Review: Pianist Kariné Poghosyan Finds Unexpected Connections to New York at Zankel Hall
By Joshua Rosenblum, Contributing Writer, June 8, 2018
You might not expect works by Bartok, Rachmaninoff, and Khachaturian to be included in a recital purporting to celebrate New York, but pianist Kariné Poghosyan at Zankel Hall would remind you that the first two composers both emigrated to the Big Apple and lived out their lives here, while Khachaturian never lived in New York but was powerfully influenced by a visit to the city he made as part of a U.S. concert tour in 1968. Works by Barber and Gershwin rounded out Poghosyan’s program, entitled “The New York Connection,” which she performed on June 7 at Zankel Hall.
Poghosyan, who was born in Armenia but moved to New York fifteen years ago, is a charismatic, probing, and seemingly dauntless pianist with lots of technique and a knack for expressing a myriad of distinctive musical ideas. The sonatas by Barber, Bartok, and Rachmaninoff that she performed are all big, ambitious knucklebusters, but Poghosyan met their formidable challenges fearlessly and with panache. She plays with a sense of discovery and delight, as if nothing gives her more pleasure than unraveling the intracacies offered up by her chosen repertoire.
Barber composed his Sonata for Piano in 1949 for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the New York-based League of Composers; the premiere performance was given by Vladimir Horowitz. Barber, often celebrated for the lyricism and melodic sweep of his music, was also capable of spiky modernism and motoric rhythmic verve. The Piano Sonata, an intriguingly multi-faceted work whose first movement actually derives from a twelve-tone row, puts all of these qualities on prominent display. Poghosyan’s rendition was vigorous and percussive but unfailingly sensitive, nuanced, and varied. At times, the performance was blurred by overpedaling, but the clarity of intent was never in doubt. The brilliant second movement was sparkling, skittery and playful, and the stately passacaglia of the third movement unfolded with sinuous stateliness and well-judged dramatic shaping. Best of all was the exuberant (and formidably demanding) fugue of the fourth movement, which Poghosyan performed with full technical mastery and a remarkable ability to bring out the layered individual voices, as if presenting a real-time analysis of the piece’s contrapuntal ingenuity. This was exemplary playing, and the highlight of the evening.
The more percussive aspects of the Barber Sonata could be described as Bartokian, and Poghosyan obligingly concluded the first half with some actual Bartok. At the start of the hammering first movement, Poghosyan looked and sounded like she was on a wild bobsled ride, its convulsive trajectory shaking her entire body. As the piece unfolded, her inquisitiveness and specificity laid the piece out with unusual lucidity. In the concluding third movement, with its dancing, folk song-like theme, she seemed to derive great joy from both the melody’s stark simplicity and its elaborate, increasingly dissonant transformations.
In between these two large works, Poghosyan played her own arrangement of the delectable “Lullaby” from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh. Poghosyan qualifies as an expert in the music of her famous countryman—he was the subject of her DMA thesis at the Manhattan School of Music (where she now teaches), and she has released a CD of his piano works and transcriptions on the Naxos label. The “Lullaby” works beautifully as a solo piano piece, and Poghosyan played it with loving care, plus perhaps a touch of over-indulgence. No complaints here.
In Rachmaninoff’s magisterial Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, which opened the second half, Poghosyan once again drew a wide range of colors, dynamics, and inflections out of the keyboard. Toward the end the piece—yet another taxing work on a decidedly ambitious program—she seemed to run out of steam a little, resulting in some slightly messy passagework, but she never flagged in terms of flair or excitement.
The program’s only misfire was its best-known piece—Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, in the composer’s arrangement for solo piano. Poghosyan, who may not have grown up hearing the piece, like the rest of us did, appeared to be approaching it with completely fresh ears. This was a virtue in many places—she seemed to have rethought (or never been exposed to) some of the received wisdom, turning this into a vital and spontaneous-seeming account. She brought considerable flexibility to the tempos, resulting in some interesting surprises, and she played one section that is usually performed straight with a pronounced swing feel. But there were infelicitous wrong notes and harmonizations in some of the piece’s very famous melodies, and some odd fumbling that indicated recent acquaintanceship as opposed to having the piece in one’s bones. Extended passages flew by with great excitement, but the unpredictability kept one on edge.
This did not deter the enthusiastic response of a modestly-sized but devoted following. Poghosyan rewarded them with more Khachaturian as an encore, a blistering account of the Toccata in E-flat minor.
Kariné Poghosyan, pianist, in “The New York Connection” presented by the Institute of International Social Development (IISD) at Zankel Hall on Thursday, June 7, 2018.
BARBER Piano Sonata, Op. 26
KHATCHATURIAN “Lullaby” from Gayane (arr. Kariné Poghosyan)
BARTÓK Piano Sonata
RACHMANINOFF Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor
GERSHWIN Rhapsody in Blue
Cover: Kariné Poghosyan at Zankel Hall; photo: Jonathan Levin.