Music Review: SERGEI BABAYAN (Rachmaninoff: Préludes — Études-Tableaux — Moments Musicaux on Deutsche Grammophon)

by Tony Frankel on October 1, 2020

in CD-DVD,Music


Armenian-American Sergei Babayan, 59, was Daniil Trifonov’s piano teacher for a time, but in recent years the student has surpassed the teacher, at least in reputation. I saw the two in a duo-piano recital concert at Disney Hall in 2018 (which seems like decades ago given COVID-19), and I was mesmerized by Trifonov, who would hunch over the keys or occasionally bounce emphatically like he was galloping on a horse. Babayan rarely moved his positioning. Both portrayed sensitivity, emotion, and virtuosity, yet Babayan was more resounding.

Now, Babayan has released a solo album from Deutsche Grammophon that is pure Rachmaninoff and pure heaven. And, I’m happy to say, a completely different take than Trifonov, who has a combination more feathery and fiery on his Rach CDs. Here, without being funereal, Babayan has captured a more complex and robust sound, both theatrical and expressive, almost thicker, like a well-aged port without the sticky sweetness. (Coincidentally, these tracks were recorded back in 2009!)

Among the 15 juxtaposed tracks of Préludes, Études-Tableaux, and Moments Musicaux, the préludes are some of the best that I’ve heard. Babayan has Rachmaninoff down pat. He has the technique and the musicality to do justice to the entire sonic world of the Russian composer, who had a stunning gift for melody which carried over into his accompaniment, which can be almost as interesting as the melody. The key to performing these preludes (A flat major; G sharp minor; F minor; B minor; D major) is to get the balance between the two just right. Melody always heard, but not at the expense of drowning out the accompaniment and visa versa. In this regard, that balance is spot-on.

Each of the Études-Tableaux (C minor, op. 33; C minor & A minor. op. 39) reflects Rachmaninoff’s emotional intensity, his thrilling gifts as a melodist and his ability to crystallize perfectly a particular mood or sentiment. Babayan drizzles the sonorous textures with a rich embellishment, just as Rachmaninoff, one of the very greatest pianists of the 20th century, also did.

Of the six Musical Moments, op. 16 (separate solo works for piano composed by Rachmaninoff in 1896), Babayan chose two of my favorites. The E flat minor and C major are both popular with students, but here the teacher shows how to make them his own. He gets to the heart of these and the albums other compositions in ways that elude many otherwise fine pianists. Babayan positively penetrates the pieces, but it never feels frenzied.

The other various transcriptions that round out this highly recommended collection are the third movement of the Cello Sonata op. 19 and the two songs “Lilacs” and “Melody” from the op. 21 set, that Babayan, the liner notes tell us, has known and loved since he was a child. Everyone should know, and will love, this fine album.

Sergei Babayan
Rachmaninoff: Préludes — Études-Tableaux — Moments Musicaux
Deutsche Grammophon (DG)

15 tracks | 61:04 | released August 7, 2020
available at Amazon, iTunes, and DG

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