The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall was sold out this past Sunday afternoon for the Boston debut of Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan. The 23-year-old offered a program of Bach, Schumann, and Rachmaninov that was not a uniform triumph, but offered great promise of what may yet come.
In a flowing red dress Arghamanyan entered, seated herself at the Gardner’s new German Steinway D concert grand piano, and launched into J.S. Bach’s Partita #2 in C Minor, BWV 826. In interviews, Arghamanyan has articulated an abiding passion for Bach’s music, and backed it up by using Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier in her prize-winning performances at the Montreal International Music Competition. This made the performance of the Partita all the more perplexing. She rolled her chords in the stately slow introduction of the opening Sinfonia, and created distorted, dragged out appoggiaturas that don’t appear in the score. (A quick survey of recordings reveals András Schiff may have set the precedent for this in his 1983 account.) And the third, fastest segment of the Sinfonia was played at Glenn Gould-like velocity, but pushed so fast that it lost Gould’s eerie contrapuntal clarity. Throughout the dance movements that followed, she would repeat the “A” sections of each movement, but omit the longer “B” section repeat. She presented a gorgeous, conversational sound in some of the slower, softer two-part segments, but faster sections lost track of rhythm and line, and sometimes a subject line would pop out of the texture, but other times, random snippets would stick out without evident intent. The final Capriccio brought some excited audience members to their feet with its aggressive pace and mostly clear counterpoint, but on the whole, this Bach didn’t impress me in the same way that her Preludes and Fugues do on YouTube.
After briefly retiring to the ready room, Arghamanyan returned for the Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 of Robert Schumann. This cycle of eight “Fantasy Pieces” explored the contrasts between two imaginary characters central to Schumann’s compositions: dreamy, lyrical Eusebius and passionate, quirky Florestan. Arghamanyan reveled in these contrasts, offering gorgeous lyricism in the opening, Eusebian Des Abends (Evenings), observing all the repeats this time, and bringing out alternate voices and subtle ornaments in some of the repeats. For Florestan’s first appearance in Aufschwung (Upswing), there was fire-breathing passion to spare and flexibly expressive rubato playing. Warum? (Why?) returned to gentle Eusebius, with more judicious rubato. Florestan and Eusebius contend with each other in the subsequent pieces, and Arghamanyan managed the abrupt shifts of mood and style, particularly effective in Fabel (Fable), where portentous slow pregnant pauses alternated with quicksilver whimsy. The supersonic tempos of Traumes Wirren (Dream’s Confusions) were achieved with no loss of clarity, and her technical mastery allowed her to speed up and slow down with impish glee, and pull back and stop on a dime, effortlessly. The final segment, Ende vom Lied (End of the Song) evoked the wedding and funeral bells that Schumann sought to depict, and the final measures closed with breathtaking pianissimo playing and beautifully voiced, well balanced chords.
The 80-minute program continued with no intermission, moving on to three excerpts from Sergei Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de fantasie (Fantasy Pieces), Op. 3. Arghamanyan chose to play the Elégie in E-flat Minor, the infamous Prelude in C-sharp Minor, and the Mélodie in E Major. The Elégie was another study in gorgeous handling and skillful ornamentation of a mournful, melancholy tune. The Prelude was so popular in the composer’s day that audience members called for it as an encore using only its key signature (C-sharp!), and Rachmaninov dreaded the work after countless performances, ultimately calling the Prelude “It.” “It” received a flavorful and distinctive performance, with the bell-tolling outer section repeated in a range of different tempos and articulations, and with a blindingly fast central section providing stark contrast. There was more gorgeous, hushed playing in the closing Mélodie. Arghamanyan stood to accept applause, and without retiring a final time, sat at the piano bench again for the final work of the afternoon, Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux (Study-Pictures), Op. 33.
What goes into a performance of the Op. 33 can vary, since the composer himself wrote nine etudes and published six. Arghamanyan chose six études, but not the standard published ones, opting instead for #1 in F Minor, #2 in C Major, #3 in C Minor, #5 in D Minor, #6 in E-flat Minor, and #7 in E-flat major. These works brought out the best in the young Armenian pianist. Perhaps the preceding Fantasiestücke awakened the ears to the Florestan-Eusebius contrasts, but these fiendishly difficult pieces brought out the most imaginative, evocative playing of the afternoon. Bass parts roiled and rumbled with remarkable clarity, and music at the top of the keyboard register rang out exuberantly. The blaring fanfares, alternating chords and bells, and vibrant dynamism of the E-flat major étude brought the set to a triumphant close, and the audience to its feet.
Arghamanyan still has elements to work on — in the Bach and Schumann in particular, she tended to play with her eyes closed, swooning and indulging in the emotionally charged and transported look; I think this affect took energy away from her playing and may have facilitated some of the weird distortions. When the music grew more complicated, she took on a less overtly theatrical approach, and her expressions became more authentic as she herself was drawn into the music, communicating the musical emotions much more eloquently. Still, it’s encouraging to hear a young pianist who plays with a distinctive personality and technique to burn, handles soft lyrical passages, and has an intuitive feel for flexibility and rubato playing that suggest that Romantic piano playing may not yet be dead. Arghamanyan takes parts of this program next week to Philadelphia and New York, while the Gardner Museum’s next Sunday Concert Series offering from Musicians from Marlboro is already sold out.