Fanfare Magazine Interview

Raffi Besalyan has much in common with Sergei Rachmaninoff. Both were trained in the great Eastern European piano tradition, with its focus on intensity and drama. They also share a passion for melody and lyricism, regularly subduing their turbulent piano textures in favor of graceful melodic lines. And both crossed the Atlantic to bring these Eastern qualities to appreciative American audiences.

Dance, Drama, Decadence is the name of Besalyan’s newly released debut album, and it’s no surprise to find Rachmaninoff at the top of the program. “I always felt a very strong affinity for Rachmaninoff long before moving to the US” Besalyan recalls. “I remember hearing his C# minor Prelude for the first time when I was ten and being in awe. It was definitely a love from the first sight, or rather first hearing. Immediately after that I went to the library, borrowed the score and learned the work within a week or so. It felt incredibly satisfying physically and emotionally to play Rachmaninoff! This was the time when I firmly decided to become a professional pianist.”

Besalyan hails from Armenia, where he began his training, before moving to the US, with a very important stop en route in Moscow. “In 1996, at the end of my conservatory years in Armenia, I saw a poster advertising the 2nd Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition in Moscow, and was determined to enter it. After hearing my performances at the competition, a piano professor from the States extended an invitation for me to come to the US to further my career. I have been extensively performing Rachmaninoff’s music around the world and teaching it to my pupils for many years now.”

He’s not the first pianist, of course, to take Rachmaninoff’s sensuous music to his heart. Besalyan locates his own interpretations within a tradition that has developed on both sides of the Atlantic. Vladimir Horowitz is one of his heroes. Besalyan describes him as a “temperamental virtuoso with an enormous color palette and an extreme range of sound and dynamics.” Another influential figure was the American pianist Byron Janis, a pupil of Horowitz and an heir to his passionate interpretive approach, which, Besalyan points out, is clearly demonstrated in Janis’ famous recordings of the Rachmaninoff concertos. “I am proud to say that I have had the privilege of studying with Mr. Janis at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Mr. Janis’ colorful and brilliant performances that are full of great imagination became a huge inspiration to me.”

So how better to open his debut CD than with one of Rachmaninoff’s most famous compositions? “I could not think of any other work than his bold and magnificent Sonata No.2 to open the program on my debut CD!” Besalyan says. He has opted for the revised 1931 version of the work, which is shorter than the original. But that greater concision really helps it to pack a punch. Besalyan quotes Rachmaninoff on the revision “…in this sonata, so many voices are moving simultaneously, and it is too long. Chopin’s Sonata Op.35 lasts 19 minutes, and all has been said.” “I completely agree with this statement,” Besalyan continues, “even though there are some gorgeous passages with lush harmonies in the original version, I still feel that the revised version is so much better in terms of the form and structure. I personally like the compactness of the 1931 version.”

To Western ears, the distinctions between Russian and Armenian approaches to piano playing can be difficult to gauge, so how do Russian audiences respond to Besalyan’s Rachmaninoff interpretations? “They think my playing is temperamental and powerful,” he says. “In Russia, Armenians are considered very temperamental and hot blooded,” a view that listeners to Besalyan’s Rachmaninoff are likely to share. When performing in Russia, Besalyan is also often commended for the flexibility of his phrasing. A particularly Armenian quality? Perhaps. “One Russian critic even said that my rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations reminded him of ancient Armenian Chants.”

Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata is followed on the disc by music from four other composers, two of whom are Armenian, Edward Baghadassarian and Komitas Vardapet. Baghadassarian is not yet a household name in the West, in fact he’s not even in Grove, so Besalyan fills us in on the composer’s background.

“Edward Baghadassarian (1922–1987) was a graduate of the Yerevan State Conservatory where he double majored in piano and composition. He later studied at the Moscow Conservatory and afterwards joined the faculty of the Yerevan Komitas Conservatory. Among his works are a Symphonic Poem, a Sonata for clarinet and piano, an Overture for symphony orchestra, a Rhapsody for violin and orchestra, 24 Preludes for piano, the ballet Chess, a Piano Concerto, romances, choral works, incidental music and movie scores.”

Baghadassarian’s piano music, at least under Besalyan’s fingers, sounds a lot like Rachmaninoff. He has the same intensely lyrical approach and an impressive ability to voice his harmonies to create an expansive resonance from the piano. So was Rachmaninoff an important influence?

“I feel that most Soviet era composers were more or less influenced, perhaps inspired, by the late Russian Romantic music, including Rachmaninoff’s. I believe it was hard to resist the lush harmonic language and the sweeping melodic lines, not to mention the exquisite pianistic writing. Despite all of these influences, one can undeniably recognize purely Armenian folk characteristics – unique harmonies, melismatic melodic twists stemming from ancient Armenian sacred music, and the many dance-like sections.”

Komitas, Armenia’s famous composer-priest, has a higher profile on the international music scene. His is fine music, again based on a natural gift for melody. But has the recent rise in his profile been the result of the many recordings on labels like ECM, or does it indicate a resurgence in Armenian national identity among classical musicians?

“I think it is both. In recent years, more and more gifted Armenian musicians have had the opportunity to go outside of the country and promote their cultural and musical traditions. Komitas, who is the father of Armenian classical music, and whose works have become symbols of the nation, deservedly receives quite a lot of attention. Songs such as Garun a (Spring) and Krunk (Crane) are particularly recognizable.”

Besalyan performs the music of both composers with passion and commitment, making the best possible case for their work. He clearly doesn’t think they need special treatment, as between the two Armenians he sandwiches music by one of the greatest piano composers of all time, Franz Liszt. Do the challenges posed by Liszt differ from those posed by Rachmaninoff?

“I do enjoy playing Liszt and include his works in my concert programs often. I tend to like his compositions that are programmatic and more theatrical in nature, such as the Mephisto Waltz that is on this CD, his B minor and Dante Sonatas, and some of the Transcendental Études.

Both Liszt and Rachmaninoff were considered among the greatest pianists of all time. Even though very challenging, their music is extremely pianistic and settles under the fingers comfortably (of course, assuming that one has developed a certain level of technical fluency). It is the artist’s challenge not to make Liszt’s music sound purely virtuosic. One must approach Liszt’s works with a subtle taste for color and rubato, and also tonal sensitivity and imagination. Some of the challenges presented in Rachmaninoff’s music are the more polyphonic writing, dense chordal textures and complex forms. Both composer’s music is quite temperamental and emotional, and it is the pianist’s obligation to deliver performances that are full of excitement and fire and are multidimensional in nature.”

The program concludes with Ravel, the solo piano version of La Valse. Many think of this work as the final summation of the Romantic era. Is this why Besalyan has chosen it to end this program of Romantic works?

“You could say that. La Valse is the summation, or perhaps the “decay and destruction” of the Romantic era. Also, since the title of my CD is “Dance, Drama, Decadence”, I felt that this composition in particular fits all three categories and concludes the program with an exclamation point.”

It certainly does that. Besalyan often mentions color among the qualities required of a pianist by composers like Rachmaninoff and Liszt. Does he aim for an orchestral color palette from the piano when he performs this transcription of the famous orchestral score?

“I look at the piano as an orchestra of its own. I do always aspire to produce orchestral sounds and colors when playing the piano literature. In the case of La Valse, it feels natural and necessary to do so. I do also enjoy the theatrical component of this work (un poem choreographique), as it was originally conceived as a ballet. To me Ravel’s own words describing this work are the most inspirational: “…one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement.””

In addition to his successful career as a performer, Besalyan devotes much of his time to teaching. He is a member of the Faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point where he is Associate Professor of Piano. Besalyan received his own musical education through a very different system, and recalls the rigors of the intensely structured program he followed in Armenia. As a child, he won a place at a special music school for gifted children, which provided high quality teaching and a continuity between the school syllabus and the conservatoire that followed.

“Music education in Russia and Armenia is more performance oriented.” Besalyan says “By the time students enter the conservatory they are pretty well equipped technically on their instrument and have a thorough musical background. At the conservatory they polish and refine their skills with an established professor on the way to becoming artists or teachers themselves.”

It’s an intensive system that makes high demands on the pupils. Things may be a little more relaxed in the States, but Besalyan detects a desire among his students for Soviet-style rigor.

“Many students come to study with me expecting the Russian approach. They know my expectations of them, they know it is not going to be only “fun”, but hard and serious work in order to achieve a certain quality. They want and expect constructive criticism all the time.”

One of the valuable links to Russian and Armenian pianism that Besalyan is able to offer his students is the repertoire he loves. His pupils come from all over the world, but many have come to share his passions. He currently has a Korean student studying some Baghadassarian Preludes, and he has also mentored a number of American students in the music of Komitas.

Rachmaninoff is a favorite for many of his Japanese pupils, and Besalyan’s own concert schedule suggests that Japanese audiences also share the passion. He regularly performs in Japan, and finds that the late Romantic repertoire goes down particularly well there.

“Yes, in Japan they definitely value the late Romantic piano music, especially Rachmaninoff’s.” And they obviously value Besalyan’s interpretations just as much; his new album has been awarded the “Jun- tokusen” special commendation by Japan’s leading classical music magazine, Record Geijutsu.

The album was recorded in Japan, and from Besalyan’s description of the project, it sounds like a great place to make and record classical music. “Record sales are healthy there,” Besalyan says, “because in Japan classical music is almost equally as popular as the other genres. Many young people are quite knowledgeable about classical music (almost everyone in Japan takes serious private music lessons as a youngster), and they attend classical concerts and buy records as well.”

And as you might expect, Japanese sound engineers have both the technology and the expertise to achieve the highest recording standards. “The equipment is definitely of high quality and the crew is very meticulous.” Besalyan enthuses, “I had a great recording engineer in particular. He had a great ear, as well as excellent taste and knowledge of music and of his craft.”

So can we expect any further recordings in the near future? Besalyan’s growing fan base, especially in Japan, makes that prospect all the more likely. He’s in discussion right now with the label about a follow-up disc. Possible repertoire includes piano sonatas by Prokofiev and Scriabin. It turns out that Gershwin is very popular in Japan. He’s one of Besalyan’s favorite composers too, so some Gershwin Preludes are likely to make the cut. Then of course there’s the Armenian repertoire, and Besalyan is certainly planning to get some more of his compatriots’ music on the new disc. “Nothing is finalized yet” he adds with a note of caution “but there is definitely interest, so hopefully we can realize this project in the near future.”