I seldom select concerts to review based on performer. An interesting programme is usually what will pique my interest, and this was certainly true when browsing the Wigmore’s spring season of concerts: it is unusual to find Ligeti and Messiaen in the same programme. I didn’t know the performer and was unaware at the time of booking the concert that he was first prize and gold medal winner of the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition.

Antonii Baryshevskyi © Neda Navaee
Antonii Baryshevskyi
© Neda Navaee

Winners of competitions are often paraded before audiences with the promise of greatness. Generally young performers poised on the brink of an international career, too many may offer a bland synthesis of music, technically polished but lacking in insight or maturity. Not so Antonii Baryshevskyi, a young pianist from Kiev, whose impressive Wigmore Hall debut combined pristine technical facility and consummate musicality in a challenging and highly varied programme.

The three Scarlatti sonatas were imbued with wit and colour, Baryshevskyi’s neat handling of variations in dynamics, ornamentation and textural contrasts reminding us of why Scarlatti can work so well on a brightly-toned modern piano (in this case a Fazioli). A minor key sonata might have been welcome, for the sake of contrast, but this trio provided a lively and convincing opener, with a promise of what was to follow.

On first glance, Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata might seem an odd pairing with the Scarlatti, but a “ricercar” is a Baroque model, the term meaning “to search out”. Ligeti's title should perhaps be interpreted more literally as "researched music", and this suite of 11 short pieces encapsulates the essence of Ligeti's quest to construct his own compositional style ex nihilo and heralds the more radical directions Ligeti would take in the future. Each piece is built upon an increasing number of notes, from just two in the first piece (A and D) to all 12 notes of the chromatic scale in the final movement. Baryshevskyi dispatched the work with the same wit and exuberance as the Scarlatti, and he fully utilized the wide sonic palette afforded by the piano, in particular its rich bass and sparkling treble. This was a most enjoyable performance, and the pianist’s obvious delight in this music was infectious.

Three Mazurkas by Chopin opened the second half, and here Baryshevskyi displayed sensitivity to Chopin’s folk rhythms and melodies. Another triptych of pieces followed, this time three movements from Messiaen’s profound and monumental Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus), arguably the greatest piano work of the 20th century, and one which is suffused with the composer’s deep Catholic faith and the myriad influences – musical, philosophical and natural – which informed his music and his life. There was much to admire in Baryskevkyi’s handling of this technical and emotionally challenging music. Fine chord voicing, filigree fingerwork, rhythmic vitality and a sense of this music being “bigger than us” combined in a most convincing and absorbing performance (I would very much like to hear Baryshevskyi perform the whole work).

To close Schumann’s Sonata in G minor, a work which pushes the boundaries of piano technique. This was one of Baryshevskyi’s Rubenstein Competition pieces and is clearly a work he knows well. Despite the rapid tempi of the first movement (which includes the directions “faster” and “even faster”), there was propulsion and energy in Baryshevskyi’s playing, with no loss of clarity nor ability to reveal the work’s layers and textures. The second movement was warm yet suffused with sadness, while the finale presto rondo was dispatched with the sort of bravura that befits an international competition winner.

For the first encore, Baryshevskyi gave us Mussorgsky: the terrifying image of Baba Yaga’s hut gave way to a monumental and nationalist rendition of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, which pealed out across the hall. This was following by two short works by Scriabin, appropriately perfumed and sensuous.

****1