★★★★½ Gavrylyuk stuns in knife-edged journey to Austria, France and Russia.

Conservatorium Theatre, Brisbane
June 12, 2016

Piano took centre stage last week in Brisbane’s classical music scene, first with Lang Lang, the rock star pianist appearing with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra last Tuesday, and on Sunday, when the Ukrainian concert pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk gave a recital.

Whereas Lang Lang walked onto the QPAC stage in a high sheen suit sporting trending coiffed and sculpted hair, Gavrylyuk’s presence was unassuming in manner and his recital ‘look’. But there was nothing modest about the fast and furious way he sparked the piano, taking his audience on a blazing, knife-edged journey to Austria, France and Russia.

Medici recitalists have included Piers Lane, Roger Woodward, Stephen Hough and Sergio Tiempo. Staged in the intimacy of the Conservatorium Theatre, it’s possible to study the recitalists’ idiosyncrasies, the fleeting smiles, the shifting expressions and Gavrylyuk’s need to frequently polish his steamed up glasses.

Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, D664 was ultra controlled, wrapped and ribboned in gorgeous tone. Gavrylyuk illuminated the structure and celebrated the work’s optimism, for when this sonata was written in 1819, Schubert was staying in Steyr in Upper Austria which he found “unimaginably lovely”. He was also “sweet” on Josephine von Koller, to whom he dedicated the work.

Gavrylyuk wallowed in Schubert’s elegance and lyricism. And in voicing the textures a lovely clarity pervaded. Yet his restraint in the first movement was almost unbearable, like being locked in a beautifully appointed yet stuffy room. The biggest dynamic surfaced in the second movement and those buoyant, scalic passages powering up and down the keys in the third, hinted at the blistering virtuosity ahead.

Before Gavrylyuk began Chopin’s Fantaisie in F Minor, allegedly written after Chopin had quarreled with his lover George Sand, Gavrylyuk scanned the piano as if he was flying above new terrain, searching for somewhere to land. And, when he settled on the first chord, it had a biting menace before the arpeggiated stretches kicked in.

In Chopin’s Nocturne in D Flat Major Gavrylyuk conjured a sonic world of nocturnal mystery. At times, the dynamic was hushed and eerily so as if the melodic line was veiled in mist. And the brace of tunes, one songlike and the other a soul searcher, were contrasted distinctively. Gavrylyuk burst out of his earlier containment and whizzed around the keys at breakneck speed in Chopin’s Polonaise in A Flat Major but not at the expense of poignant moments. It was George Sand who dubbed this Polonaise an exploration of the “heroic”. And Gavrylyuk’s insistent, impeccably executed churning left hand contributed an unforgettably intense rumble of defiance in this detailed performance.

After the interval, the pianist must have known he’d conquered the crowd because the Ukrainian was now unplugged, an unstoppable force. His fingers scaled the treacherous reaches of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Sonata in A Minor with ease and when he was sound building he increased the volume endlessly and achieved a massive volume.

Balakirev’s nationalistic, folksy, dazzling and yes, intimidating Islamey – Scriabin injured his right hand rehearsing this – was an ideal vehicle for the pianist’s expressive, take-no-prisoners, cyclonic virtuosity. As the audience left, a woman said, “Now that was stunning. Absolutely stunning.” I could only agree.

Alexander Gavrylyuk performs at the City Recital Hall in Sydney on June 16.


Gillian is the author of Elvis and Me: How a world-weary musician and a broken ex-racehorse rescued each other, Finch Publishing.