Dallas — Blue Candlelight Concert Series continues to present internationally acclaimed performers that you can’t hear otherwise. So it was last weekend when the Armenian/American pianist Sergei Babayan dazzled the audience with is impeccable technique and musicianship.
Babayan was born in Gyumri, Soviet Armenia, began his musical studies at age six, and has racked up an impressive list of prizes in distinguished competitions, such as first prize in the Busoni International Piano Competition. It is easy to see why. Whether playing Bach or Chopin, his hallmark clarity was always evident at this recital on Nov. 4. But what was the most remarkable was his ability to switch styles from Baroque precision to Romantic rubato while still maintaining his own unique musical identity.
As a teacher, he is equally successful. At the Cleveland Institute of Music, he taught the astonishing Russian prodigy Daniil Trifonov, who went on to win the First Prize in at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv and the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2011.
Considering that he is recognized as a champion of new music, such as works by Witold Lutosławski and György Ligeti, none of these were on the program. This was disappointing. He opened with some Chopin and then moved solidly to the Baroque era with some Bach and Rameau.
The Chopin came first. Babayan played a grab-bag of audience favorites such as the flashy Barcarole in C-sharp minor, Op. 60 to the Valse in the same key, Op. 64. No. 2. The preludes were represented by the brief explosion of fast notes that makes up the posthumously published Prelude in A flat major B.86.
The second half of the program opened with sections from Bach’s Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. This was a teaching collection that Bach set up for his oldest son and contains some music that can be found in his Well-Tempered Clavier. He included five preludes, which offered Bach’s versatility within a set form and Babayan’s ability to offer unique perspectives.
The program closed with music by Jean-Philippe Rameau. This made for an interesting contrast between two giants of the Baroque who were on opposite of the theoretical divide. Rameau came up with the revolutionary theory of chords built upon the bass note, a vertical concept, which Bach rejected in favor of a theory delineated by Johann Joseph Fux based on Renaissance species counterpoint, based on horizontal lines.
What exactly does this mean when performing or listening to the resultant music? Probably not much considering how subtle the difference. But in this performance, Babayan made the works of the two composers sound radically different in an almost imperceptible manner. But it was clear in his interpretations that Bach was the conservative firmly rooted in the past and Rameau was looking forward to the impending classical period.
What was odd about his recital was his manner of presentation. He seamlessly went from one piece to the next one, which caused some confusion to audience members that were not completely familiar with the music, as to what they were hearing. When he was finished with the set he stood up, and it was only then that some in the audience discovered that I was time to applaud. In the second half, he paused so briefly between Bach and Rameau that many in the audience were unaware that he had gone on to the next set. However, in the second half, Babayan delivered an impressive performance of subtle stylistic variety. I wished that I had brought the scores.