Today’s Noontime Concerts™ performance (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral was a solo recital given by pianist Tanya Gabrielian, who received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the Royal Academy of Music, followed by an Artist Diploma from the Julliard School. Her command of technical virtuosity was reinforced by a capacity for intense energy. While that energy was not always modulated to the best effect, it was clear that she had chosen the selections for her program with such intensity in mind. At least one of the composers she presented was well served.
That composer was Sergei Rachmaninoff. Gabrielian chose to perform all five of his Opus 3 Morceaux de fantasie (fantasy pieces). These are compositions that are more likely to be performed singly as encore selections, particularly the second, which is the famous (notorious?) prelude in C-sharp minor. They were composed between October of 1919 and October of 1928 and were not published in the order in which they were written. However, the set, taken as a whole, discloses a rich spectrum of moods, each of which is captured within a relatively short duration (particularly for Rachmaninoff). There is even a sampling of wit (almost never associated with Rachmaninoff) in the “puppet-music” of the F-sharp minor “Polichinelle.”
It was in this collection that Gabrielian’s intense expressiveness was best modulated. The listener could thus appreciate not only the expansive interpretation Rachmaninoff had applied to each of the moods but also those qualities that distinguished each piece from the other five. Gabrielian performed Opus 3 with a clear sense of the whole, clearly leaving the attentive listener with admiring respect that the entirety was, indeed, more than the sum of its parts.
Opus 3 was the final selection on her program. Unfortunately, its predecessors were more disappointing. She chose to begin with Franz Liszt’s transcription of two instrumental movements from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 1 opera Almira, a chaconne followed by a sarabande. There was little about the performance of these transcriptions to suggest that Liszt knew or cared very much about the structural foundations behind either of these movements, let alone their signification on the logical narrative of the opera. Gabrielian approached them as a platform on which she could introduce her virtuosic skills to the audience (which may, indeed, have been the approach taken by Liszt himself). The result was that the listener could start off being dutifully dazzled; but, after a while (certainly by the time of the sarabande), one began to feel that too many rabbits were being pulled out of the hat.
By way of contrast, Gabrielian followed Liszt’s fireworks with a sonata that showed greater awareness of an underlying narrative. That narrative was Hermann Hesse’s 1925 novel Demian, framed as a three-movement sonata by Arturo Cardelús, who recently completed the score for Tangernación, an English-language film by Spanish director José Ramón Da Cruz about the arrival of Paul and Jane Bowles and William Burroughs in Tangier in 1950. The first two movements of Cardelús’ sonata are intended to capture the dark and bright sides, respectively, of human nature as explored in Hesse’s novel. The third movement then embodies a dialectical synthesis, so to speak, of the opposition.
While this is a clever logical conception for a sonata, the rhetoric is writ far too large to convey anything other than an exaggerated conception of the underlying qualities. This was a case in which Gabrielian’s unbridled energy was probably entirely consistent with the composer’s intentions. Hesse’s novel apparently had a strong influence on those lucky enough to return from fighting the First World War, which may be one reason why it became a fetish object among those youth movements dedicated to protesting the Vietnam War. However, it is not a particularly mature work; and Cardelús’ score seemed to suffer from reading both too much and too little into a relatively weak text. Under Gabrielian’s hands, Cardelús’ floundering emerged as little more than emotional excess, unlikely to leave memories of anything other than its capacity for bombast.