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Variations sÚrieuses
J. S. BACH (1685-1750)
Chaconne in D Minor, BWV 1004 (arr. Busoni) [15:49]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
32 Variations on an original theme in C Minor, Wo080 [12:10]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Variations sÚrieuses Op. 54 [13:07]
Rejected Variations No. 11-14 [2:55]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Variations chromatiques de concert [15:02]
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Variations in B Minor Op. 3 [13:52]
Lilit Grigoryan (piano)
rec. 2018, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem

Armenian pianist, Lilit Grigoryan, has been a prize winner at a number of international piano competitions, and was the Artist in Residence at the Queen Elizabeth Music Chapel in Belgium between 2012 and 2016. She last released a recording of solo piano music in 2012, and since that time has released various chamber music recordings. In this recording she tackles key sets of variations ranging from Bach to Szymanowski.

Grigoryan opens her recital with Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s D Minor Chaconne from his Partita for solo violin. Brahms famously wrote of Bach writing “a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings” in this piece. Busoni’s transcription, first published in 1916, captures the towering grandeur of the piece. Grigoryan’s performance is very polished, and there is scrupulous attention to detail throughout. She captures the stately grandeur of the piece. The playing is admirably clear. While there is much to admire here, her playing does not have the climactic intensity or the mesmerising poetry that one hears in Michelangeli’s famous recording.

Beethoven composed his 32 Variations in C Minor in 1806. The work shows his complete mastery of the variation form. The short eight-bar theme contains a descending chromatic line in the left hand, which is used as a structural device throughout almost in the manner of a chaconne. Grigoryan gives an assured performance of this seminal work. The articulation is crisp and precise, the phrasing is immaculate and the textures are nicely layered. There are striking contrasts. I particularly liked the sense of nobility and the lyricism which Grigoryan brings to the major key variations. Her playing is excellent, although Lupu’s extraordinary recording brings out more of the dark poetry, while Moravec creates a greater sense of visceral excitement.

Mendelssohn wrote his Variations sÚrieuses in 1841 in response to a request for a tribute to Beethoven. Mendelssohn wanted to distance himself from the frothy, virtuoso variations which were so prevalent at the time – hence the title of the work – and to align the music with the weightier traditions of Bach and Beethoven. Grigoryan is on top of the considerable technical demands of the piece, and gives a highly accomplished performance. She captures brilliantly the nervy agitation of variations 8 and 9, and the voicing of the fugue in variation 10 is exemplary. In the slow-moving variation 14, she sustains the line brilliantly and brings a rich luminosity to the music. Overall, this is a first-rate performance which I enjoyed enormously. Having said that, Grigoryan is up against stiff competition from Richter, Sofronitsky and Perahia. Her performance cannot quite match these artists.

Grigoryan also plays a number of variations which Mendelssohn intended to include as part of the work but then discarded them because he was not satisfied with their quality. I was not familiar with these variations but, having heard them, I see they are inferior in quality; the composer was right to discard them.

Grigoryan concludes her recital with two sets of variations which are less familiar to concert-going audiences. The first of these is Bizet’s Variations chromatique de concert, written in 1868 but not published until 1953. The theme is highly chromatic. In the first half of the work the composer pushes tonality to its limits. Bizet shifts to the major key from variation 8 onwards, and the character of the piece completely changes. Glenn Gould was the first major pianist to bring the work to international attention. Grigoryan’s performance of this work is very good indeed. I was struck by the striking contrasts between the minor and major key variations. The minor key variations are sombre and full of dark shadows, while the major key variations are in turn enchanting and full or Romantic Schumannesque ardour. It is difficult to compare anyone to Gould, as he is such an idiosyncratic artist, but Grigoryan certainly holds her own and acquits herself well in this work.

The final work on this recording is Szymanowski’s Op. 3 Variations, written between 1901 and 1903. The work combines a Rachmaninov-like Romantic melancholy with an underlying sensuality. Grigoryan brilliantly captures the brooding melancholy and burning sensuality of the work. The dissonant third variation mazurka is deftly handled, while the elation of the final bars sweeps away the sadness which pervades much of the work. This is a great performance and a great way to end the recital.

Overall, this is a very good recital containing a lot of fine playing.

Robert Beattie

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