BEETHOVEN: DMITRY RACHMANOV AND CULLAN BRYANT
by Alexander Sumerkin
Novoye Russkoye Slovo, Wednesday, December 4, 1996
Created two hundred years ago between 1793 and 1822, Beethoven's thirty- two piano sonatas remain an inexhaustible credo of romanticism, with its youthful aspirations and its tragic maturity, to which one returns again and again like a believer to the holy scripture. This fall we are witnessing, far from the glamorous stages of New York's Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, one of those small feats of "serving music" which, probably more than anything else, guarantees its immortality on a day-to-day basis.
Two pianists are presenting the complete Beethoven sonata-cycle at the Nicholas Roerich Museum on Manhattan's 107th Street. They are both fully mature musicians in their thirties, competition prizewinners with sizeable performing experiences. Dmitry Rachmanov, a former Muscovite and a Juilliard graduate, received his Doctoral degree fiom Manhattan School of Music. His name is well known to New Yorkers for his recitals at the Roerich Museum, among other places, where he regularly presents his new programs. His honor list includes the US premiere of Boris Pasternak's piano sonata, the performance of which in January of 1989 became a true event even in New York's saturated musical scene. Cullan
Bryant, from Arkansas, a graduate of Manhattan School of Music, had heretofore been known to this author only as Rachrnanov's schoolmate and soulmate. It was all the more pleasant to discover that he is a marvelous young master pianist. For circumstances having nothing to do with these musicians' creative abilities, neither of them has made it yet into the commercial performers' circuit promoted by powerful concert managements and multinational recording companies. For a modest listener, however, there is a silver lining around the dark cloud: both pianists are willing to share generously with us the h i t s of their noble craft. Thirty two can be divided by two. Thus they divided: Rachrnanov got the odd-numbered sonatas, and Bryant the even-numbered ones (this rather than the doctrine of the Russian priority explains the order of their respective names in this article's title and further on). The sonatas are being presented in their numerical order, the entire cycle comprising seven recital programs. Before any further discourse I must warn my readers that I am not a professional musician. In music I belong to those "educated consumers" who are so sought after by New York's Syms department store. I have been privileged to hear some great pianists of our time: Maria Yudina, Sviatoslav Richter, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Claudio Arrau.
This experience has prompted me to make a simple comparison: for an uninitiated person, like myself, a musical notation is akin to a text in an unknown language. A performance constitutes a translation of this cryptology into our common language. And as Shakespearean translations by Kuzmin and Pasternak, so dissimilar, make the original sound so different, so do interpretations of the same piece of music sound strikingly different at times. Shedding some of my youthful snobbery, I have learned over the years to appreciate "working drafts", which may make certain phrases sound clearer, enabling us to hear things hidden from a listener, as it were, in a polished "official" concert. More to the point: a withered piece of paper needs to be brought to life. This requires craftsmanship and magic. Our two musicians possess both qualities to a strong degree, while each one of them offers his own individual solution.
Relatively speaking (any words about music are relative), Dmitry Rachmanov may be described as a draughtsman or a sculptor. His Beethoven is powerful, articulate, well-structured and exciting. Speaking equally relatively, one may say that Cullan Bryant is a painter, a colorist. His Beethoven is powerful as well, but also songful and mesmerizing. .
The atmosphere of the Roerich Museum brings the listener back to the times of home music-making: a suite of three adjacent moderate-sized rooms on the second floor of the residence, the third of these rooms housing a Steinway grand which has certainly seen a great deal. Dense rows of chairs cover the floor. The walls are lined with paintings by Nicholas Roerich: the Himalayas, poetic and realist portraits. This does not in the least resemble a concert hall. And the very absence of the traditional barrier - an elevated and deserted stage, spotlights focused on the lonely figure of a pianist, a huge gap separating the orchestra seats from the piano - creates a totally new perception of music, unmatchable in the immediacy of its impact by any formal recital. The difference is comparable to listening, let's say, to a poet or an actor in a large hall, versus having a conversation with him or her in intimate surroundings, when every word seems to be addressed only to you. Not all the details of these performances may be completely polished yet, but no matter : the structured element of Beethoven's music invariably overrides minor imperfections.
This article is being written as a follow-up to the fifth recital of the series, to my ears the most successful so far (November 10, sonatas No.22-26). Dmitry Rachmanov performed the "Appassionata" Sonata (No.23) with total involvement, inspiration and integrity. After the concert one of my companions confessed that, perhaps for the first time in many years she could truly reevaluate this work, which in Russia has long been buried under layers of nauseating Leninist mythology. In contrasting style Rachmanov gave a splendid rendition of the 25th sonata, modestly called sonatina, which was full of lightness and grace. Cullan Bryant opened the evening with an endearing reading of the little sonata No.22 and gave us the pleasure of his heartfelt interpretation of Les Adieux (No.26). He left the audience
hypnotically enchanted in the middle movement, full of nagging melancholy. His performance completely justified the composer's remark for this movement "Absence".
Believe me: this note is least of all meant as publicity. At the November 10th recital, for lack of free seats in the rooms I had to snuggle myself like a bird on the steps leading up to the second floor, remembering my Moscow youth. The stairway, however, provided better acoustics.
I would like to express my wholehearted gratitude to both wonderful musicians and to the administration of the Nicholas Roerich Museum for taking the trouble to organize this series. One more thing: it would be interesting to hear the same thirty two sonatas performed by the same pianists but with the reverse allocations of even and odd numbers in one of the coming seasons. The highly complex late sonatas are coming up in the next programs, and I am looking forward to experiencing them "face to face."