Mikhail Voskresensky, 88, a patriarchal figure from the Moscow Conservatory, and former chair of that school’s venerable piano department, finds himself on the US concert circuit as a result of his decision to leave his homeland last year. As he had explained in an interview to a Russian YouTube channel, he could not stand the idea of his country starting a war against Ukraine—knowing too well what a war was like from his personal experience of World War II. On Halloween Tuesday, his era-spanning experience, wisdom, and musicality rewarded a Seully Hall packed with a healthy mix of current music students alongside oldsters cherishing warm memories of studies with the pianist some 50 years ago. Some others possibly came to honor the pianist’s humanistic stance ― or witness the biblical-scale event of a lively octogenarian departing from the land where he was respected and comfortable, and proceeding to earn a living in a foreign land. Thankfully, Juilliard has been reported to be interested.
The pianist started with Mozart KV 331 Sonata, and we heard a robust and fairly buttoned-down performance in the Moscow style, if there is such a thing. The phrases lined up perfectly, and rather than allowing emotions to extend the bar lines, he channeled them into the cantabile of the melodic lines. Perfect clarity of the delivery also contributed to the enjoyment. And no one objected to the bold arrival of the Janissaries.
Beethoven’s 32 Variations on an Original Theme, WoO 80, unfolded with perfect architectonic power and duly culminated in a great deal of drama.
According to some of his interviews, Mikhail Voskresensky subscribes to the view that had been articulated by previous waves of emigrants from Russia, eloquently articulated by Nabokov among others: the real homeland is not embodied in the regime you run away from or real estate you abandon. It is the cultural riches you carry with you. He makes a point of playing Russian repertoire, this time including the 12 months of Tchaikovsky’s Seasons.
Pleasing to this audience, these sentimental vignettes always elicit a mixed reaction from me: I heard them far too many times in music school recitals, on the radio, and as part of mandatory selection in the first round of Tchaikovsky competition. Some musician friends considered them a paragon of banality and enjoyed opportunities to lampoon them. One memorable example was to sing the April piece with words of the Soviet Anthem. The syrupy tune combined with the pompous text with a hilarious effect. In fact I still laugh uncontrollably when trying to replicate it.
With those simple emotions forgotten, one can enjoy the simple programmatic pieces, delivered by Voskresensky idiomatically and matter-of-factly, without adding sentimentality where the score is already full to the brim. Inevitably evoking a form of nostalgia, these came across not as vivid Instagram pictures but as distant glimpses in a rearview mirror. Glimpses of a world long gone, the only memories of which reach us in the form of melodic snapshots, assigned to Juilliard students only with a careful eye on the overall glycemic content of their homework.
Though listed on the program, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 sounded like a planned encore. Hearing Voskresensky deliver it in a mood of nonchalance without breaking a sweat, I recalled that other bookend of short-lived Russian liberalism, the 1986 return of an 83-year-old Horowitz for a single recital at the Moscow Conservatory.
Then the earned encores. Through the mists in Borodin’s In a Monastery, the Steinway tolled mighty Czarish bells. The second number from Prokofiev’s Tales of an Old Grandmother followed, portraying a rather smiling and bouncy old woman. And when was the last time you heard a recital end with Flight of the Bumble Bee?
Artistic Director Michael Lewin warmly introduced this latest concert in Boston Conservatory Piano Masters Series. On November 28th the series continues with American pianist Lindsay Garritson playing Schubert, Brahms and Carl Vine.