Alexander Kobrin, Piano
Carnegie Hall, Zankel Hall
Thursday, December 19, 2019 7:30 pm
presented by Yamaha Artist Services
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, Op. 7
Schumann – Waldszenen, Op. 82
Brahms – Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5
Yamaha Artist Services take exemplary care of their protégés, and these include pianists at different stages of their careers and of many different inclinations. In Alexander Kobrin they have a pianist of the highest technical accomplishment who follows his own unique path in interpretation. Assistant Professor of Piano at the Eastman School of Music, he was trained in his native Russia at the Gnessins Special Music School and Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory with professors Tatiana Zelikman and Lev Naumov. He has achieved an outstanding record in international piano competitions, winning a gold medal at the Twelfth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. His numerous successes in competitions also include top prizes at the Busoni International Piano Competition (First Prize), Hamamatsu International Piano Competition (Top Prize), Scottish International Piano Competition in Glasgow (First Prize).
Kobrin’s Russian origins show in the brilliance and consistency of his tone and his rootedness in pianism. His musicianship is impeccable, but he is first and foremost a pianist, not a “musician who plays the the piano” in the German tradition. On the other hand, the most important impression this recital made on me consisted of some remarkable musical insights.
Mr. Kobrin began the recital with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E Flat, Op. 7 (1797), his fourth work in the genre, following the three sonatas of Op. 2 (1795), and a favorite of mine. As Kobrin proceeded through the first movement, I felt as if I couldn’t find my way in it. Its perfectly clear phrasal structure and sonata-form seemed to dissolve into the background, while a harmonic or coloristic surprise emerged here and there in the development and coda. This impression grew as the meditative second movement unfolded, especially when the B section comes to full flower and prepares to return to the A theme, then in the final bars. Likewise in the harmonic shifts of the third movement Allegro and its Trio, as well as the final movement, for example, when the agitated middle section in the minor transitions into the main theme. Here the harmonic wanderings of the coda seemed more important than the return to the home key. He achieved this through his remarkable sense of dynamics and the exquisite pianissimo he is able to produce on the Yamaha CFX he played at Zankel. His pedalling was discreet and perfectly judged for early Beethoven. I felt as if I’d lost my way in this familiar territory, an inherently classical piano sonata Beethoven wrote when he was still breathing the air of Haydn. In the hands of most pianists its structures, both on a small scale and in individual movements is perfectly clear, although richly developed. Every pianist I have heard in this work accepts, even asserts, its classical form. If Beethoven chose to elaborate harmonic digressions—or conundrums—he did it within the classical architecture of the sonata. Wherever he went, the listener knows where he is in it. Kobrin’s interpretation was different. It was as if classical form were merely incidental to Beethoven’s invention. I wasn’t ready to fault Kobrin in this, but it left me with questions.
The answer came in the centerpiece of the program, Schumann’s Waldszenen. This was indeed where Kobrin’s artistic center lies, and I think most people who know Schumann and this glorious piece in nine short movements—sketches, really, in which the composer cuts directly to the feelings and impressions evoked in the sylvan titles. Kobrin played these with sweep and atmosphere, with more pedalling than in the Beethoven, but with a fine sense of what is appropriate. Few listeners would fail to be convinced, or even carried away by Kobrin’s brilliant technique and intuitive sense of Schumann’s poetry.
And this gave me the key to his approach to the Beethoven, as well as his equally individual way with the Brahms sonata that followed the intermission. I concluded that Kobrin was giving precedence to the composer’s ultimate goal in writing. According to his program note, he regards this as Beethoven’s first self-expression in his piano sonatas. In this view the twenty-seven-year-old composer was still constrained by classical form, but he could escape it in the modulations of the development, transitions, and codas. In performance Kobrin has let himself loose into this partially achieved inspiration. His unique personal insight into this aspect of Beethoven’s writing is, once one understands it, convincing and valuable.
In his early sonatas, Brahms has always seemed to me constrained by classical form to the detriment of expression. His mentor Schumann struggled with the same dilemma in his piano sonatas. Kobrin regards the Third Sonata as essentially symphonic. In this he is not alone. It inspired him to use the pedal heavily this time to create swirling currents of sound, in the last movement surging like gigantic waves in a stormy ocean. In this he unleashed to some degree what he feels Brahms intended, but was as yet incapable of expressing directly. Unlike Beethoven, for whom classical form was second nature by training and historical circumstance and for whom it was essentially a way to avoid repetition, Brahms’ early sonatas suffer somewhat from prolixity, and Kobrin’s sweeping romanticism heightened this flaw in the composer’s technique—one he succeeded in avoiding in his mature work. Whoever plays this work with whatever approach, there will be problems, although the work is sufficiently compelling to maintain a place in the repertoire. In any case, I feel that I have much to learn in coming to terms with these early works of Brahms.
Alexander Kobrin’s playing is deeply thought out and intuitive at once—truly individualistic, but not quite idiosyncratic—and his recital was fascinating. I look forward to hearing more of his playing made on the Bösendorfer 280VC ENSPIRE PRO, which records the pianist’s actual playing and allows the editing of details, in his forthcoming Beethoven CD, but above all in concert.