With every soloist’s recital comes a tacit tug of war for who emerges as the victor of the showcase: composer or performer. The greatest pianists apply a thick coat of unmissable interpretation to the works at hand, allowing listeners to easily identify their style across the surface of performance whilst uncovering the rustless corpus of composers that they treat. In an evening of Chopin, Haydn, Rachmaninov and pianist Roman Rabinovich’s own work, listeners anticipated widely varying confections. Different tastes were present palpably, yet each came glazed in a familiar syrup.

Roman Rabinovich © Balazs Borocz
Roman Rabinovich
© Balazs Borocz

Rabinovich assumed Haydn’s Piano Sonata in G major with a brisk, dainty tempo; tripling-up the ‘brio’ in Allegro con brio. By unravelling trills and gruppetti with the smoothness of an unfolding fan, Rabinovich infused the sonata with dollops of humour and spontaneous leaps. As he converted Haydn from an austere, strait-laced figure into a happy-go-lucky Classical dandy, scales that could have been excused as quotas of Rococo decoration became luminous flurries of ornaments. Immediately it was apparent that Rabinovich possesses a special bond with trills, triplets and chromatic scales; as fine a gift for making every note distinct as has a gifted florist who arranges a bouquet so that each sunflower, rose hip and marigold is visible.

The pianist succeeded Haydn with his own six-movement work, Memory Box. Echoing a number of different sensations from the “comedic depiction of being a little tipsy”, as per the composer’s own programme notes, to reflections of works by 20th-century writer Stefan Zweig, the piece settled into an enclave where Debussy lived adjacent to Schoenberg. Countless renditions of the same note or chord jabbed at the work; played with variations of pedal, volume or length. These dapples of notes implied subdued chaos: one that didn’t swell, swerve or implode. With indefinable contours and dynamics that alternated between spasmodic chords and faint strokes of watercolour, Memory Box evokes an idiosyncratic nature. Yet it was one that didn’t change its temperament or, very often, body; preferring to dwell in one settlement rather than visit the six colourful sites to which the names of its movements aspire.

A performance of Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli was a masterful take on a glossary of mountainous technical feats. Yet while no difficulty could jolt a single note out of place, the execution was delivered in a similar guise to Haydn's Allegro con brio. Serving to characterise this style was the repeated use of elongated pauses that suspended the sequence of notes, along with an inhibited left hand whose encroaching and intrusive nature was rigidly harnessed. Numerous chords were played with one immediately preceding the other in a form of creatively spurious acciaccatura. Most salient were the unruffable glissandi that swept back and forth with unpierceable fluency, as well as the growingly ferocious crescendi as certain chords clambered eerily up the stave.

As he embarked on a classic – Chopin’s Ballade no. 1 in G minor – Rabinovich’s diminuendi could attenuate a note as gently as a thinning fountain that slowly makes slender its spurts. But here also, emphasis on the left hand was mostly abandoned in favour of accentuating high notes in the right; the underbelly became a shy subscript, not a caustic collider. Ostentatious switches in dynamics peppered Rabinovich’s take on the Ballade no. 2 in F major, this time emboldening the left-hand chords without nonetheless giving them carte blanche to behave in the unwieldy manner they usually do.

Most successful was the Ballade no. 3 in A flat major, performed as a waltz-like charmer. The Ballade no. 4 in F minor, a work whose aura is a soft resignation to internal torture, opened itself up like a 17th-century Racine soliloquy. Many a single note was emphasised. There was unquestionable sadness in the rendition – one unabashedly, purposely plaintive. It was somewhat tangential to oftentimes diffident Chopin.

Overall the recital was no doubt original, as is the unmistakable style of Rabinovich. It sometimes rendered notes too precious; sometimes sugar-coated chips of bitter ugliness perceptible across Romantic works. Here amidst extended pauses and an overly enthusiastic pedal, executions of chords came out in two forms of glaze: a flowing liquid caramel texture where the notes drizzled with ease, or an unkind brittle toffee where they crunched together in boisterous and crackable tempi. Scarce room was left for other shapes or flavours. This was a fine performance – one in which a strong interpretation overpowered the composers’ nature. While this kind of victory is almost never bad, on this occasion it was won by just a few too many points.