Stepping in for the indisposed Cédric Tiberghien, the Ukrainian-born Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk wowed Wigmore Hall’s lunchtime audience with a debut concert replete in masterful displays of pianism, in the purest meaning of the word.

Alexander Gavrylyuk © Mika Bovan
Alexander Gavrylyuk
© Mika Bovan

Gavrylyuk is a concert pianist in the traditional sense. Not only does he dress like a concert pianist from an earlier age (it is unusual to see white tie and tails at the Wigmore at lunchtime, and indeed in the evening these days), he combines glittering virtuosity with sensitivity to the score and the composer’s intentions, as was evident from the opening work, Mozart’s Rondo in D, K485. Unlike Mozart’s other free-standing melancholic and introspective Rondo, the K511 in A minor, this work is imbued with good cheer and warm-heartedness. Gavrylyuk’s performance was full of charm, with playful passagework and a limited yet colourful dynamic range, as befits Mozart’s writing. In many ways, this felt like the settling-in piece of the programme.

In his Preludes, Rachmaninov was following in the footsteps of Chopin and Scriabin, and by the time he reached his Op. 32 Preludes, he was clearly attempting to emulate Chopin by writing a series in all the different keys, and these works represent the more subtle and harmonically advanced style that Rachmaninov developed in his middle years. In the G sharp minor Prelude, Op. 32, no. 12, right-hand figures shimmered with Slavic flavours over a supple melodic line in the left hand, sensitively shaped by Gavrylyuk. The G minor Prelude from Op. 23, one of the most famous and popular of all of Rachmaninov’s Preludes, was martial and heroic, the dynamics in the opening figures rich and warm, never strident, despite the volume. The lyrical middle section was nostalgic and romantic, the return to the opening theme managed with restrained control and power.

The final piece by Rachmaninov in the programme was the popular Vocalise, a piece written for voice, in a transcription by fellow pianist Zoltan Kocsis. This was another lesson in restrained emotion in the shaping of the original vocal line, which gave way to coruscating Lisztian figurations and textures towards the end of the piece.

But it was in the final work of the concert, a blistering performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (the piece which, on hearing for the first time, helped him decide he wanted to be a pianist), that Gavrylyuk showed his true mettle. From the spare grandeur of the opening “Promenade”, through a creepy and menacing “Gnomus”, the whimsical “Tuileries”, the clangorous sonorities of “Catacombae”, to the climax of the suite, the opulent peals of bells and crashing chords of the “Great Gate of Kiev”, Gavrylyuk demonstrated immense command, pianistic colour, dynamic range, dazzling technical assuredness, conviction, musicality personality, and a deep understanding of this music. Even in the loudest passages, he never lost the ability to produce a magnificent sound. The audience was on its feet cheering before the final chord had cleared.

For an encore he offered the Liszt/Horowitz transcription of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a piece full of wit and humour, and yet another vehicle for Gavrylyuk’s sparkling virtuosity.