Sergei Babayan plays Rachmaninov [Deutsche Grammophon]

Sergei Babayan plays Rachmaninov
5 of 5 stars

Preludes, Études-Tableaux, Moments musicaux, Transcriptions

Sergei Babayan (piano)

Recorded December 2009 [sic] in Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg, Germany

Reviewed by: Ates Orga

Reviewed: December 2020
Duration: 61 minutes



“What is music? How can one define it? Music is a calm moonlit night, a rustling of summer foliage. Music is the distant peal of bells at eventide! Music is born only in the heart and it appeals only to the heart; it is Love! The sister of Music is Poesy, and its mother is Sorrow!” – Rachmaninov, New York late-autumn 1932. This intimately personal anthology comes from another world, telling fireside stories through a haze of Balkan Sobranie and crème de menthe. The surprise is that it’s apparently waited eleven years for release – unless the booklet credits have got it wrong and meant to say 2019 (which some colleagues, though not discographers, have taken it upon themselves to assume). One way or another a word from DG wouldn’t go amiss.

Collections of this kind usually include a plentiful dose of showcase pieces, fire and thunder, by popular demand. Who doesn’t want to hear another C-sharp minor or G-minor Prelude? Sergei Babayan sails different waters. Of the fifteen tracks, only two are properly gallery-centric: the Étude-Tableau in C-minor Opus 39/1 and the Moment musical in C Opus 16/6. Those fashioned around texturally massed climaxes are more concerned with alternative parameters. 

Babayan is a pianist who loves sound, he knows about the pain and sweetness of yearning and aftermath. Nothing is rushed, everything is caressed from deep within. An impeccable masterclass, his way with time, delay and deeply grounded tone needs to be heard. He savours the vibration of picked-out arpeggiated chords across the lower register, ‘ringing’, ‘throwing’ major tenths with contralto beauty, each resonance held in the ghostly glow of some magical grotto within the malachite mountains of Russian legend. The C-minor Étude-Tableau Opus 33/3 is a fabulous example, memorable equally for the glacial precision chording of its close, and the infinity of its decay, fading long into silence and nightfall – a hallmark of Babayan’s style. Lingering, he hurries for no man. In the “sea and seagulls” song of the A-minor Étude-Tableau Opus 39/2, the lyricism of ‘Lilacs’ Opus 21/5, ‘Melody’ Opus 21/9, and the slow movement of the Cello Sonata, arranged by Arcadi Volodos, his visiting card is one of supreme vocaliser. He projects this music gloriously, his legato more finely spun, more breath-taking to behold, than the finest mulberry silk. Wonderfully layered tapestries.

Unspoken narratives, not the usual ones, come to mind with the B-minor Prelude from Opus 32 and the E-flat minor Étude-Tableau Opus 39/5. Here the crags and peaks are imperiously structured, symphonically epic, granite-like in façade, not a crude touch anywhere. The dynamic plateaux, the swings from minor to major key, like frowns into sad smiles back to tragedy, all but grow out of old canvasses, each subtlety and shadow kindling faded scenes and atmospheres, a Russia before 1917. Magnificent. I have no idea if Babayan associates the D-major Prelude from Opus 23 with someone. But for me (who does) he conjures a cameo of extraordinary, scarcely physical, murmurs and glances. One of fragility and half-colours, drawing the shutters in a teal-washed twilight of sighs, farewell and hushed, languishing cadence.

Production, engineering, acoustic and instrument (unspecified) complement the vision. Editing values, though, are variable, not free from glitches. And the accompanying booklet is unworthy of what DG stood for in its pre-Universal days.

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