Karine Poghosyan Illuminates Inner Journeys at St. Vartan’s
Last June, pianist Karine Poghosyan played an insightful, fascinating, emotionally gripping program of rarely-played works by her Armenian compatriot Aram Khachaturian at what’s become her more-or-less New York home base, the sonically superb St. Vartan’s Cathedral in Murray Hill. Poghosyan has such technical skill that the question of how she would tackle any program is reduced to that one word: how? She’s a passionate advocate of Khachaturian’s music, and shone just as much light this time out on a bill focusing on inner journeys and struggles from composers considerably better known here.
She played from memory, opening with a liquid, legato version of Liszt’s solo piano arrangement of Schubert’s Ave Maria. In her hands, it became a love song, a glimmering lullaby of sorts as she caressed its gently lingering tonalities. For the second piece, Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D Major, she was joined by the sensationally precise, inspired ten-piece string ensemble the St. Vartan Chamber Orchestra (Annette Homann, Sabina Torosjan, Gabriel Giles, Muneyoshi Takahashi and Roan Ma on violins; Kristina Giles and Catherine Wynder on violas; Seulki Lee and Edward Kim on cellos and Bradley Lovelace on bass) for a kinetic, equally attuned performance. This interpretation of Bach didn’t necessarily swing but, wow, they made it dance. And early on it was a danse macabre, bristling with minor-key chromatics through the opening allegro and what became a matter-of-factly wrenching adagio that followed. And yet the ensemble seemed to be having a great time with it. Poghosyan isn’t the kind of pianist who keeps her cards close to her vest: throughout the triptych, there were what seemed dozens of “yessssss” moments flickering across her face and between the group members, which all paid off with the concluding allegro movement and its indomitable sense of triumph. That she’d put this piece at the center of the program speaks for how thoughtfully put together it was.
Poghosyan went back to contemplative mode for Liszt’s Spolizio, from his Years of Pilgrimage suite, following its winding but methodical trajectory from rapt to heroic, and back and forth: the push-pull of the dynamics became a cinematic song without words. She closed with Liszt’s “Dante Sonata,” and maybe surprisingly, maybe not so surprisingly, she eschewed the temptation to follow its demonic chromatics and crushingly difficult block chords into grand guignol. Instead, this journey through hell and heaven was a travelogue, Poghosyan sometimes seeming to prefer illuminating its more obscure spirals and vistas rather than the obvious themes. And this approach worked like a charm because it gave her what amounted to unlimited headroom when she finally dug in and roared through the coda. It’s rare to hear Liszt played with such sensitivity. These concerts at St. Vartans are not frequent, but when the church has them, they’re excellent. There’s an intriguing program on November 20 at 7:30 PM with violinist Nune Melikian and pianist Raisa Kargamonova playing works by Babadjanian, Khachaturian, Markov and Kreisler; there’s also an as-yet unnamed “superstar” organist playing the high-powered digital organ here on March 26 of next year at the same time.
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