The genre of solo piano is extravagantly rich with creative possibilities and may be Western classical music’s most fertile ground for individual expression.
Yet, many of the standard repertoire works and certainly the composers who created them are so widely heard and familiarized that performers can feel bound to tradition and audiences’ expectations.
This is the predicament that separates mere technicians from true artistic genius. The physical ability to perform a great piano work is impressive but the talent to use that work as a vehicle for expression is profoundly more remarkable. Dr. Alexander Tutunov is most certainly among the elite few pianists with this gift. On Saturday, May 4, I attended the Port Angeles Symphony’s benefit concert by Tutunov at the beautiful Maier Hall at Peninsula College. The performance was well-programmed, providing engaging contrasts and connections from one piece to the next.
The first half of the concert comprised works by the “Three B’s” — Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
Commonly grouped together for a balance of resemblance and diversity, these composers represent the peaks of Germanic music in the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras respectively.
The second half of the performance featured all Russian composers: Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and the lesser known Mikhail Glinka. Though all but one of the composers represented are standard inclusions, Tutunov selected their less-often performed works, giving his program freshness while remaining relatable. Even the Glinka “Farewell” Nocturne felt familiar with Chopin-like arpeggios intertwining with a folksy Russian melodic line. Tutunov clearly brought this texture forward.
Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111 and Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 were the highlights of the evening. In the Beethoven, Tutunov’s control over the tone of the piano was astounding. His dynamics created the effect of distance and movement as if a storm blew in from the mountains over the listener, then away into the horizon. He emphasized Beethoven’s strong dissonances and let the gentle consonances float gracefully by.
The second movement of this piece was a textural smorgasbord with passages ranging from dreamy and serene to highly syncopated proto-jazz, demonstrating the pianist’s excellent flexibility.
In the Prokofiev, Tutunov employed almost the exact opposite expressive techniques. He softened the dissonances, giving them a shimmering, spinning quality, allowing unresolved tensions to dissolve and fade, while his treatment of melodic material was quite bold, lending a beautiful and at times even lyrical voice to the piano. His contrast in approach to these two sonatas came full circle to reveal incredible similarities between the works that would have been lost under the hands of a lesser pianist.
Tutunov’s artistry frees the piano from its subjugation to a harmonic role and allows it to blossom into an instrument of pure color. This shift in focus is clearly the result of a lifetime of delving into the possibilities of the piano, resulting in highly individualized expression. By coupling this with wonderful programming, the pianist invites the listener to experience this music in a unique way, as shifting shades, hues and textures. His color-centered approach gave the concert an intellectual flow and strong musical cohesion, evidence of the pianist’s superb artistry.