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29.9.08

Anna Vinnitskaya: Hats Off, Gentlemen...

Although the official Season Opening Concert of the Washington Performing Arts Society is scheduled for October 11, with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Camerata Salzburg, the WPAS season got under way most impressively on Saturday afternoon. Sponsored by WPAS, the young Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya gave her first recital in the Americas, right here in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The 2007 first prize winner of the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition put together a blockbuster program that overwhelmed the senses both by its virtuosity and its musicality.

That someone could find so much music in a program that consisted primarily of Medtner, Rachmaninov, and Liszt and also get (almost) all the notes in this most difficult repertoire was a remarkable achievement. That the musician in question is a still largely unknown (at least on this side of the Atlantic) 20-something made it evident that Vinnitskaya has the potential to be making not only excellent, but extraordinary music in her career. Far be it from me to damn that possibility by using the dreaded G-word, the one recently applied most deservedly to Alex Ross, although the MacArthur Foundation does not really use the term. A critic calling a performer a genius, or even worse "the next X," is so often a death knell for a nascent career. Let us just hope that we will have the chance to hear Vinnitskaya perform again and often.

The program first showcased Vinnitskaya's exciting, hard-fingered pianism with Sofia Gubaidulina's modern updating of the chaconne. With parallelisms, copious dissonance, and other 20th-century harmonic gestures, Gubaidulina explores the historical form and undermines it, notably with a fugal section where the bass repetition disappears completely. It was the only moment of austerity in a generally ear-pleasing program. Nikolai Medtner's music is often as backward-looking and broadly neo-Romantic as that of Sergei Rachmaninov. Vinnitskaya gave Medtner's Sonata Reminiscenza in A Minor (op. 38, no. 1) a smoky nostalgia, shaping it beautifully without indulging in too much of the treacle.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Anna Vinnitskaya (Washington Post, September 29)
The real meat of the program was the paired sonatas of Rachmaninov and Liszt. The tempestuous opening of Rachmaninov's second sonata, in the composer's own 1931 version, had a few skittish slips that turned out to be a blip in a mind-blowing performance. Even more impressive than the booming sound of Vinnitskaya's power playing was the lacy, dewy soft passages which were poignant yet contained. A large part of my aversion to Rachmaninov's music is the way that so many overplay it, wallowing in its syrupy harmony. In both the demanding technical parts and the painfully sweet, Vinnitskaya did not drag anything out. It was simply what it was, virtuosic or tender, and Vinnitskaya could say more by understatement than by exaggeration.

Liszt's B minor sonata followed, in one of the more enigmatic, subdued, and yet astonishing performances of the work in my experience. The opening section was truly misterioso, not something puzzling to be passed over quickly, and the challenging passages had a magisterial sweep, even if some of the technical demands (octaves especially) could have used a little more polish. Again it was the gossamer touch in the rhapsodic sections that stood out as distinctive, with rubato used with sparing efficacy in both fast and slow sections. Even when large-chord sections reached a manic howl, the voicing of the melody within was etched and shaped.

The same straightforward appeal came across in two encores, although the second one, Chopin's C major etude (op. 10, no. 1), was just one notch too effortful to serve as a perfect encore. Further listening since this recital, in live tracks on a 3-CD set featuring Vinnitskaya's performances at the 2007 Queen Elisabeth competition, displays similar qualities. The final-round performance of Prokofiev's massive second piano concerto is noteworthy for its motoric drive. Her first-round piece, Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, has also been showing up in her recital programs, making me hope for a movement from it as an encore. The range of touch in the work, in which range of color is so crucial, is remarkable, especially the ceaselessly clanging bell of Le gibet.

The next concert in the WPAS classical series will feature the final tour of Lorin Maazel with the New York Philharmonic (October 4, 4 pm).

UPDATE:
Anna Vinnitskaya's first encore was an arrangement of a Bach prelude by Alexander Siloti. Siloti took BWV 855a, a little prelude in the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (he later adapted it for the E minor prelude in the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, no. 10), transposed it to B minor, and inverted the parts for right and left hands.

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