Pianist Ivan Gusev, a relatively unknown artist, delivered a recital better-played and more worth hearing than many from some famous names. The Saturday night concert at First Church in Boston for SoundWays revealed a limpidist from Kazakhstan (via Moscow Conservatory and Mannes) who took great care, in a well-mixed but also well-connected program, to make gorgeous sounds and voice with exquisite care.
Visually, Gusev almost disappeared in the grey drear of the inartfully lighted sanctuary. But he supplied plenty of color and light to those of us who closed our eyes and allowed ourselves to be drawn out of the untheatrical arrangement in grey and into the pianist’s limpid and relaxed tones. The opening three Scarlatti numbers (of the mighty 555) sounded almost anti-Baroque in their subtle and nuanced execution. We welcomed Gusev’s interpretations as we would a quietly gregarious dinner guest. He used great finger legato with only the lightest touch of damper, and all of those repeated notes, which can sound like relentless Spanish guitar thrummings in some hands, showed wonderful restraint and variety. His only nod to the harpsichord came in some step dynamics that simulated a two-manual disposition, most notably in the closing Sonata in D Major K. 492.
Whether you call them Impromptus or merely piano pieces, Schubert’s D 946 set of three come from at a most intense valedictory period, just months before his final three sonatas. In the E-flat Major second number, Gusev, brought luminous and painterly expression, and no exaggerated hesitations to the 6/8 lilt. He delivered the poignance of the longing without melodramatic excess expression. Later, the bass tremolos announced life-clinging struggle with the required intensity, making the return of the opening theme even more consoling.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28 in A Major Op. 101, marks a rather genial beginning to the composer’s late period. Though it is replete with complex four-part harmonies and in the last movement, some grand fugations, it is also songful and nostalgic. Starting warmly in 6/8, it followed the Schubert with inevitability. Gusev the colorist, without stinting on calling out strong contrasts, found a wealth of shades between mf and pp and sang out the opening movements with bel canto grace. The Langsam third movement practically defined Sehnsucht with an almost unbearable sadness though spectacular gradations of pianissimos. Gusev made much of the architecture of the fourth movement—fast, but not too fast—it came across determined but never labored. The fugal voices carried distinct personalities and the overall approach felt gallant.
What an elegantly book-matched first half!
Then came Rachmaninoff and Scriabin for the apparently mostly Russian audience. The nine pieces that constituted the second half (plus two encores) were not the most familiar by these two, and for the most part introspective. Gusev’s admirable take on Rachmaninoff’s Etude Tableau op 39 in A minor came in a watery, restrained outing that evoked Chopin’s Raindrop and Cello preludes, but also demanding elucidation of complicated figurations and references to the Dies Irae, traveling way beyond the earlier master. By the time Gusev got through the last of the set, Rachmaninoff’s outgoing Prelude No. 2 in B-flat Major, the uncharacteristically quiet Russian audience awakened into cheers. And here, we actually wished for a bit more bombast, Yes, we know that many of the bass chords have to be rolled, but in this one piece, we particularly noticed the missing two feet on the beautifully voiced Steinway B and the resulting lack of profundo bass tone. The massive bourdon bell tolled too weakly.
Dreaminess resumed with Scriabin’s Four Preludes op 22. Nothing particularly revolutionary or visionary in any of them, rather they provide salon gentility with some pleasant surprises. Gusev took his bows briskly and returned purposefully with his closer, Scriabin’s short, two-movement Sonata Fantasy (No. 2 in G-sharp Minor). I know that this is an enharmonic key, and that meant something before equal temperament, but now, we can’t tell the difference between white note and black note keys. Its translucent oceanic surface, sometimes mounted into sweeping, if not threatening waves, which Gusev surfed with assurance. If moments became a bit notey and clangy, it may have been for the want of a full-sized instrument.
Gusev satisfied the demand for lagniappe Scriabin with the Etude op. 8. No. 10 in D-flat Major and Feuillet d’album op. 45 No 1. The first passed through the room like a divine wind—pointilistic and inevitable. The second sent us off into the rainy night with resignation and consolation.
Some complaints on presentation: SoundWays, our hosts for the evening, did not check vaccination certificates, nor did they provide adequate concert lighting or deal with a noisy fan.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer