Raffi Besalyan: The Sound of Black & White
The title of Armenian-American pianist Raffi Besalyan's third solo album and second for Sono Luminus (the first, The Return, appeared in 2015) alludes not only to the instrument's keys but also the romantic character associated with New York City in the early decades of the twentieth century (the Chrysler Building visible behind Besalyan on the cover makes the point explicitly). Certainly the presence of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and other material by the American master is consistent with that, but the recording's scope extends into other areas too, though not arbitrarily. As prominently featured are works by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian, one in a piano arrangement by Oscar Levant, who's himself represented on the album as a composer in his Sonatina for Piano. Levant was a fervent supporter of both Gershwin and Khachaturian, as was pianist Earl Wild, who's represented here by four piano treatments of Gershwin songs. In short, however unrelated the figures might initially appear, connections abound. The set-list also qualifies as a love letter of sorts from Besalyan to music associated with his native and adopted countries.
Despite the fact that their respective roots are in Armenian and American soils, Khachaturian and Gershwin both wrote melodically enticing material. Hear the former's “Sabre Dance” once, for instance, and it'll likely stay with you, and any number of Gershwin pieces, be it Rhapsody in Blue or songs such as “Embraceable You” and “The Man I Love,” similarly have the power to embed themselves permanently in one's memory. As a result, The Sound of Black & White not only distinguishes itself for fabulous interpretations by Besalyan but for its bounty of melodic riches. Works familiar and unfamiliar benefit from the formidable technical command this Associate Professor of Piano at Georgia State University in Atlanta demonstrates on the seventy-two-minute recording. Listening to his inspiring presentation of jazzy syncopation and rhapsodic splendour is a bonafide pleasure.
The album follows a logical trajectory, opening as it does with a series of Khachaturian pieces before then moving on to the Levant work, Wild's Gershwin-based etudes, and then two of Gershwin's own works; a brief return to Khachaturian at album's end lends the recording a satisfying shape. Written as incidental music for a play, his “Waltz” from Masquerade immediately engages for its melodic allure and swaying rhythm but also for the virtuosic execution by Besalyan. The tone shifts dramatically for “Adagio” from the ballet Spartacus, the delicacy of the material calling forth a different though no less important type of virtuosity from the pianist. Particularly striking is his expert handling of tempo and the assurance with which the slow passages are handled. In both cases (and in what follows), his obvious rapport with the material makes the performances feel authentic and genuine. The three-movement Sonatina in C major wends its way through an ebullient “Allegro giocoso,” a tender and rather noir-ish “Andante con anima, rubato,” and robust “Allegro mosso” before the haunting trills of “Lullaby” appear.
Classically structured in three movements, Levant's Sonatina for Piano (first presented in 1932 but appearing here in its world premiere recording) sounds perfectly at home amongst the other pieces, given its strong melodies and rhythms. It doesn't hurt either that the material exudes a rather Gershwin-esque character in its bluesy blend of jazz textures and syncopation.
Four selections from Virtuoso Etudes after Gershwin, crafted by Wild and based on Gershwin show tunes, feature perhaps the album's most virtuosic Besalyan performances. While “Somebody Loves Me” and “Fascinatin' Rhythm” are memorable, it's the oceanic scales and arpeggios of “Embraceable You” and “The Man I Love” that dazzle most brightly. From that Wild treatment, the album advances to Gershwin proper, first with the Three Preludes for Piano and then Rhapsody in Blue. In the former, jazzy swing animates the “Allegro ben ritmato e deciso,” after which “Andante con moto e poco rubato (Blue Lullaby)” lives up to its billing with a dreamy, late-night evocation. Besalyan breathes vivid life into Rhapsody, with the solo piano arrangement allowing him to dictate choices of dynamics, phrasing, and tempo. Some passages are executed breathlessly and others with less intensity, but the performance is riveting for the enthusiasm, feeling, and conviction with which it's delivered. However familiar it might be, it's resoundingly reborn in Besalyan's hands. Rounding out the programme is Levant's piano version of Khachaturian's high-energy “Sabre Dance.”
The Sound of Black & White does much to affirm Besalyan's artistry as performer, interpreter, and curator, but it's also noteworthy for giving attention to Levant and Wild and recognizing the roles they played in music history. The recording likewise serves as a reminder of Gershwin's special gifts, but don't be surprised if you also find yourself reappraising and newly appreciating Khachaturian as a composer when the album's finished.