Dallas — The Blue Candlelight Music Series presented Alexander Kobrin as a last-minute replacement for Sergei Babayan, who was indisposed.
Kobrin is well known to local audiences as the Gold Medalist in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He is equally famous for his absolute mastery of technique, quiet musicianship and stoic presence. No one ever accused Kobrin of showmanship or even of having a drop of charisma.
All of these aspects were on full display on March 18, maybe even more so because the house concert format brought the audience within a few feet of him as he played. Sometimes the distance of the stage can hide his passive personality.
But there can be no complaints about his results. He impeccably played a long and complicated program of music from composers as different as the forthright Beethoven and the mystical Scriabin as well as the modest Schubert and showy Rachmaninoff.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13 is part of a two-sonata grouping in his Op. 27. Both are called Sonata quasi una fantasia. While its companion (Op. 27, No. 2, “The Moonlight”) is more well known, the No. 1 is really much more of a “fantasy.” While there are ostensibly different movements, unlike “Moonlight,” they are played without a pause and the entire sonata is over in a mere 14 minutes. There is even a cyclical return of some of the earlier materials that help to unify the piece.
Kobrin did a terrific job of blurring the movement divisions, thus presenting it as one unsubdivided piece. It is almost too bad that the program listed the movements because, unless you were quite familiar with the sonata, it would have been impossible to determine when one stopped and the next began. Beethoven would have been pleased.
Next came Schubert’s Four Impromptus, Op. 90. While the name impromptu implies an improvisation, or at least a loosely organized piece, this is not really the case. The name impromptu was bestowed by the publisher.
All four pieces are carefully written and fit into standard forms. Kobrin gave each one of them an individual character and brought out their differences more than their similarities. The third, in G flat major (that is six flats), was particularly entrancing as Kobrin demonstrated clear independence of his hands as he floated the almost Mendelsohnian melody over the harp-like accompaniment.
Although Scriabin’s second piano sonata is also called a Sonata Fantasie like Beethoven’s that opened the program, the name is all that they have in common. However, like the “Moonlight,” Scriabin opens with a slow movement. While it is completely different than Beethoven’s almost classical effort, Kobrin brought out some crepuscular beauties hidden in the impressionistic score.
The presto second movement was presto indeed. Kobrin made it sound more like a scherzo than a final movement, leaving some of us wondering if there wasn’t a lost finale.
The program ended with a major work by Rachmaninoff, his Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Kobrin was more in his element with Rachmaninoff’s virtuoso pianism than earlier in the program, even jettisoning some of his quiet approach.
This work is a series of 20 variations based on a theme that was not by Corelli called La Folia. Corelli used the theme for a set of variations but so did a number of other Baroque composers. Nevertheless, this is a fine set that gets everything possible out of the theme. It is a little on the long side, which even the composer admitted. He rarely played them all in concert. Kobrin played all 20 of them but kept the audience’s interest throughout.
It is here where Kobrin pulled out some of his trademark fireworks, although there are showier works by the composer. This piece admirably suited Kobrin’s low-key approach to virtuosity.
With Kobrin, mastery of the instrument is a given rather than something to use to impress the audience.