Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Karine Poghosyan Finds the Holy Grail with Russian Romantics at Carnegie Hall

“You’re not going to believe how funny this is,” Karine Poghosyan alluded as she lit into a puckishly rhythmic passage in La Semaine Grasse, from Igor Stravinsky’s solo piano arrangement of Petrouchka at Carnegie Hall last night. She didn’t say that in as many words, relating that information with her fingers and her face instead. By comparison, practically every other pianist’s version of the piece seemed at that moment to be impossibly tame.

On the surface, Poghosyan’s modus operandi is simple. Like a good jazz singer, she approaches the music line by line, sometimes teasing out the meaning, other times illuminating it with the pianistic equivalent of fifty thousand watts. Art for art’s sake is not Poghosyan’s thing. She’s all about narratives, and emotional content, and good jokes – even in the case of the evening’s program of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff works from her latest album, where humor is so often fleeting. Matching a buttery, perfectly articulated legato to a thunderous lefthand attack, Poghosyan reaffirmed the album’s fullblown angst, and glory and triumph. She’s found her holy grail with this repertoire.

Poghosyan wears her heart on her sleeve: her features are just as entertaining to watch as her fingers. When her eyes grew wide and the muscles of her jaw grew taut, that was a sign to hang on for dear life. That held especially true in the encore, a machinegunning romp through the lightning cascades and jackhammer intensity of Khachaturian’s Toccata, not to mention the most demanding, intricately woven staccato passages of the Stravinsky. But there was just as much rapturous, closed-eyed cantabile reverie (Poghosyan played the whole program from memory) in Rachmaninoff’s six Moments Musicaux, which she delivered as a contiguous suite.

Her approach underscored how these relatively early works comprise some of the composer’s most ravishingly beautiful, shapeshifting melodies. But Poghosyan was just as attuned to momentary glee or sudden stressors as longscale thematic development. A sotto voce strut and a couple of emphatic “Take THAT!” riffs stood out amid spacious, achingly anticipatory resonance, several tributaries of ripples that would eventually coalesce to rolling rivers of notes, and eerie proto-Satie close harmonies and chromatics. Her gentle, endearing take of Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5 made considerable contrast, a rare carefree moment in the notoriously angst-ridden Rachmaninoff catalog.

She went deep into that with his Piano Sonata No. 2, spotlighting its persistent, unsettled quality. She really let the introduction breathe, taking her time, parsing the dichotomy between struggle and guarded optimism. Similarly, when the clearing finally came into view in the first movement, the effect was viscerally breathtaking. Others tend to interpret it as sentimental. To her, it seemed like genuine relief, knowing that the turbulence would return in full force, if balanced by moments of relative calm and even dancing ebullience.

Poghosyan’s precision throughout the daunting, icepick staccato of the trio of pieces from Petrouchka was astonishing. Other pianists with the virtuosity to play the Danse Russe tend to make a Punch and Judy show out of its relentless phantasmagoria. Generously employing the pedal, Poghosyan approached it as the grandest guignol imaginable, Stravinsky’s sardonic call-and-response notwithstanding. And her take of the first three movements of the Firebird was unselfconsciously revelatory: the famous symphonic hooks seemed practically muted amid the rest of the bustling, sometimes stampeding, often starkly distinct countermelodies.

The spectacle didn’t stop with the music. After big codas, Poghosyan didn’t throw her arms up quite as dramatically as she usually does, but she had her usual striking stagewear. This time, it was shimmery black slacks and a matching top for the first half, then after the intermission she switched to an ornate red gown. And she could have started a wholesale florist business with all the bouquets after the encore: in a world where people onstage and off are too often expected to behave sedately, this fan base didn’t hold anything back.

November 5, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bewitching Detail and Thunderous Power from Pianist Karine Poghosyan at Carnegie Hall

Last night the thunderstorm over Carnegie Hall was no match for what Karine Poghosyan was doing inside. New York’s most charismatic classical pianist played for more than two hours, completely from memory – including five pieces by Liszt. Flinging her hair back, swaying on the piano bench, she embodied the grace of a gymnast and also the strength and stamina of a boxer. Her response to the standing ovation at the end was to flex her biceps and give everybody the revolutionary salute, left fist triumphantly in the air. She’d earned it.

There’s a fleeting moment in Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole where instead of a new thematic variation, the composer offers a split-second shadow of a doubt: are we really going in the right direction, toward real Romany-inspired bliss, he asks? Other pianists capable of playing the piece would likely burn through that moment. But Poghosyan caught it, as she did so many similar instances throughout the rest of the program.

Poghosyan has a righthand with a quicksliver precision but also crushing power, and a left hand so ferocious that she could ride the pedal, as she frequently did throughout the show, and still Liszt’s stabbing low-register chords would resonat cleanly. But ultimately, what differentiates her from the hundreds of other hotshot pianists around the world who can play on her level is that that she goes much deeper into the music, for narrative, and emotion, and especially amusement.

This bill was conceptual, springboarded by an epiphany she had after an apparently disheartening meeting with a top agent a couple of years ago. After that, Poghosyan swore off trying to please people and instead decided to concentrate on what she likes playing most. She offered this program simply as a collection of works that make her feel the most alive. Truth in advertising: she could have woken the dead.

Sporting a crimson jumpsuit, she leapt from the piano after nimbly negoatiating the cruelly challenging octaves and jackhammer flamenco passages of the night’s first number, DeFalla’s Fantasia Betica. After changing to a shiny copper dress for the second half of the program, she closed with two pieces by Khachaturian, a composer whose work she has fiercely advocated. An arrangement of the adagio from his opera Spartacus came to life as a coy flirtation, a cat-and-mouse game between possible lovers, jaunty precision against airy, balletesque joy laced with caution and bittersweetness..

Khachaturian’s 1961 Piano Sonata was a study in far more intense contrasts, from gorgeously glittering yet enigmatic Near Eastern tonalities, a Debussy-esque garden in a hailstorm, and finally the crushing volleys of a dance with far heavier artillery than mere sabres. And she approached the Liszt with almost shocking sensitivity and attention to detail. Poghosyan shifted with seamless verve between angst and exhilaration, dazzling upper righthand constellations and stygian terror from the low left, in the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 7, the Grande Etude de Paganini, No, 3 and the lilting Spozalizio, from his Annees de Pelerinage. And as hubristic as Liszt’s arrangemetn of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 was, Poghosyan was undaunted as she worked the counterpoint with High Romantic flair. She encored with the romping finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird.

In academia, both piano faculty and students refer derisively to “sovietization:”a cookie-cutter approach to performance. Last night, Poghosyan reaffirned her status as the least Sovietized pianist in the world.

May 31, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Karine Poghosyan Plays a Rare, Stunning All-Khachaturian Program

At one point early on during her Manhattan concert last night at St. Vartan’s Cathedral, a grin suddenly lit up pianist Karine  Poghosyan‘s face. What she didn’t realize was that she was telegraphing a punchline. Aram Khachaturian’s music is deep, and rich, and full of life, and sometimes humor as well. This particular jestful phrase, familiar as it is to the pianist, still obviously tickles her. It’s rare to see an all-Khachaturian program in this country, let alone one of Khachaturian piano music. On the 110th anniversary of the composer’s birth, it’s impossible to imagine that he ever might have wished for a more passionate or powerful advocate than the Yerevan-born, New York based Poghosyan.

Playing from memory, she inhabited the music in all its stormy, turbulent depths, shattering staccato and ravishing sensuality, bringing her own unselfconscious sense of fun. Poghosyan’s technique is world-class, matched by a sense of dynamics that served her magnificently during this hourlong roller coaster ride. There were points where her crushing lefthand threatened to dislodge the piano’s wheels. Yet during her own tender, lustrously nuanced arrangement of the Lullaby, from Gayaneh (the ballet whose final movement is the famous Sabre Dance), she wound it down with a pianissimo that was so gentle and yet unwavering that it was as if she had placed a mute inside on the strings. And for all the pyrotechnics and foreshadowing and inside-out knowledge of the music, Poghosyan’s personal style is disarmingly honest: the audience  knows exactly how she is feeling, and sometimes where the music is about to go, from just a look at her face. Whatever the score called for, she was on a mission to bring it to life: the wry depiction of a stern parent telling a child to lie down and GO TO SLEEP early in the Lullaby; several instances of uh-oh-we’re-about-to-go-over-the-cliff; and the occasional triumphant “yesssss” moment after she’d tackled  a particularly knotty, rapidfire passage and made it look easy.

She began with an arrangement of one of Khachaturian’s better-known works, the Adagio from Spartacus, another ballet. A High Romantic heroic theme in a series of disguises, it’s classic Khachaturian, lush with swells and ebbs, wistfulness and pathos juxtaposed against the composer’s signature, disquieting close harmonies. Poghosyan negotiated the machinegunning, insistent chords, gritty pedalpoint and and Stravinskian bluster of the Poem (a strikingly forward-looking if deliberately ostentatious work written when the composer was 24) and the considerably more lyrical Toccata from five years later. After the Lullaby, she launched into the piece de resistance, the 1961 Piano Sonata, which was a revelation: challenging as it may be, it’s hard to believe that such a powerful piece isn’t played in concert more often. Poghosyan brought out a lingering bittersweetness early on in the opening Allegro movement that recurred with a nocturnal gleam in the second and then disappeared in favor of the sabre-toothed, interlocking chordal fury of the concluding movement, where for once she gave not the slightest hint of how enigmatically or unexpectedly it would end. Maybe she was hoping it would never end and she would keep having fun – although by the time it did, she was out of breath.

The audience responded with two standing ovations, so she gave them her arrangement of the Waltz Masquerade, reinventing it as a more of a sweeping, nostalgic ballad than heroic overture. Poghosyan is back at St. Vartan’s (34th Street and Second Avenue) at 7:30 PM on September 25 on an orchestral bill featuring music of Bach and Liszt.

June 6, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment