Babayan brings new luster to “Goldberg Variations” at Bach Week Festival

Mon Apr 22, 2013 at 4:45 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Sergei Babayan performed the “Goldberg Variations” at Bach Week Festival Sunday in Evanston.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Bach Week Festival is stretching across a two-week period this year and spotlighted something a bit unusual for its opening weekend: a pianist.

Not just any pianist, but Armenian-born, Russian-trained Sergei Babayan, well-known for his Bach performances.

Babayan played two of the Bach harpsichord concertos on the festival’s Friday night opening concert and gave a solo recital Sunday afternoon at Nichols Hall in Evanston.

Looking quite young for a pianist now in his early 50s, Babayan is a no-nonsense player who came out, took a brief bow, and immediately began sinking his hands into a frenzied, loud and muscular version of Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in b minor.

Given the smallness of the room, Babayan’s power was at times, overwhelming, but the effect was certainly the bravura Liszt had in mind.

A more contemplative approach was needed for a movement of Messiaen’s Vint Regards sur l’enfant Jésus, but Babayan chose to emphasize the percussive aspects of the piece rather than its mystery.

There was to have been an intermission between the Messiaen and the central attraction of Babayan’s recital, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but there was not so much as a pause between the end of the Messiaen and the intoning of the iconic aria that opens the Goldberg, which signified a radical reduction in dynamics so extreme as to have been almost a pianistic u-turn.

The aria was poetic and stately, supremely confident, and the variations that followed, by and large, followed one upon the other without pause. That sounds more distracting than it turned it to be, for Babayan clearly sees these variations not so much as a series of miniatures following in rapid succession, but as one seamless and epic piece all spun from the same material, which at least in Babayan’s interpretation, never seemed far away.

It is a curious hybrid of approaches, the evenness of a harpsichord with the expressiveness of the piano, always swinging, always pulsating with energy and having an almost jazz-like improvisational quality.

Babayan seems so at home with this music that he really does sound as if he could be spontaneously creating it. The music sounded organic and inevitable, a rare and refreshing thing to behold with Bach which is often treated with such distant reverence that even in the best-intentioned hands, it can become pedantic.

There was also a wide arsenal of timbres, textures and dynamics always carefully chosen to emphasize the character of each variation section, with fascinating carryovers of one approach into another.

Unlike Angela Hewitt or Daniel Barenboim, there were no repeats, the entire piece clocked in at 47 minutes, but it passed by in seemingly half that time.

By the time Babayan reached the familiar repeat aria signaling the end of the journey, he took the reprise more slowly and softly as if to end indicating that there had been a poetic transformation of the original.

Bach Week concludes at 2:30 p.m.  May 5 with a performance of the Magnificat and other works at North Park University’s Anderson Chapel in Chicago; 847-293-6686; bachweek.org.   

Posted in Performances


Leave a Comment