The second of this summer’s weekly recitals, streamed under the auspices of the Gstaad Digital Festival, featured the young Russian pianist Roman Borisov in a challenging programme. He avoided any (re)discoveries of obscure works, selecting instead four masterpieces presented in chronological order and illustrating the evolution of the art of the keyboard from the mid-18th to the mid-20th century. He thus courageously invited comparisons with interpreters from yesterday and today but seemed unfazed by the prospect.

Roman Borisov
© Gstaad Digital Festival

The 19-year-old started with Bach’s Italian Concerto, BWV 981, adopting a tempo that was a tad too slow for the energetic first movement, yet allowing him to render with clean articulation and refinement the textural contrasts between solo and tutti in a score initially conceived for a two-manual harpsichord. Borisov played the melody in the Andante with fluency and restrain, not letting the embellishments take away the listeners’ attention, while the third movement was full of brilliance and still danceable despite its Presto marking.

Borisov’s tendency to linger a bit too long on individual details – in the commendable desire to draw attention to specific sonorities and tonal modulations – also marked his heartfelt rendition of Chopin’s Ballade no. 4 in F minor, occasionally affecting the fluency of the narration. At the same time, like a much more experienced magician, he succeeded in bringing out the ambiguity ingrained into a score of significant harmonic and contrapuntal complexity that shifts, with its intertwining themes, between sonata and variations, between serene and agitated, wistful and heroic. The five long pianissimo chords preceding and announcing the coda had a special mystery.

As expected, it was more difficult for such a young musician to grasp the autumnal Weltanschauung voiced in Brahms’ Four Klavierstücke, Op.119, his last works for solo piano. Much of the music is filled with a sense of mortality that a word like melancholy is not powerful enough to fully convey. However, there is nothing monotonous – neither musically nor in terms of moods expressed – in these little gems and that’s why their essence is so difficult to capture. Borisov detailed well the almost Debussian network of barely resolved dissonances in the B minor intermezzo, but less successfully the nearly unbearable yearning, even more present in the luminous middle section than in the descending arpeggios that frame it. The pianist gracefully handled the transformation of the anapaest into the waltz-like rhythms in the second intermezzo, but continued to elaborate too much over the details. He seemed very interested in the metre changes marking the fleet C major Scherzo and the complex final Rhapsody with its curious meandering from march-like sonorities to a delicate grazioso to a solemn but question-mark like E flat minor coda.

Roman Borisov
© Gstaad Digital Festival

Borisov was totally in his element during Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no. 7 in B flat major. Possessing a radiant yet never showy technique he did not seek to impress with his prowess. He avoided going overboard during the outbursts of the opening Allegro inquieto and the demonic Precipitato toccata. The apparent vehemence in the outer movements did in fact hide similar frames of mind – self-deprecation, irony, anguish, desperation – that could be detected in the gestures underlining the lyrical and dark Andante caloroso.

A pair of encores – an elegant Polka de W.R. by Rachmaninov and Vladimir Horowitz’ brilliant Carmen Variations – somehow echoed the last two movements of Prokofiev’s Sonata. They cemented the impression that this performance might be treasured as a first encounter with an artist destined for greatness.


This performance was reviewed from the Gstaad Digital Festival video stream

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