IN: Reviews

Out With the Old Season and In With the New

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Newport Classical closed out its third Chamber Series season* on Friday evening as Boston-based pianist Asiya Korepanova played a concert of her own transcriptions of works mainly for cello and piano, plus a few examples from the song repertoire. So, what could one expect from a cello sonata without the cello, or a vocal lied without voice or text? Admittedly those were the questions on my mind as I arrived to hear a pianist who, among her many accomplishments, has played all the works of Rachmaninoff in a series of six recitals last year in celebration of his 150th anniversary, and often plays complete cycles, for example all 24 of Liszt’s Transcendental Études, in a single concert. I had fully expected to hear a brilliant pianist, but from the first note I was swept away to a place of magic and mystery, as my expectations for a performance of transcriptions morphed into a “more than I could have ever imagined” experience.

Korepanova appropriately titled this concert “Transformations,” though that was not noted in the program booklet itself. She explained how this music was personally transforming and meaningful to her, and in the tradition of the great Liszt, Busoni, and Horowitz transcriptions these works took on new life as piano compositions worthy of standing alone as masterpieces of the genre. A formidable pianist, Korepanova’s rapid and velvety passagework recalled the legendary pianists of ages past, those of the generations of Liszt, his contemporaries, and some of his pupils who achieved fame in the early days of the piano roll and first attempts at electronic recording. When it was called for the tall, slender, and agile pianist could summon up power and strength in a crescendo swept the listener into its vortex with tornadic force.

The first half  alternated cello works with vocal songs, opening with Chopin’s Polonaise for Cello and Piano, Op. 3, and Fauré’s Élégie, Op. 24, followed by songs of Amy Beach, Alban Berg, César Franck, and closing with the Songs and Dances of Death by Modest Mussorgsky in their original order. Notably for the cello works, Korepanova’s transcriptions for the piano confined neither part to its original range, taking full advantage of the entire range of the keyboard and her ability to master it. As she had explained in her “more than” approach to transcription she could achieve more vibrant dynamic and emotional contrasts as well as thicker textures and generally more sound for solo piano, as opposed to balancing an ensemble with the cello. Nothing in this regard took away from the most exquisite and internal moments of quietude in the softest textures of loneliness and solitude when the music receded into itself.

Beach’s L’Extase, Op. 21 No. 2, showed Korepanova’s complete command of the keyboard and her uncanny ability to, in her own words, “capture and hold” the listener even without the presence of the text, to which she alluded in her remarks and in the program notes. A most interesting piece for this listener was the early “Liebesode” from Alban Berg’s Sieben Frühe Lieder which date from the composer’s time of study with Arnold Schoenberg. The opening lines of this work recall Wagner’s famous opening to Tristan und Isolde, while a frequent and favorite three-note motivic construction of the pre-serial music of both Berg and Schönberg, one that  combines the major and minor third connected to each other by a minor second (or half-step) made itself apparent in this work, giving the pianist the opportunity to show with exquisite delicacy and intense introspection the resolution of primary and secondary tones (the more modern sense of the classic tension and resolution dynamic), as the one melts into and becomes the other. Her rapid passagework in Franck’s Le Mariage des Roses was reminiscent of the virtuosity of the composer-pianist Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, who managed to play and record in the early part of the 20th century.  

Hearing Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, one became again transfixed at the many personifications of death as the music became itself. Despite her tremendous pianism, that was never the focal point of her performance. It was always about the music, which always became greater than herself and her own gifts. Her command and presence immediately into realms of eternity, the very essence of the Russian soul.

While the first half had channeled love, yearning, and despair, the pianist devoted the second half to a single work, the Cello Sonata Op. 19 by Rachmaninoff, in a transcription which she has published for solo piano; she imbued it with celestial light and love. Even as the sound of the Yamaha concert grand piano suffused the room with its fullness and beauty of tone, here the music went beyond the piano itself, as her playing became more and more symphonic in its texturing and layering of sound and lines—one upon the other—as both performer and listener journeyed to a faraway realm of splendor and grace.

*As Newport Classical closes one season, it looks forward to opening another, and while some the summer Festival events are already sold out, there is still much to choose from. Touted as one of the go-to festivals in the USA by BBC Music Magazine, Artistic Director Trevor Neal writes of the series that it “explores the outer limits of music and sound by artists who are unafraid to push the boundaries.” A full season schedule can be found here.   

Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.

2 Comments »

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

  1. I heard “Transformations” a few weeks ago at a Groupmuse at the pianist’s home. A wonderful and unique evening.

    Comment by Dinah K Bodkin — June 9, 2024 at 12:29 pm

  2. This review only further heightens my excitement to be presenting to the public Asiya’s performance of the same program in New York City on Saturday, June 22:

    https://bit.ly/asiya24

    I look forward to seeing some of you there!

    Comment by Jonathan DePeri — June 10, 2024 at 9:08 pm

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