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RECITAL REVIEW

Oakmont's Larry Metzger with Elena Ulyanova at Recital Reception

PIANISTIC DRAMA OVERCOMES SUBTLETY IN OAKMONT RECITAL

by Terry McNeill
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ukrainian pianist Elena Ulyanova made her Sonoma County debut June 10 in an Oakmont Concert Series recital that was conventional in repertoire but quite agitating in performance. The pieces played were nearly a reprise of her November, 2008 recital in Tiburon’s St. Hilary Church, sans the big Rachmaninoff B-Flat Sonata.

Ms. Ulyanova has a passionate musical personality and her playing in Berger Auditorium before 200 people may not have been to the taste of most piano aficionados. She continuously pushes the envelope for speed and dramatic contrast, reveling in fast scale passages and sforzandos followed by arms flying high off the keyboard. That approach worked best in Beethoven’s F Minor Sonata, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”) where the emotional and dramatic qualities can suit the music, albeit with control. In some ways the reading was similar to the “Appassionata” of Italian pianist Sandro Russo in his April 18 Newman Auditorium recital, in that passion trumped architecture. But where Russo used repose to contrast the difficult articulations problems in the opening Allegro assai Ms. Ulyanova threw caution to the winds, sacrificing clarity to momentum. The Coda was played as fast as I have ever heard it, with anticipatory pedal prior to the three big forte chords announcing the sonic carnage to the end.

The Andante con moto variations had some lovely inner voices, especially in the second “chorale” variation, and was played with considerable dispatch. In the emotional sweep of the finale, introduced by the famous 13 chords that were surprisingly played staccato, the speed bordered on being reckless. But Ms. Ulyanova never quite lost control and the grand design was compelling, the wrong top notes in the right hand at the end not detracting in the least from the drama. It was not a performance to savor, but I found things to admire in the high-pressure reading. The pianist is not averse to taking chances.

Closing the first half was Chopin’s Andante Spianato et Grand Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22. The current norm for this richly vocal work is to play the Andante fast and the Polonaise slowly, the opposite of Hofmann’s legendary recording at his 1937 Golden Jubilee concert in the old Metropolitan Opera House. Ms. Ulyanova chose the common mode, using little rubato and playing without much subtlety. The 16-measure modulatory bridge passage between the two parts was abbreviated to several chords, for an unknown reason. The Polonaise performance had a teasing quality, the scales fast but cloudy with pedal and the lovely short vocal section in the middle too rushed. The three forte left-hand E Flat accents provided pedal point and spice. In sum, it was brash and messy performance, the filigree rapid but routine.

Two Debussy Preludes from Book II, Brouillards and Ondine, began the second half, with the piano becoming increasingly out of tune in the treble. Ondine was particularly good, the restless nature of the scherzo-like changes of mood were effectively portrayed. This wasn’t Debussy with shades of color, but with rhythmic power. Ms. Ulyanova has a flair for Debussy’s complexity but the speed of each Prelude covered any introspection or languorous dalliance.

Rachmaninoff’s “Polka de WR” and the Tarantella from Liszt’s “Venezia e Napoli” concluded the program. The former, played with no interval from the Debussy, lacked charm and was roughly banged. A long ago live Horowitz performance in Carnegie Hall lingered in my mind where the Russian master had the audience hanging on every subtle phrase. The Liszt, resplendent in Ms. Ulyanova's bravura repeated notes and ferocious momentum, was one of the least interesting performances I have heard of the work in a concert hall, missing any semblance of melodic shaping and respite. Extremes of dynamics and rushed tempos don't make convincing Liszt, from any of his compositional periods.

No encore was offered by the artist.