Alexander Karpeyev, piano: Piano Works of Prokofiev, Medtner, Gretchaninov, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, St. Helen’s Anglican Church, Vancouver, February 18, 2017.

Photos by Nick Li

Photos by Nick Li

Music lovers often get their introduction to works of the 1917 Russian Revolution through the symphonies of Shostakovich or other orchestral and choral compositions – but what about the piano music of this time? In this recital for the enterprising Muzewest Concerts, Russian pianist Alexander Karpeyev surveyed works by five composers who were strongly influenced by the Revolution and ultimately left Russia at some point during or after.  Showcased was some very fine piano music written in the lead-up to the Revolution, likely reflecting a premonition of its consequences.  Some of it is well-known, some less so – yet this concert proved that it was all in admirable pianistic hands. 

Karpeyev opened the recital with a selection of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives (1915-17), which he played with charm and attentive nuancing, extracting some truly lovely sounds even when coaxing little more than a whisper from the keyboard. His legato phrasing with a minimum of pedal was particularly impressive, as was his clear rhythmic bite, lacking any abrasive edge.

A contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, Nicolai Medtner (1880-1951) never enjoyed the popularity of his peers: a few decades ago the number of releases featuring his music could be counted on one hand. Fortunately, he has become more renowned and appreciated for his rich chordal textures and evocative melodic lines, and one can now easily find dozens of recordings, thanks in part to the efforts of esteemed pianists like Nikolai Demidenko and Marc-André Hamelin. Medtner clearly is close to Karpeyev’s heart (his doctoral thesis was on the composer, and is available online) and his dedication to this often-neglected composer came through strongly.  Karpeyev’s reading of the Sonate-Ballade (1912-14) featured lean textures, a deep sonorous bass under a clear legato melodic line, impassioned phrasing, and beautiful tonal colour. While the line was occasionally less defined in the more passionate climaxes, Karpeyev’s penetration of the composer’s unique harmonic language and architecture was fully authoritative.

The works of Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956) are rarely heard in concert, though they seem to be popular with young piano students. Karpeyev played five short works from the composer’s Opp.78 and 61, finding just the right components of lyrical phrasing and attentively voiced chords needed in these miniatures.

Rachmaninoff, who was particularly hard hit by the Revolution, was represented by his own transcription of nine otpuschayeshi from his All-Night Vigil (1915), coupled with an Etude-Tableau from Op. 39 (1917). The former was one of the composer’s most cherished works – he requested that it be performed at his funeral – and Karpeyev’s unmannered delivery helped the music reveal its solemnity without the weight of sentimentality.  His treatment of the latter impressed in its depth of tone and dynamic range.

Stravinsky’s ever-popular, if always-treacherous ‘Three Movements from Petrouchka’ (1910-11) provided a thrilling conclusion to the recital. In the pianist’s hands, this knuckle-busting showpiece featured taut rhythms and a wonderful range of tonal effects, coupled with always-mindful left-hand voicing. The only minor caveat might be that the bass occasionally lost its transparency. The encore, Medtner’s Novella Op.17 No.1, was a further reminder of Karpeyev’s sensitivity and ear for nuance.

This was a very accomplished and rewarding recital overall. Let us hope that Alexander Karpeyev will soon return to Vancouver for a third visit.


© Mark Ainley 2017

MARK AINLEY is a writer and teacher with a special focus on historical piano recordings. He has investigated and written about a number of important pianists, most notably Dinu Lipatti and Marcelle Meyer. His research on the former led to the discovery and publication of previously unpublished recordings of this legendary artist. He currently operates the websites and