Piano Recital: Alexander Malofeev
Chopin / Liszt / Tchaikovsky / Stravinsky
Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2015-12-22
2015-12-26 — Original posting
2016-09-13 — Brushed up for better readability
Alexander Malofeev was born 2001 in Moscow. With his 14 years, he is no longer really a child—or at least, he is now growing out of his childhood. Therefore, the term “child prodigy” is becoming inappropriate. Yet, he remains a rare exception among the emerging pianists of his generation. Despite his young age, he has already won numerous national (Russian) and international competitions. Some key examples: 2013, he won the International Astana Piano Passion Competition, and 2014 the VIII. International Tchaikovsky Youth Competition in Moscow.
He is currently studying with Elena Beryozkina at the Gnessin State Musical College in Moscow. At the same time, he has already traveled many countries and worked with numerous orchestras and conductors. He also has prominent mentors such as Valery Gergiev and Denis Matsuev. That is the fame which we know from the media — how does this work out in a solo recital?
This concert was a part of the series “Musik an der ETH“, in a small venue (99 seats), the Semper-Aula in the main building of the ETH in Zurich.
From Child Prodigy to Artist
Needless to say: at the first impression, one is speechless. Here’s a boy of 14 years, with a pale face, slim, not shy, but focused on his playing, devoid of any obvious nervousness. He plays a very, if not extremely virtuosic repertoire — without really showing signs of exhaustion. The only sign of the physical effort is that in breaks he wipes his face and hands with a handkerchief.
Indeed, already now, one (superficially) gets the impression that he not far from being able to compete with top virtuosi such as Denis Matsuev. Is this a career that starts at the peak already? What is the future of such a brilliant start of a career? Alexander Malofeev for sure has an excellent teacher and famous mentors. But already at this stage, he is close to a point where nobody will be able to teach him much, from a technical point-of-view. What comes after this? I’ll return to this question at the end of this review.
Despite the advanced stage of his astounding technical abilities, I don’t think it is appropriate and fair to rate Alexander Malofeev’s playing, let alone, to compare it with that of international, mature stars at the top of their career. My remarks below are not meant to be a critique in the common understanding, but rather a description of the current state of his playing & interpretation. I’ll group my remarks by composer, just the way, in which the pieces appeared in the program. We heard highly virtuosic pieces almost throughout:
Alexander Malofeev started his program with two Scherzi by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849). This already gave a clear indication about his playing style, about the pianist school and tradition he is growing up in (and/or growing into).
In his playing, I was strongly and immediately reminded of that of his famous mentor, Denis Matsuev (see also my recent concert review). We heard furious, dramatic scales and runs, at a tempo in which individual notes almost get blurred into a continuum. Similarly, eruptive dynamics, building up to towering masses of sound, powerful and always fluent playing, impressive dynamic build-ups / waves, the louder passages with a compact soundscape.
Scherzi No.1 in B minor, op.20 / No.2 in B♭ minor, op.31
But there are also nicely formed lyrical passages, such as in the cantilenas of the second theme in Scherzo No.1 in B minor, op.20. Malofeev’s playing does not offer much in terms of jeu perlé in scales. The articulation in fast runs is often somewhat superficial, and in the Scherzo No.2 in B♭ minor, op.31, the accompaniment in the left hand to me sounded too compact. The tempo was often at the limit of what is doable on the mechanics of a modern piano, and consequently, the listener could hardly perceive at all many texture details in Chopin’s piano score. Also, I missed finer, more detailed agogics. Overall, it definitely wasn’t the Chopin that we commonly know in Western Europe (neither probably what most people would expect). Maybe it rather was a Chopin in the style of Franz Liszt? Or a “Russian Chopin”?
Consolations No.2 in E major, S.172/2, No.3 in D♭ major, S.172/3
The section with works by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) started with two rather lyrical pieces, the Consolation No.2 in E major, S.172/2. This was followed by Consolation No.3 in D♭ major, S.172/3. For the young artist, this was probably an opportunity to collect power for the following, virtuosic section.
In my view, Consolation No.2 was played nicely, but somehow lacked poetry. Consolation No.3 was singing nicely, with good melodic phrasing / build-ups. One could see this as poetic, but of course, one could not expect reflective wisdom at this age. The calm nature of the piece was occasionally perturbed by a slight accelerando. More courage for persistent and slower playing & reflection would have helped. But again, this is a question of emotional experience and maturity.
Mephisto Waltz No.1
With the Mephisto Waltz No.1, “Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke”, S.514 we were back in the world of virtuosity — even more so than in the two Scherzi by Chopin, almost in a speed rush. Alexander Malofeev’s playing was very fast, somewhat superficial — not rushed, but still constantly pushing forward in the virtuosic parts. I felt lots of power and volume in the parallel octaves, focused on drama rather than clarity, with impressive build-ups. Overall, this strongly reminded me of Denis Matsuev’s interpretation of this grotesque waltz. My personal preference would have been a performance that offers the listener more detail, also in the virtuosic parts.
The first part of the program ended with Liszt’s Grand Étude de Paganini in G♯ minor, “La Campanella”, S141/3, a.k.a. “Campanella Study“. Here, I found Malofeev’s playing nice and detailed. My main reservations are in the area of musical flow, which I did not find quite natural, not playful enough in the middle part: keeping the musical flow is maybe one of the main difficulties in this Study. Also, to me, the ending felt too fast and too loud.
Pjotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The program continued with a “Russian section”, featuring compositions by Tchaikovsky and by Stravinsky:
Concert Suite “The Nutcracker”
Pjotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) completed his ballet “The Nutcracker” 1892. The composition premiered at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg that year, but wasn’t that much of a success initially. The composer also wrote a 20-minute suite from that music. That was far more successful, and it has remained popular to this day. The popularity of the suite, and likely also the music itself, motivated Mikhail Pletnev (*1957) to transcribe selected parts of the suite into a Concert Suite for solo piano. This is an excellent, if not brilliant piano score. Pletnev took seven pieces from Tchaikovsky’s suite and arranged them in the following sequence:
- March — Marche: Tempo di marcia viva
- Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy — Danse de la Fée Dragée: Andante non troppo
- Intermezzo (Journey through the Snow)
- Russian Trepak — Danse russe Trepak: Tempo di Trepak, molto vivace
- Chinese Dance — Danse chinoise: Allegro moderato
- Andante maestoso (Pas de Deux)
Particularly in this first section of the “Russian part” of the program, I found segments quite successful, to me representing the “Russian atmosphere”. One example is the opening March, or the more vivid / virtuosic parts among III – VII. The dance-like pieces such as I (March), II (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy), and VI (Chinese Dance) were maybe a little too handsome, not playful enough. On the other hand, virtuosic parts, such as III (Tarantella) were eruptive and rhythmically firm. A particular highlight to me was IV (Intermezzo) with its nicely singing melodies and the long phrases. On the other hand V (Russian Trepak) was clearly focusing on tempo and virtuosity. The suite ended with the Pas de Deux as another highlight in this performance.
The Dumka, Russian rustic scene in C minor for piano, op.59 by the same composer was originally announced as preceding the “Nutcracker” suite. It’s another piece that I found well-played by Alexander Malofeev, particularly its second, more virtuosic part. Overall, I found Malofeev’s Tchaikovsky interpretations the best, most atmospheric, and most valid and rewarding ones within this program. Whether the “Russian atmosphere” was based on the young artist’s own world of experience, or whether this was “injected” by the artist’s teacher, is an open question.
Le Sacre du Printemps
Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) composed his ballet music The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps), or “Весна священная” in 1913, for Sergei Diaghilev‘s “Ballets russes”. The music was causing an immediate scandal already at the premiere. Meanwhile, however, this has become quite popular on the concert stage., It is considered one of the most influential pieces of the last century. Alexey Kurbatov (*1983) transcribed parts of the ballet music for the piano (two hands). From what I heard in this concert, this is a pianistic monster. It is the result of condensing Stravinsky’s complex, polyrhythmic and polytonal texture into a score for piano and ten fingers!
Also here, I found that Alexander Malofeev mastered many sections really well. Examples are the somewhat melancholic introduction (reminding me of Fellini’s film “La Strada”), or many of the motoric / rhythmically persistent passages (though these appeared to be played somewhat superficially). On the other hand, I found Malofeev’s interpretation to be predominantly pianistic. I would not call it an attempt to reproduce the orchestral soundscape on the concert grand.
Some of the martial sections are rhythmically extremely complex. They are multi-layered and also involve frequent rhythmic “switches” / alterations. That’s where I found the interpretation to reach limitations: I missed the dynamic differentiation of the various, stacked components / voices. The listening impression was lacking clarity. As a listener, I found it to be difficult to follow the rhythmic flow. I suspect that Alexander Malofeev was predominantly busy with the technical aspects. This may have prevented him from keeping the necessary overview (like observing himself from a distance), in order to offer to the listener clarity and insight at all times. In the final bars, the pianist impressed the audience with the almost monstrous volume, with masses of sound in the last chords. It was almost miraculous that he was able to do this, from a mere physical point-of-view!
The ending of the last piece alone was suited to provoke strong applause. Of course, the audience expected encores. Alexander Malofeev did offer two encores, in rapid succession (just the way his mentor Denis Matsuev typically appears to do):
- Nikolai Medtner (1880 – 1951): No.1 from “2 Fairy Tales” (Две сказки), op.20
- Alberto Ginastera (1916 – 1983): No.1, “Danza del viejo boyero” from the “Danzas Argentinas”, op.2
Many thanks to K.S. for providing the necessary hints for me to find these pieces (I’m not all that familiar with this repertoire)!
But before ending this posting, let me for a moment return to the questions raised in the introduction. It is quite foreseeable that within a short time (1 – 3 years?), Alexander Malofeev will not be able to acquire more technical knowledge / abilities. And then, what? From a mere physiological point-of-view, this concert required huge forces / physical resources. Yet, even though he hasn’t finished his education, he is already in high demand. He is making concert appearances all over the world, exclusively with a repertoire of high/highest virtuosity. It is more than likely that after the completion of his formal education, the “concert circus” will keep him completely busy all year.
In my opinion, this entails the danger of physical exhaustion,. At the same time, there is also the danger of psychic and emotional strain. And almost inevitably, Malofeev may face the irreversible loss of a childhood. On top of that, the artist may not get the opportunity to mature emotionally and mentally. An artist who has not lived will not be in a position to draw from emotional and mental experience in his interpretations. Conclusion: I’m more than a little worried here!
Despite these open questions: this was a very interesting concert experience, to say the least. It is hard not to be fascinated by Alexander Malofeev as a pianistic phenomenon!
For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.