Alexander Gavrylyuk, the thirty-three-year-old Russian pianist who spent his teenage years in Australia, is a phenomenon. Although he has played widely, this, so far as I can tell, was only his third visit to London and his first full-length recital, as part of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano series, and it was a triumph. He clearly has a following, because St John’s was very full. His presence harks back to the old, formal Russian style of pianism – white tie and tails, impeccable stage manners, and plenty of old-fashioned performance histrionics – eyes gazing heavenwards, rapt expressions, the pianist as artwork – with playing that brings together grandeur, nobility, dazzling virtuosity and a sublime sense of style.
He announced himself decisively with a stupendous account of Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s (if by him) D-minor Toccata and Fugue, in which weight, volume and a thorough appreciation of an arch-Romantic concept of the Baroque jostled for exposure. Mustering a colossal range of dynamics so that the thundering pedal lines and whispering Fugue subject made maximum impact, Gavrylyuk’s playing carried all before it with unassailable conviction. As the cloud of resonance died away, someone in the audience shouted out something to the effect that it sounded like a Hungarian Rhapsody and there was no doubting its Lisztian swagger.
Haydn wasn’t the most obvious next stop, but the terseness of his B-minor Sonata showed off more aspects of Gavrylyuk’s musicianship, not least in his teasing out the abstract pleasure behind Haydn’s testing of Classical form’s stress points. There is a muscular delicacy to Gavrylyuk’s technique that strains for perfection of phrasing, dynamics and balance, and he was outstanding in the obsessive, frankly odd Finale, a sizzling masterclass in surprise and finely honed control.
The bright colours of the Haydn became much more subtle and opaque for Chopin’s Fantasy, a work that, like the Polonaise-Fantasy, shows the composer completely at home on a large canvas. Gavrylyuk’s velvety touch compounded the music’s mystery and became the most expressive of mediums for its rhapsodic central section. The recital’s first part ended as it began, thunderously, with a volcanic reading of the A-flat Polonaise that emphasised its combative, heroic spirit and, in the central section, delivered the left-hand ostinato with superhuman evenness and energy.
During the interval the piano’s mechanism was changed for the Russian second half, introduced by Gavrylyuk’s steely command of the juxtapositions of the grotesque and the lyrical in Prokofiev’s one-movement Sonata No.3.
It made its mark, but Gavrylyuk’s selection of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-tableaux from Opus 39 best revealed his musical personality and sympathies, so that you could take for granted a technical accomplishment entirely at the disposal of this composer’s unique, melancholic voice. Even at the music’s most defiant and barnstorming, as in No.1 and No.5, you sense a tragedy tearing itself to pieces, and the ‘Dies irae’ fragment haunting No.2 came shrouded with privacy and a sense of separation. Gavrylyuk laid down the music’s layers with a care that crafted the character of each piece, and I would have been content for his programme to end with the heroic No.9, the only one in a major key, and magnificently played.
Gavrylyuk, though, had Balakirev’s killer showpiece Islamey up his sleeve to leave in no doubt of his dazzling discipline and the work’s off-the-wall demands. Not content with that, he gave two encores, Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat (Opus 27/2), which had you straining to catch every refinement, and Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), in Horowitz’s preposterous arrangement. Imagine walking down the aisle to that.