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CHAMBER REVIEW

ULYANOVA WINS THEM OVER

by Terry McNeill
Thursday, November 20, 2008

A pianist planning a West Coast debut recital in front of a fashionable and cosmopolitan audience faces a daunting prospect, especially when playing virtuoso works familiar to all. Ukrainian pianist Elena Ulyanova surmounted most of these obstacles Nov. 14 with formidable energy at Tiburon’s St. Hilary Church. The event was the second Concerts Grand recital of the year and part of the wildly popular classical series produced by St. Hilary Music Director Vince Stadlin and Cantor Kenneth Graham.

Fresh from recitals in Chicago and Washington DC, Ulyanova began briskly with Soler’s Sonata in D (R. 84), a work which, though effective, reminds one that everything Padre Soler wrote was done much better by Scarlatti, and with more humor by Haydn. Another matter was Beethoven’s Sonata in F, Op. 57 (Appassionata), a driving and dramatic odyssey that allowed Ulyanova full rein in displaying her cross-hand and fast scale technique. As throughout the evening, she chose fast tempos that often blurred the thematic lines and compromised the lyricism. But this is a “go for broke” piece and was not the least underplayed, with Ulyanova pushing lines and suppressing voice leadings to accentuate the excitement. It was a performance quite different from the recent Elena Casanova Appassionata rendition in Ukiah. Both readings were idiomatic and widely diverse in coloristic effects and weight.

The first half closed with the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise Brillante in E Flat, Op. 22, an early Chopin work that virtuosos such as Hofmann and Horowitz made famous. The performance was relaxed and architecturally tight, and the poetic Andante was carefully phrased and assured. Rhythms in a Chopin polonaise are tricky to project, especially when played in a sprightly manner, and Ulyanova on this recital decided that rhythmic nuance was subordinate to lyrical momentum. Her concluding cascade of scale passages was effective at full pedal, and she ended with five triumphant E Flat unison chords.

Two Debussy Preludes began the second half, Brouillards and Ondine. Both had the right atmosphere but continued the inclination to fast tempos. This absolute French music is as much about the silences as the actual notes. One longed for other Debussy works to display Ulyanova’s staccato touch, perhaps “La Danse de Puck” or “La Puerta del Vino.”

Two Rachmaninoff selections closed the program, the first the short and dreamy Prelude (in G, Op. 32) and the second the volcanic Second Sonata in B Flat, Op. 36. Ulyanova’s fleet approach was ill-suited to the nostalgic Prelude, the playing of which can evoke memories of cold Russian nights and moonlit snow. Here it sounded like playing in a piano studio, uninvolved, the last three chaste chords played unadorned with no retard or diminuendo.

Any uncertainty about Ulyanova’s command of Rachmaninoff’s bravura was swept away with an orchestral performance of the great Sonata, in the Horowitz edition. The first movement opened with resounding chords in the bass, getting more sound from the house Baldwin concert grand than regular St. Hilary parishioners could remember. The middle movement Non Allegro had the requisite songfulness, though again with a tendency to the perfunctory. The finale brought out all of the pianist’s heavy artillery – massive broken octaves, endurance, wide skips and brilliant passage work. The individual parts of the sonata often seem greater than the whole, but Ulyanova brought opulent passion that conquered all. Nothing was left on the table.

Following the bagatelle of a Scarlatti encore, the audience proceeded to the lavish Parish Hall for a splendid buffet prepared by the church staff, and more piano playing, albeit with less serious repertoire, from Ken Iisaka, Gini Wilson, Kenn Gartner, Elizabeth MacDougall, David Caldine, Elena Casanova and the effervescent St. Hilary Pastor, Fr. James Tarantino.

Note: The reviewer is the producer of Concerts Grand series.