IN: Reviews

Cornucopia of First Opuses

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My condolences go to all who missed 2022 Cliburn silver medalist Anna Geniushene’s Boston debut Sunday evening. It was difficult to find a chair at First Church, Boston as the crowd of young pianists and members of Boston’s Russian community filled the room to the rear-most rows. Presented by Sound Ways Inc., an organization which supports Russian music students in the United States, Geniushene inspired with works by young artists and Russians. Paul Rudolf’s angular space seemed to vibrate in excited conversation as all waited eagerly to hear the rising star.

The first half of her Boston debut comprised five composers’ first opera across the first three centuries of the piano’s existence, beginning with Clementi’s first sonata, a jocular ditty in E-flat major published at the age of 19. Geniushene engaged with an earnest smile, her attitude transforming the quirky movement into an earnest statement of joy within a barebones texture. She left the Allegro with a gentle flutter from the damper pedal before diving into the rondo. The sonata came to life as she pitted its florid organic melody over carefully placed, pointed bass notes. In a flurry, the movement came to an end with a I-V-I and some light applause. Schumann’s Abegg Variations evoked similar feelings. Despite Schumann’s austere portraiture, performances like this one make me think he must have had a big, toothy grin when he played in his younger days. She gave the theme a graceful, vocal-like inflection accompanied by sensitive repeated chords in the left hand that sounded like purring. The brilliant, controlled arpeggios peppered throughout the initial variation seemed to fall as gently as rain drops, unlike the stamped of humorous triads in the third variation which evoked a rye chuckle from some in the audience. The even numbered variations displayed Geniushene’s facility for cantabile tone, where she presented the second movement a passionate duet and the fourth the song of a gondolier. She concluded the piece by evoking every emotion not yet heard. The fanciful finale fervently swelled from lively happiness to desperation and fear before resting on a note of coy repose that gave way to quiet, indulgent ecstasy.

It was during Mieczysław Weinberg’s Wiegenlied No. 1 that I began to appreciate Geniushene’s extreme sensitivity to touch and balance. It begins in the gentlest arpeggios that span the length of the keyboard while an ethereal soprano line meanders about. Geniushene tenderly brought out the melodic line and brilliantly shaped it around the expressive, cattywampus arpeggios. She created an organic texture that fluidly evolved recitative-like until it faded into the rumble of Steinway bass. Wiegenlied felt meterless, timeless, as it cradled us.

Her declamatory style came across in Chopin’s Rondo No. 1, as conversational exchanges and evinced her virtuosic understanding of the classical style and made Chopin’s very thoughts intelligible. She fearlessly moved her hands away from the keyboard for expressive effect, especially to heighten the dramatic tension of cadences and pauses.

Tchaikovsky’s Two Pieces, Op. 1 brought together all of the artist’s superb qualities. Beginning with the second, she stomped out the applause by launching into the impromptu’s arresting opening. The desperate knocking of repeated chords echoed off the walls as the piercing scaler motives shouted at us. She realized this passage not only with contrasting articulations from the piano, but also with actual color changes between motives that sounded like an organ. She carefully blended these colors to create a complex timbre for the transition into the secondary theme that genially sounded like an organist removing stops until only a solitary flute in the pedal remained. Not only did the aching melody sound louder than the rest of the texture but it also felt more colorful, dynamic, and alive. Carefully balanced against the incessant beating chords, the texture evoked feelings of vulnerability and a mature statement of joy. The return to the primary theme felt inevitable, even dreadful as the tenderness gradually morphed into allegro furioso. It would have been a somber ending except for the scherzo which, while serious in its own way, introduced some levity before intermission.

Geniushene managed Prokofiev’s 5th and 4th piano sonatas with frictionless transitions where tumultuous passages came to a natural conclusion and the subsequent material appearing miraculously out of thin air. With mastery of touch she shaped symphonic textures; her jittery, almost-uncontained energy brought smiles to our faces while applauding.

Ukrainian pianist-composer Valentin Silvestrov’s tender, neo-Romantic Four Pieces, a set the artist had premiered at the Tippet rise Art Center last year, warmed the second half with sensibility, reminiscent of the later style of Amy Beach. Her expert texturing layered with pathos gave interest to what could have been a banal set in lesser hands. A natural rubato dominated the composition which featured some of the longest grand pauses I’ve ever heard. The final piece, a hope-filled recapitulation of the first, concluded in the softest ending I’ve ever experienced, but a very noisy response ensued.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. What sublime playing by Anna Geniushene, in a thoughtful, stimulating program! Thanks to Christopher Hodges for evoking it so colorfully here.

    Geniushene’s is an extraordinarily acute musical intelligence, married to a consummate but unshowy mastery of touch, pedalling, and articulation. Both at First Church and in the 2022 Cliburn competition, each performance was idiomatic, stylish, and engaging. One might well imagine a different colored medal for her had the 18 year old once-in-a-generation phenomenon Yunchan Lim not shown up. (Boston audiences will get the chance to hear him play the Rach 3 in the BSO’s mid-February program.)

    By the way, despite playing in some discomfort – she’d sprained her left knee in a recent slip on the ice – Geniushene gifted us with a delightful encore, the first of Beethoven’s Op. 33 Bagatelles. As prescribed by the composer, it moved along gracefully, with an almost cheery lilt, but Geniushene opted to end it with a gentle smile.

    Comment by nimitta — January 25, 2024 at 12:38 pm

  2. “Opus” is not a first declension noun. The acuusative (as well as the nominative) plural is “opera,” not “opi.” If there is a desire to avoid that word, perhaps the sentence could be reworded to say, “The first opus of each of five composers … comprisesd the first half….”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 27, 2024 at 8:09 pm

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