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
6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
I am delighted that you have discovered Ivan Gusev! We were fortunate to have him play on our Historical Piano Concerts series this fall: all-Rachmaninoff, on our nine-foot 1907 Bluthner. Between Gusev’s superb playing and the colors available from the composer’s favorite make of piano, this was a revelation – Rachmaninoff’s music as we had never heard it before. To reach our audience in spite of Covid, our fall concerts were recorded in video; you can enjoy Gusev’s Rachmaninoff concert on our new YouTube channel, Music from the Frederick Collection. (The audio, by Christopher Greenleaf, was synchronized with the video after the concert, to give the best sound quality.)
Comment by Patricia Frederick — December 21, 2021 at 9:30 am
Anyone who has a chance to see this artist, must! To hear an artist like this comes only once in a while. Ivan Gusev, completely dedicated to his art, renders one speechless, that is when his musical playing steps into your heart, absorbs you and transports you to a better world. He is spellbindingly
honest in his playing. Watch his influence grow.
Comment by Maria Ferrante — December 21, 2021 at 11:39 am
Excellent, vivid review. I’m curious about the comments regarding the Scriabin Sonata-Fantasy in G-sharp Minor, which is actually numbered as Sonata #2, not #4. Although it’s not a key one encounters all that often outside of piano rep, I’m not sure what you mean by: “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.” The five sharps of G-sharp Minor would be enharmonic to the seven flats of A-flat Minor, so G-sharp Minor is generally more practical, although A Flat Minor has provided the opportunity for a variety of bad puns over the years… And though equal temperament might mean the music wouldn’t sound radically different in G Minor, it would feel quite different under the hands. (And it would sound different in ways significant to many…)
Comment by Michael Monroe — December 24, 2021 at 8:51 am
Thanks for the correction, Michael. And re enharmonicity, I’d better resist getting into deep waters…
Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 24, 2021 at 1:41 pm
It would be interesting to see what comes from that lack of concern over vaccination certificates. Seeing/hearing the semi-abomination of masked singers and instrumentaql performers it DOES affect the performance. As for G-sharp vs. A-flat minor decades ago when I had composing ambitions I did try to create something in G-Sharp minor. Since I usually created visually rather than first writing down looking back I realise I saw and played the piece as being in A-flat minor at the start; modulation to the relative major I saw it now a B Major rather than C-Flat. So which one would use may depend on period and conventions plus ease of reading being the BIG consideration. The dominant of G-Sharp would give us an F-DOUBLE-sharp in the chord; the dominant of A-Flat would use a G-Natural for that chord. Pick your poisin! Nowadays when composers are rarely diatonic I would expect this to be handled by changing key signatures from 5 sharps to 7 flats and back every few bars. Today’s composers might deal with, say, tooling along in E Flat Major and wanting to throw a Flat Sixth choard in the mix by doing it as a B Major chord rather than a C-Flat—C-Flat looks so frightening enough! (Haydn would have always done C-Flat in that case!) Some comment from those who have read scores might be useful as to composers’ practices in different eras regarding many-sharped and many-flatted keys. No sense in putting your foot into a bear trap unless you absolutely have to or just want to show off (J S Bach?)! Haydn wrote a C-Sharp Major Trio for his C-Sharp minor piano sonata–it is composed suspiciously simply in SEVEN sharps; I know he did an E-Flat Minor (6 flats) late piano trio alternating variations movement; the Farewell Symphony’s minuet is in 6 sharps. Yes, his B Major symphony #46 (5 sharps) can be a challenge to read when it modulates! I suspect composers avoided certain keys; for instumental pieces: fingering problems might govern here. too.
Comment by Nathan Redshield — December 25, 2021 at 7:04 pm
To Nathan Redshield’s remark about Haydn using C-flat (which I agree he would if the harmonic context of the passage required it), one of the most famous such turns comes in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. In the brief development passage after the variations, he modulates to C-flat major, performs an enharmonic sleight-of-hand by following it with B minor, and thence back to the D major recapitulation of the theme.
Comment by Vance Koven — December 26, 2021 at 10:10 am
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