Review of "The Sound of Black & White": exhilarating temperament, complete technical equipment and immense musicality

Raffi Besalyan: exhilarating temperament, complete technical equipment and immense musicality

In The Sound of Black And White, a new release by the reliably enterprising label SONO LUMINUS, the Armenian-American pianist Raffi Besalyan explores rarely heard repertoire by Oscar Levant and Earl Wild, piano versions of familiar music from the play Masquerade, and the ballets Spartacus, and Gayane by fellow Armenian Aram Khachaurian, and George Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Piano and Rhapsody in Blue.

Raffi Besalyan is an adventurously imaginative artist whose The Return – his previous album for SONO LUMINUS – was successfully received by both listeners and critics. With an international reputation that precedes him, Besalyan is comfortably open to investigating compositions off the beaten path, which unquestionably enrich the listener’s experience much more than yet another recording of the well worn concert repertoire.

Aram Khachaturian’s oeuvre has long been accepted as part of a world that is neither standard concert material nor pops concerts go-to selections. How unfortunate that is, for this often derided 20th concert, ballet, and film composer left behind an impressive musical legacy that deserves to be explored as it is in this album. In addition to bringing out the rapturous lyricism of the Adagio from Spartacus and the simplicity of the Lullaby and the exhilaration of the Sabre Dancefrom Gayane, Raffi Besalyan opens the CD with a partially lively, partially melancholy waltz from Masquerade. Later, listening to the neglected and groundbreaking for its time and place Sonatina in C major it is easy to understand why Khachaturian faced reprimands from the Soviet apparatchiks in charge of music for what they stupidly labeled “formalism.”

Besalyan introduces most of us listeners to Oscar Levant’s jazzy, contrapuntally intricate, harmonically gritty, boldly daring 1932 Sonatina for Piano, a three-movement tour de force chockfull of syncopated twists and turns here recorded for the very first time and offering proof positive of what alternative path Levant’s career could have taken had Hollywood not come calling time and again.

Four of Earl Wild’s 7 Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs provides Raffi Besalyan with an opportunity to put his protean technique to work along with his uncanny gift to make his piano achieve a cantabile flavor in Somebody Loves Me, Fascinatin’ Rhythm, Embraceable You and The Man I Love.

The artist shines once more in the familiar Three Preludes for Piano, brilliantly decisive in the first Allegro, poignant in the Blue Lullaby, rhythmically vibrant in theSpanish Prelude.

Besalyan offers up a Rhapsody in Blue in which for the space of nearly sixteen minutes none of the Paul Whiteman orchestration is missed, and where we get 100% of the inventiveness of the composer brought out with a bold approach to all of the many episodes that put together make this work a one of a kind staple of the American concert repertoire.

There will certainly many more CD’s issued this troubled year of 2021 but there will not be this many in which an artist of exhilarating temperament, complete technical equipment and immense musicality shares his larger than life talent in both lesser known and beloved selections.

Kudos go as well to SONO LUMINUS for a beautifully produced and superbly engineered recording.