As the opening concert of Chamber Music Columbus’ 74th season, Sergei Babayan presented an imposing recital at the lovely, now 125-year old Southern Theatre. Traversing repertoire from Bach to the late 20th century, the generous program clocked in past the two and a half hour mark, an impressive survey of the literature and certainly a memorable beginning to the season.

Sergei Babayan
© Marco Borggreve

The recital opened with Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina, the first work in which the composer employed his iconic, rarefied tintinnabuli technique. Its glacial pace and glass-like textures created an almost mystical atmosphere. Striking contrast followed in Liszt’s Ballade no. 2. Rarely will one hear the rumbling runs in the bass played with more chillingly ferocious intensity. A dramatic march theme put Babayan’s great virtuosity in the spotlight, as did the torrents of double octaves. Lyrical interludes built to great passions, but this is a work far removed from the showpieces earlier in Liszt’s career, and despite the technical demands matters never strayed from serious intent. Plaintive, reverential chorales punctuated the work, just as striking as the more bombastic passages in their monastic severity, and hinted at the work’s perfectly anti-climactic ending.

The first half was concluded by an extensive selection of preludes and fugues from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (though I do wish the program books listed the individual pieces performed). Babayan’s approach was decidedly of a Romantic persuasion, especially in the minor key works, and he certainly made a convincing case for it. Deft use of the pedal added appropriate color, and he brought great clarity to the fugues. The sprightly brilliance of the B flat major work was a standout, as was its minor key counterpart, inwardly personal.

The most startling discovery of the evening opened the latter half, namely the Fantasia in Memory of Maria Yudina by Vladimir Ryabov. Yudina was a major force in Soviet musical and cultural life – it was at her residence that Boris Pasternak did the first reading of Doctor Zhivago – and Stalin was said to have particularly cherished her playing. Ryabov counted Khachaturian amongst his teachers, and wrote the present fantasy in 1983. Stylistically the work is rooted in Romanticism, but tinged with dissonances and the composer’s unique musical language to create something strikingly novel.

Arresting beginnings made unrelenting virtuoso demands from the onset, easily met by steel-fingered Babayan. A powerful funeral march made a particularly strong impact; here and throughout the pianist explored an astonishingly wide color palette. There were passing references to works presumably in Yudina’s repertoire; I caught homages to Schubert, Chopin and Schumann (a gesture from Schumann’s Fantasy in C major was of particular importance, recurring at several inflection points). A relentless series of tone clusters closed the work, eventually fading into the ether.

A trio of works each from Chopin and Rachmaninov rounded out the program. Chopin’s Polonaise in C sharp minor was given a dramatic, energetic reading, countered by the wistfulness of a melancholic yet urbane waltz and the gracefully lyrical Barcarolle. The theatre was filled with the dense chordal texture of Rachmaninov’s E flat minor Étude-tableau, only outdone by a powerful performance of the note-spattered pages of the final Moment musical. As the lone encore, Babyan returned to Bach in the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, wonderfully pure and radiant.