Monday, September 11, 2017

Clarity, insight, and power: Nikita Mndoyants, 2016 winner of the Cleveland International Piano Competition, plays a 'Grand Encounters' recital for APA

Among other accomplishments of his recital Sunday afternoon in the Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall at Butler University, Nikita Mndoyants shared a fresh outlook on the much worked-upon 24th Paganini Caprice. Long a favorite of composers to rhapsodize upon and submit to variation, the last number of the violin virtuoso's Op. 1 had the Mndoyants stamp put upon it a decade ago, according to the American Pianists Association's "Grand Encounters" program book.

Nikita Mndoyants played a brilliant solo recital Sunday afternoon as APA's guest.
The winner of the 2016 Cleveland International Piano Competition showed his gifts as a composer, too, when he returned to the stage after intermission to play his Variations on a Theme of Paganini (2007). Launched with isolated notes abstracted from the theme, the work soon lands on the familiar tune, but quickly springs free of literalism.

There is obviously no need to mirror what has already been done memorably by Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawski, Brahms, and Liszt, even with novel harmonies.

So Mndoyants sets a free fantasy upon the melody, using its contours and characteristic rhythmic flow with great originality. He looks askance at it even as he celebrates it. There is a quasi-fugal episode and other indications that the composer-pianist knew how to apply a wealth of techniques to familiar material.

But what was most striking to me was Mndoyants' evident insight into the embedded mood of Paganini's original: The first part of the tune is brightly assertive; the second half is veiled in mystery, swirling downward as if in counterstatement to what precedes it.  Mndoyants has something to say that's more than clever; he pays tribute to the caprice's immortality. The composition shows what makes the 24th Caprice a permanent, tantalizing icon, like the Mona Lisa. What's more, Mndoyants' piece ends with — what else? — a capricious flourish. All in all, quite an accomplishment for a teenage pianist-composer.

Also impressive was the second half's companion piece, the formidable Eighth Piano Sonata (in B-flat, op. 84) of Sergei Prokofiev. Mndoyants made sense of the sprawling, knotty first movement, Andante dolce, in a way previously unavailable to me as a listener. Despite the heading, the movement isn't predominantly sweet; it presents a host of vexations to both pianist and audience. Mndoyants laid everything out clearly. The long, sinuous phrases that justify the "dolce" directive were nicely proportioned and wonderfully balanced. The work's greatness is unmistakably established in a performance of this sort, though the slow movement, Andante sognando, strikes me as unworthy of it. Despite its imaginative treatment, the theme itself is sentimental, close to salon music.

Enter, gratifyingly, the motoric drive and buoyancy of the finale. Mndoyants' rhythmically crisp and dynamically varied performance was delightful.  Even in the most finger-busting toccatalike passages, he displayed an uncanny variety of touch. You never got the feeling he was just barreling through all the excitement. The audience's tumultuous approval elicited two Baroque encores: Rameau's "Le rappel des oiseaux" and Purcell's Ground in C minor.

In the first half,  Mndoyants' mastery had already been quite evident. He brought an extra buzz to intermission conversation with a spectacular performance of Liszt's "concert paraphrase" of Wagner's Overture to Tannhäuser. The Pilgrims' Chorus, one of the noblest tunes in early Wagner opera, ranges from stately and pious to overwhelming in its first appearance. But that proves to be just a warm-up for the hurricane force (I wonder why that image popped into my head) of its return. The returning pilgrims have brought from Rome the green, leafy miracle of the Pope's staff, signaling Tannhäuser's rescue from the sensuous distractions of Venusberg.

Liszt, with his sharp sense of the tussle between virtue and vice (his girlfriend, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, was trying to extricate herself from a failed marriage at the time), certainly wanted to bring the full resources of the piano to his future son-in-law's depiction of the conflict. Mndoyants was equal to the task of representing the music's daunting spectrum of emotion and sonority.

The recital opened with Beethoven's Six Bagatelles, Op. 126, a set of miniatures hard to encompass with any brief description — music expressing the stubborn freedom of the prematurely aged composer,  totally bereft of hearing beyond what his imagination could produce for him. At first, the live acoustics of the Eidson-Duckwall seemed to require more of a scaling back from Mndoyants than he was willing to provide. The necessary adjustments were made by the third bagatelle, and its soft-spoken fleetness was fully engaged. The ebb and flow of dynamics in the sixth piece sounded fully responsive to the environment. Like just about everything else in this recital, the performance confirmed the pianist's fitness for whatever he applies himself to.