By Donald Waxman
Last Saturday afternoon (April 27) at the Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton, the much-acclaimed young Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich performed for the first time in South Florida.
The 28-year-old pianist, born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, began studies in Israel at the famed Rubin Academy, “the Juilliard of Tel Aviv,” then went on to Curtis and Juilliard. Since graduating from Julliard, Rabinovich has had a very active career, winning several international awards, the most prestigious of which was the 2008 Artur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition. He has just released a debut CD on the Orchid label. Additionally, he is a talented painter and an aspiring conductor.
Aware of such credentials, the audience at Steinway awaited the appearance of Roman Rabinovich with more than usual interest. That audience’s musical appetite was further whetted by the program itself, which opened with Couperin (when was the last time you heard the music of Couperin in a piano recital?), included a Bach English Suite as well as the highlight of the program, a transcription by the pianist of two movements from Ravel’s sumptuous orchestral suite from Daphnis and Chloe. Clearly this was not to be one of those piano recitals that opens with Beethoven and closes with Rachmaninov.
First things first, and that would be the Ravel/Rabinovich transcription. The practice of pianists arranging orchestral, operatic and instrumental works for the piano was common in the 19th century, from Liszt’s transcriptions of symphonies and operas to Busoni’s transcriptions of Bach’s organ works for the piano. The great virtuosi at the turn of the 19th century, such as Josef Hofmann, Moriz Rosenthal and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, all turned out transcriptions, often paraphrases, of works from other genres and included these transcriptions on their programs. The audiences expected them to. They kept them under lock and key, fearful that other pianists might use them on their programs.
However, these transcriptions were full of changes from the original works; variations, bravura passages and written-out improvisations might be added, and whole sections might be cut out. During the period between the two wars, these arrangements fell into bad repute as a new era of authenticity held sway. By the mid 20th century, Liszt excepted, the old-fashioned piano transcriptions had vanished from the concert stage. Nor to this day has the practice of large-scale transcribing interested succeeding generations of pianists.
Perhaps this is because the art of arranging orchestral music to the piano is difficult. It combines the skills of score reading with the ingenuity of converting music for instruments into music that is idiomatic for the piano — a difficult balancing act. Rabinovich did not make these formidable challenges any easier for himself by choosing to arrange two movements from the ballet Daphnis and Chloe, a work scored for a massive orchestra of triple winds, quadruple brass, a full complement of percussion instruments, two harps and strings.
In judging the success of Rabinovich’s Ravel arrangement one must at the same time judge his performance of the arrangement. I doubt that many in the audience were able to know how faithful the arranger was to Ravel’s original score, but they certainly were able to judge the performance of it. As it turned out, it was an amazing accomplishment, both the transcription and its performance.
The first part of the arrangement is the second movement of Ravel’s suite, The Love Duet of Pan and Syrinx, with a long rapturous solo for flute (and the terror of flutists auditioning for an orchestral post). It is one of the great flute solos in the orchestral literature, and along with the plucked strings that accompany the flute, the entire movement was arranged and played quite beautifully by Rabinovich. The second part of the Daphnis arrangement, which is the concluding movement of Ravel’s suite, is marked Danse general: Bachannal. It is a wild, intoxicated dance at the end of the ballet (Bacchanal is from Bacchus, the god of wine).
It is, I think, Ravel’s most energetic and exciting orchestral movement. For this climactic piece Rabinovich pulled out all the stops, his hands flying over the keyboard, often crossing one another, his fingers moving in rapid repetitions, gliassandi suddenly emerging at the end of runs – it was a tour de force. He probably doesn’t need to keep this arrangement under lock and key, as I doubt that many pianists would want to tackle its daunting difficulties. However, I would predict that the Daphnis and Chloe arrangement will become a signature piece in Rabinovich’s repertoire. It should bring down the house everywhere, as it did in Boca.
In the set of Chopin preludes that ended the program, Rabinovich’s technical prowess was again on display. He wisely decided not to play the entire Opus 28 set of Preludes, leaving out the slow preludes, the very short ones and the popular ones except for the Raindrop Prelude (No. 15 in D-flat), which I suspect he included as a kind of an apology to the audience for playing an entire program of unfamiliar pieces. What he did play were all the fast, technical preludes, which are really etudes, shorter than the etudes in the Opus 10 and Opus 25 sets, but no less difficult.
I particularly liked his performance of No. 22 in G minor, the prelude that Scriabin must have known inside out; No. 19 in E-flat, the prelude with the perpetual motion figure of broken octaves and tenths that runs on non-stop from the first bar to the last; and of course the final prelude, No. 24 in D minor, the most virtuosic one of all. Rabinovich played all of these prelude/etudes with complete technical mastery and also with complete ease. That is the amazing thing about him; he plays the most difficult kinds of technical pieces seemingly without effort.
If I had to use one word to describe the playing of Rabinovich it would be “intense.” If you were to meet him, you would think otherwise; he is soft-spoken, relaxed and affable, but when he sits down at the piano a kind of high voltage passes from him into the keys. That kind of intensity galvanized the playing of his Ravel transcription and it defined his masterful playing of the Chopin Preludes.
But I don’t think that his quality of intensity suits well the suites of Couperin and Bach. Rabinovich began his recital with the 18th Ordre (or Suite) for harpsichord by the 18th-century French composer Francois Couperin. He was one of the last figures in a musical dynasty that had produced over 15o Couperin musicians – church organists, harpsichordists and composers – in a 100-year period. Today he is best-remembered for his four books of harpsichord pieces, each book containing seven or eight Ordres and each Ordre containing four or five short pieces, many of them with fanciful names such as The Irritable Woman, The Yellow Poppy, Knick-Knacks, etc. The pieces are miniature French jewels.
I think Rabinovich overplayed these vignettes. I would have preferred that he had lowered the volume, kept the pedal to a minimum and treated the articulation of the music more gently. The final piece of the set is called Le Tic-Toc-Choc and is probably he most often played of all the pieces in Couperin’s four books for harpsichord. Rabinovich played Le Tic-Toc-Choc with hands crossing in military-like precision and notes attacked as though with a rapier. It was full of verve and high spirits, but it wasn’t Couperin.
Some of the same stylistic criticism could be made about Rabinovich’s playing of the Bach English Suite in G minor (No. 3, BWV 808). The English Suites, like Bach’s French Suites and Partitas, are collections of Baroque court dances popular in the 18th century. The order of dances is almost exactly the same in all 18 of the suites: a majestic prelude or allemande to open the set followed by four dances of different characteristics and tempos – a fast courante, a stately sarabande, a highly stylized gavotte and a lively gigue.
Thanks to the research of dance historians who have decoded the complex diagrams of the choreographies of these dances, we have a good idea of how they were danced in the French ballrooms, their characteristics and the individual rhythmic patterns of each one. We know, for example, that the sarabande was a slow, but not very slow dance in a rhythm of three but with the unusual feature of a stress on the second beat. This second beat stress is where the dancers came to a pause and bowed to one another. The feature of this double down beat is written into every Bach sarabande.
Rabinovich treated the sarabande in the English Suite like a very impassioned, elegiac movement with much rubato but not with much of a feeling for the hypnotic rhythmic pulse that is the foundation of the sarabande. The melodic aspect of the dance does not have to be sacrificed for the rhythmic; the two should be blended into a satisfying whole.
These criticisms about style aside (and they are minor ones) should not obscure the overall success of Roman Rabinovich’s Boca Raton debut at the Steinway Gallery. He is an artist of the highest caliber; a pianist with complete technical command, a prodigious memory and a highly individual personality at the piano. If he were unknown to most of us before the recital, we are certain that will not be for very long. We hope he will return soon again.
Roman Rabinovich performs the Beethoven Third Concerto with the Haifa Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 29, 2014, at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
Donald Waxman is a composer and contributing writer to Palm Beach Artspaper.