations of loud and soft, fast and slow, but his playing had an odd, almost digitised quality. In general, his touch was more percussive than warm. Of course, Nabioulin’s virtues were quite evident – he was technically impressive and he had made a good choice of repertoire, including less usual pieces. He clearly thinks carefully as to how he wishes to interpret the pieces he plays. All his musical equipment is there.But he must apply it.
Many Wigmore recitalists and those making London debuts make the mistake of choosing over-long programmes. Nabioulin avoided this danger by the imaginative but curious solution of omitting repeats and playing everything at an excessive speed. The entire first half – Beethoven, Handel and Scarlatti – took less than forty-five minutes. I admired the detail, but it was at the cost of being always studied; the fugue in the Handel taken at a gabble, the Scarlatti was curiously anodyne, the Beethoven well balanced not passionate.
Nabioulin won the AXA Dublin International Piano Competition in 2000. Winning competitions has, in the past, allowed some of the world’s greatest pianists – one thinks instantly of Pollini and Lupu – to emerge. But competitions seem increasingly to be won by the most efficient, least offensive candidates, perhaps because juries are, after all, committees. So there is a risk, maybe inevitable, as with all committee decisions, that pianists who are musically interesting but flawed, or whose potential far exceeds their finish, fail, where those who are perfectly prepared and practised, succeed.
Unfortunately, winning competitions tends to show only that the ability to be good at competitions, much as succeeding in examinations does not necessarily show a true mastery of the subject studied. Moreover, Russian pianists (Nabioulin is Siberian), whose technique and application are famed, are in particular danger of this. The technical and intellectual dimensions of Nabioulin’s pianism are completely in place, and extremely fine. What he needs to be interesting, to offer something more than would a sophisticated computer, and indeed to have a successful concert-career, is the other dimensions we associate with live performance – charisma, musicality and soul.It is harsh to be critical of so wonderfully proficient a pianist, but without the extras I doubt he will make his mark.

 

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