IN: Reviews

Gusev Got to My Core


Nicholas Sterner photo

Pianist Ivan Gusev treated a small audience to thoughtfully conceived and beautifully rendered performances of two Mozart sonatas (K. 332 and 333) and Schubert’s final sonata (B-flat Major, D.96) on Saturday at the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Winchester,

In the Mozart F Major Sonata, K. 332, Gusev displayed his alertness to Mozart’s weaving of so many motivic elements into the fabric of the work. He opened lyrically, transitioned almost instantly (4 bars later) into a teasing ‘round’—sneaky Mozart—then a short, sprite fanfare, all before the sturm-and-drang material that leads to a more tender 2nd theme. In other words, there were subtle shifts in attack, color, pedaling, legato vs. staccato, between all these micro-sections. The delicate 2nd theme lead to one of Mozart’s most pleasing circle of fifths, set up by another sneaky four bars of quiet but increasingly intense rhythmic alteration between the two hands. Good stuff from Mozart and good stuff from Gusev, with appropriate jabs and sudden dynamic shifts in this section.

He projected the soaring melodic lines of the 2nd movement, introducing darker tension when in the minor mode. He opted for the more dramatic route (provided by Mozart) with the return of the main theme, then he offered up considerable chromatic ‘improvisation’ on almost all of the repeated elements of the remaining tune.

The whirlwind third movement provided much fun, Gusev again showing utmost respect for Mozart’s many sudden shifts in character and motive. Some drama and intensity, with a clearly articulated barrage of notes, unfolded in the development, with a bit of mystery before the recap. Then, a tender, quiet ending.

I grew up listening to Casadesus, Haebler, Klein play these sonatas. I think it’s fair to say that Gusev offers a more contemporary take on these works. That is not to say his playing isn’t classically contained. It’s that, and disciplined. But there is, in his playing, less classical constraint in terms use of tempo and rubato. Gusev felt free to change the tempos in the various sections. Not a lot; just enough. Also, Gusev’s left hand is usually more subsumed (particularly in Alberti bass sections) than these predecessors’.

He stretched time in the phrase that open K. 333 in B flat major, to emphasize that very first appoggiatura, and all the subsequent relative appoggiaturas (as Mozart develops the entire movement around this opening appoggiatura). If he had not been consistent in doing so, it would have seemed, in hindsight, an excessive inflection, but he was consistent. Mozart cleverly omitted any bass notes on the first downbeat of the opening bars. This helps to allow these appoggiaturas to float and sing, something Gusev took advantage of with his use of rubato.

The slow movement sounded lovely and strange, as it should be with that otherworldly development section. Gusev emphasized the chromatic bass for greater tension, drama, and release, leading to some tender anguish and loss with the return and resolution of the opening material.

The rondo that ends the sonata starts with one of Mozart’s more rinky-dink musical ideas. (Not to worry, it’s Mozart. He’ll make great use of this not-quite-sublime material. Elevate it perhaps?) With the opening, in it’s two note texture, one per hand, Gusev gave the bass almost equal billing, which made things more interesting from the start, already elevating the material.

In the “B sections,” Gusev made light work of all the scales and arpeggios, forming musical arcs and sweeps of sound that were goal oriented, and his C section brought wonderful, wacky—Mozart’s writing here—drama and suspense, these fabulous sections alternating with the rinky-dink material that just wouldn’t stop coming back. And then, are you ready, Mozart threw in a cadenza, in a sonata! Sneaky. The final return of RD material was most welcome, even a relief, and a good joke. Sublime material would not really have fit the bill here—where do you go from sublime?—though I must say that little theme rose to nearly sublime in the lyrical closing phrases of the sonata. It was a pleasure and charm to hear this music unfold under Gusev’s fingers. But I do have a recommendation for him: play that E natural, the one that precedes the coda, with your left hand, for dramatic, and comic, effect.

It was no small challenge to play this recital in this setting: a large dry room, a tiny Steinway baby grand with extremely bright and some uneven voicing in the mid-upper registers. Specific notes were piercing next to their more muted neighbors. This makes it extremely difficult to concentrate and play for many pianists. Gusev did not seem to mind at all, but we yearned to hear him on the sort of instrument one finds in primary venues.

There is almost nothing but reverence for Schubert’s final piano sonata, though Gusev’s reverence did not inhibit his expression. His gave us ethereal yet grounded Schubert —cerebral and yet a little hedonistic (thank you for that). Solemn opening chords, richly textured, shifted into near endless melodic lines projected over spun out bass figures, all pulsing forward, sometimes more subtly, and often with more dramatic shifts in harmonic and rhythmic texture and volume. So much ebb and low, as well as a respect for pause, and silence. And, as in the Mozart, with quite a bit of freedom with tempos.

Because of a brief lapse of concentration in the recapitulation, just before the marvelous return to the opening theme (only now a 3rd higher than in the exposition, melody-wise (but in the same B-flat key I believe), this surprise and highpoint of the movement suffered only slightly as a result. I think that’s the worst that could be said of this afternoon’s performance.

There is no talk of ominous trills or repeats here, but, if I may recommend some reading on this sonata.

In the Andante Sostenuto, the dotted notes in the left hand that envelop the outer shell of the slow movement, dancing over the right hand, were remarkable in just how quiet they were, how absolutely consistent they were in their quietness, and in their rhythmic precision. I thought of Debussy, from nearly 100 years later, who would mark in his scores, with the word “lointain” (distant, far-off). It also brought to mind electrons circling the nucleus of an atom. It got to my core. The many shifts from minor to major, and back again to minor, were sad and sweet and near tragic sounding at times, but despair, and any excessive sentimentality, was held in check by that relentless left hand crossing over (… crossing over to where?) as well as by occasional sharp stabs of sound. One of the more memorable few minutes of music I’ve experienced in some time (and I hadn’t bothered to even mention Gusev’s rather stately delivery of the middle section of the movement). This movement earned a far longer pause than what was granted after.

Gusev gave a precise take on the Scherzo; he emphasized every downbeat, which by normal reasoning would make sensitive listeners want to strangle the pianist after a time, but the precision and focus on beats and sub-beats propelled everything forward just so. And in the Trio, the syncopation had bounce, body, and verve, and crispness.

All of this set up the final movement, which, like the Mozart, has its share of rinky-dink material, as Schubert’s last movements often do, but, also like Mozart, material that would be developed in such interesting ways. And as if it was not already clear Gusev was not just playing notes. Adding to the earlier narrative, he told a compelling story, a journey, skipping through sweet fields, surviving angry (and somewhat majestic) tarantella-like tantrums, en route to some final closure, somewhere, in some wistful place.

Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No. 3 in F Minor, D. 780, made for a perfect little bon-bon encore.

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.

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