Although the practice of transcription is a common one, its perfection to an art form is something of a rarity. Dmytro Sukhovienko's midday recital offered an eclectic selection of piano transcriptions of Baroque pieces: well-known arrangements by Busoni and Liszt sat alongside those by Giovanni Sgambati and Rafael Joseffy. While some were more successful than others, each suffered in performance from an overly powerful piano and a lack of subtlety in Sukhovienko's performance.

Dmytro Sukhovienko © Valletta International Baroque Festival
Dmytro Sukhovienko
© Valletta International Baroque Festival

Nestled in the middle of Valletta, the horseshoe-shaped design of the Teatru Manoel (dating from the Baroque period) makes it an appropriate venue for the festival, not to mention a beautiiful one. Although certainly grand, it is not a large theatre; certainly not large enough for the piano which was chosen for this particular recital. The Steinway grand played by Sukhovienko would perhaps be suitable for a concerto performance, but its incredible power was just too much for the theatre. It quickly became apparent that Sukhovienko's playing would oscillate between two dynamic levels: mezzo-piano and thunderous fortissimo.

Opening with Aleksandr Siloti's arrangement of the Prelude from Bach's fourth Cello Suite, this heavy sound created a sense of occaasion, transforming the piece from the intimacy of its original form to a much greater scale. But when fortissimo became Sukhovienko's default setting, it was hard not to tire of his playing. With such limited dynamics, the architecture of the pieces were somewhat lost: with the structure reduced to dynamic oppositions, there was little sense of progression. Perhaps this was the nature of some of the arrangements. The tendency to use octaves to fill out the texture, especially in Wilhelm Kempff's arrangement of Bach's chorale prelude “Awake the Voice is Sounding” (BWV645) and Ferrucio Busoni's take on the Chaconne from the same composer's second Partita for solo violin, was interpreted by Sukhovienko as a signal that the transcription transferred the piece to a larger scale. Busoni's conception of the Chaconne may well lend the piece grandeur, but such unrelentingly powerful playing reduced the effect of the piece. Such virtuoso transcriptions are designed to showcase the full capacity of both instrument and player, and I felt frustrated that Sukhovienko did neither.

It was in the quieter moments that the pianist excelled, with his two encores the most enjoyable part of the performance. Scarlatti sparkled, while Bach was lovingly shaped. It was a shame that such musicality was the exception rather than the rule in the recital; magical moments were few and far between. It was in the more involved counterpoint that Sukhovienko excelled: the Bourrée from Bach's third Partita for solo violin (arranged by Rafael Joseffy) was gentle and graceful, with a light touch and sunny lyricism. The heavy-handedness of the rest of the concert seemed clumsy in comparison, and even resulted in wrong notes and ungainly phrasing. Sukhovienko clearly has talent: the tenderness bestowed on a bittersweet melody from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (as transcribed by Sgambati) and the poetry of the encores certainly offered glimpses of his potential. Neither his instrument nor his programme allowed him to demonstrate this to the fullest of his ability. While this recital certainly dispayed a fascinating cross-section of approaches to transcribing baroque repertoire, Sukhovienko did not do it justice.

 

The Valletta International Baroque Festival runs until Saturday 24 January.

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