Besalyan travels to Japan often to appear in concerts and conduct master classes, so it’s understandable that he would be engaged by a Japanese record company to produce his first solo commercial recording. He is no stranger to the U.S. Besalyan has appeared in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and he is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Japan’s Chopin Magazine hailed Besalyan as a “true heir of the mainstream of Russian pianism, like Horowitz.” Of his diverse training, however, which ranges from Armenia’s Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory and the Moscow State Conservatory, to New Jersey’s Rowan University, the influence I hear most strongly in Besalyan’s playing is that of Byron Janis, with whom he studied at the Manhattan School of Music.
There’s a physical strength and virility to Besalyan’s technical address mated to a bold spontaneity that can come only from a consummate mastery of the instrument and the musical notes. Horowitz, agreed, was a brilliant technician and an equally brilliant showman. But he was also careful. One never felt that Horowitz took unnecessary risks, like playing faster than he knew he could navigate a piece without mishap. What makes listening to Besalyan so exciting is that he plays very fast, almost daringly so, such that you expect a mishap to occur at any moment, and yet it never does. There is great authority, absolute control, and huge tonal resource to Besalyan’s Rachmaninoff Sonata that reminds me of Janis’s “Rach-3.”
For those who may not know Rachmaninoff’s Polka de V. R., it’s a short virtuosic arrangement of a piece by Franz Behr titled Lachtäubchen, a scherzo polka. The tune was a favorite of Rachmaninoff’s father, Vassily, hence the “V. R.” in the title.
Baghdassarian’s three short preludes are breathtakingly beautiful, a real discovery. Clearly influenced by Rachmaninoff—hints of the Russian composer’s Second Piano Concerto flit by in the B-Minor Prelude—other influences come to the fore in the E-Major Prelude, namely early Scriabin, Medtner, and even a brush against the cheek of Debussy. I, for one, would really like to know more about this obscure composer and hear more of his work, because these preludes are gorgeous, and Besalyan plays them with sweeping romantic gesture, expression, and poetry.
Garuna (Spring) is one of Komitas’ songs, which has here been arranged as a solo piano piece by Robert Andreasian. It, too, like the Baghdassarian preludes, is a really lovely, touching nocturnal song without words.
Of Liszt’s four Mephisto Waltzes, the No. 1 played here by Besalyan is the most popular. It, however, along with the No. 2, is one of the two scores that were originally composed for orchestra and only later appeared in piano arrangements. The Nos. 3 and 4 are the ones originally composed for piano. Being as familiar as I am with the No. 1 in its orchestral guise, it’s hard for me to cotton to it on piano, but the devil’s costume fits Besalyan well. His pitchfork thrusts and jabs, his barbed tail lashes wildly, and his horns gore savagely, creating a fevered dance of seduction between Mephistopheles and Faust.
Ravel’s famous La Valse is another work originally conceived for orchestra and only later transcribed for piano by the composer. Its first keyboard version, however, was not for solo piano but a two-piano reduction that was likely intended as a rehearsal score to a ballet Ravel was promoting to the great impresario Diaghilev that never materialized. It was only then that Ravel made the solo piano arrangement, an extremely difficult work that’s had fewer advocates on disc than the two-piano version.
Whether one feels a solo piano can ever do justice to the toxic fumes and vapors Ravel brews in his original orchestral score, the piano version is one of the ultimate technical challenges to test a player’s mettle, and Raffi Besalyan rises to the occasion with incredible panache and a performance that seems to transcend the possibility that this can be one man with only two hands and 10 fingers producing these sounds.
This is phenomenal pianism from a keyboard phenomenon that needs to be heard by everyone interested in pianists and the piano. Jerry Dubins
Judging by the concert reviews posted on his website, Besalyan frequently programs the three Baghdassarian preludes included here. They sound a lot like Rachmaninoff, with no hints of even conservative modernism. Notwithstanding their anachronistic style, these pieces are evocative, idiomatically pianistic, and well worth hearing. The B-Minor Prelude is technically demanding and gives the pianist an opportunity to display his excellent technique. Komitas is a national institution in Armenia and performed the same role there as did Bartók and Kodály in Hungary and the Mighty Handful in Russia, collecting and transcribing folk melodies and incorporating them into his compositions. He was primarily a vocal composer, and the piece offered here is one of his songs (its title translates as “Springtime”), in a piano transcription by Robert Andreasian. I know nothing of the song text, but the mood of the music, far from unalloyed joyfulness at the arrival of the season, is tinged with sadness and regret. In any case, it’s a rewarding piece, colorful and poignant. At the beginning there is a hint of Debussy, who reportedly had a high regard for Komitas, but the rest sounds rather like Russian piano music of the late 19th century.
Like Earl Wild (Ivory Classics) and Olga Kern (Harmonia Mundi), Besalyan performs the Rachmaninoff Sonata in its 1931 revision, and he yields nothing to those rivals in technical prowess. If his rendition seems less overtly brilliant, it is partly because he places more emphasis on the darker colorations of the left hand. The many tempo contrasts built into the sonata are less wide in Besalyan’s performance, with resulting gains in continuity and integration. Besalyan is easily competitive in this league, and his interpretation is perhaps the most satisfying of the three overall. He dispatches the Rachmaninoff Polka with a winning combination of grace and energy and is more persuasive than Kern, whom I find too lightweight here even for this lighthearted piece.
In the Liszt Mephisto Waltz, Besalyan impresses with clear articulation, well-judged tempo choices, and technical command. As in the Rachmaninoff Sonata, he succeeds in imposing unity and continuity on a piece that can seem episodic but still characterizes individual passages sensitively and effectively. He does not hurry the opening pages but supplies plenty of excitement and energy as well as flowing lyricism where they are needed. More than many interpreters, he treats this piece as music of substance rather than a mere vehicle for virtuosic display, although his virtuosity is not in question. Besalyan’s Mephisto is polished and gentlemanly sort.
Ravel’s La Valse is more often heard in a four-hand or two-piano arrangement, but Besalyan here tackles the composer’s 1921 transcription for a single pianist. In Besalyan’s hands, it works very well as a piano piece. He seems to have no difficulty with its fearsome technical challenges, and I am once again impressed by his tempo control and ability to maintain linear continuity while characterizing individual passages effectively.
The recorded sound on this disc is well balanced and highly realistic. On the evidence of this recital, Raffi Besalyan is a pianist of formidable ability, and one would like to hear more of him. In the meantime, I recommend this release for its compelling performances and as a sampling of this pianist’s artistry. Daniel Morrison
Rachmaninoff’s piano music needs passion, but it also needs control. Raffi Besalyan is one of the few pianists active today who is able to give both in equal measure, and without any feeling of compromise. His tempos are fluid, but they never go to extremes, nor do his dynamics. He is able to draw a huge range of colors from the piano, which gives a real sense of purpose to Rachmaninoff’s accompanying textures, preventing them from ever sounding frivolous. Besalyan also has a keen sense of the inner life of Rachmaninoff’s melodies, giving them the rubato they need to breathe, but always keeping half an eye on their structural significance too.
This debut CD opens with the revised version of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata. That’s a very popular choice for debut recital CDs, so there is an onus to make the interpretation a distinctive one. And that’s exactly what Besalyan does. It’s the discipline of his playing that separates him from most of the competition, but the discipline never stifles the emotion. The articulations and dynamics are all finely judged, and patiently graduated in the longer crescendos. Contrasts between sections articulate the structure well, especially in the first movement where the turbulent first subject is ideally complemented by the delicate and lyrical second. Pedaling is generous, but again clearly thought through with great care in advance.
The program continues with Rachmaninoff’s Polka de V. R. before moving to music by one of Besalyan’s Armenian compatriots, Edward Baghdassarian. Unless you are following the track listing, you are unlikely to notice where the Rachmaninoff ends and the Baghdassarian begins, such are the stylistic similarities between them. That doesn’t make the latter particularly distinctive, but it does mean that all the musical virtues Besalyan brings to the Rachmaninoff can be applied here with equal effect. And while Baghdassarian won’t win any points for originality, the skill with which he continues Rachmaninoff’s aesthetic is laudable.
We can have no such qualms about the originality of Liszt’s music, and his Mephisto Waltz No.1 sets the pianist some very different challenges. But Besalyan again takes a disciplined and clearly articulated approach. Liszt gives him the opportunity to conjure up some entirely different colors from the piano, which he again does with impressive poise. While the results are technically accurate, the sheer quantity of control can oppress this music slightly. There is little of Liszt’s demonic side in this reading, and if Besalyan were to show off his virtuosity more, that might be more in the spirit of the work.
After an exquisite and beguiling miniature from Komitas (a staple for most Armenian musicians), Besalyan concludes his program with an impressive rendition of Ravel’s piano version of La Valse. Besalyan’s ability to subtly grade his dynamics is an invaluable asset in a work based on a gradual crescendo lasting some 13 minutes. And the patience with which he paces the work gives him (and us) the chance to appreciate the beautiful harmonies and textures along the way. At the climax he finally lets his enthusiasm run away with him, to dizzying effect in those glorious final pages. Gavin Dixon