Classical Music Review: Roustem Saïtkoulov — A Poet of the Piano

Aside from his seemingly effortless technique, Roustem Saïtkoulov struck me as a poet of the piano. Music seems to be his first language.

Pianist Roustem Saïtkoulov in action at  Longy’s Pickman Hall. Photo: courtesy of Anna Winestein.

By Susan Miron

After a lifetime of listening to pianists live and on recording, I had never come across the name of Roustem Saïtkoulov. But I was intrigued by the idea of his sponsor, a modern-day organization called the Ballets Russes Arts Initiative. Also, he was performing three of my favorite sets of keyboard pieces by Chopin, Debussy, and Stravinsky. So I ventured out this past Sunday evening filled with curiosity and anticipation.

I was not disappointed. Longy’s Pickman Hall was packed, partially with Saïkoulov’s dozens of (rather glamorous) fans. Written between 1835 and 1842, Chopin’s four harmonically adventurous and much-loved Ballades for solo piano inspired both Liszt and Brahms (to say nothing of thousands of ambitious pianists). It is nervy to start off a program with any of Chopin’s four Ballades, let alone all four. I do not recall ever hearing all four Ballades played together in one technically murderous setting, and do not expect this feat to be repeated anytime soon. All I had to compare this herculean effort to is old recordings — and Saïkoulov measured up to the best. In fact, his was such a convincing and exciting rendition that I would miss hearing the other three Ballades if a future program presents merely one.

A number of things about this pianist initially struck me. For one thing, music that is nightmarishly difficult for most pianists seems, to him, to be all-in-a-day’s-work. He can handle the masterworks for piano virtuosos — and did, throughout the evening — ending (the printed program) with Stravinsky’s finger-busting “Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka” (1921). But these days musicians who place in/win competitions can play anything. Aside from his seemingly effortless technique, Saïtkoulov struck me as a poet of the piano. Music seems to be his first language. He is also quite graceful, and I was often reminded of harp playing, where one moves away from the instrument to mold the sound. Your upper body becomes part of the instrument. I am not one who generally enjoys watching pianists’ hands, but Saïtkoulov’s were, oddly, as expressive as the music they created — a thing of beauty.

Born in Kazan, Russia, Saïtkoulov studied at Moscow Conservatory, which is famous for producing instrumentalists with brilliant techniques. He then studied in Munich: he won prizes in many competitions, played in lots of festivals, and with many orchestras. He lives in Paris, and perhaps is best known for his ongoing collaboration with the excellent violinist Maxim Vengerov. I have a rule that, if I like a concert, I will buy one of the artist’s CDs. In this case, I bought two — both featuring Chopin. The composer would seem to be the pianist’s calling card.

The concert was entitled “The Lure of Paris” and focused on three composers drawn to a city that attracted, in particular, so many prominent East Europeans and Russians. Claude Debussy (1862-1918) has been widely celebrated and performed this year (the hundredth anniversary of his death). Saïtkoulov’s Debussy was among the finest performances I have heard. It was also the highlight, for me, of this program, because I had rarely heard these three scintillating “Images, 1ere Serie” (1904-1905), which Debussy considered “sonic pictures,” played with such sensitivity, panache, and color.

There is a fascinating new Debussy biography I would highly recommend, Debussy: A Painter in Sound by Stephen Walsh (who also was a biographer of Stravinsky). Debussy was at his most inspired when writing about water — the sea (the orchestral masterpiece, “La Mer”) and, in the first “Image,” “Reflets dan l’eau” (Reflections in the Water), composed shortly after “La Mer.” Apparently, it was the second piece he wrote (the first had been abandoned) with this title, “based on new ideas and according to the most recent discoveries of harmonic chemistry.” Debussy called the opening “a little circle of water, with a little pebble falling into it.” According to Walsh, Debussy may have composed this gorgeous piece without having access to a piano. Yet, the biographer writes, “the voicing and delicacy of the chords and the treatment of resonance and pedallings (implied but, as usual with him, never indicated) are of a precision seldom to be found even in keyboard music where voicing and resonance obey textbook procedures that Debussy had now abandoned.”

The second piece in this series, the stately, elegant sarabande “Hommage a`Rameau” presents an austere but nostalgic remembrance of composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), whose opera-ballet Les Fêtes de Polymnie (1745) Debussy was editing for publication at the time this piece was composed. Saïtkoulov played the the dazzling “Mouvement,” which requires an artillery of technical tricks, with exuberance.

Stravinsky’s “3 Mouvements de Petrouchka” (1921) existed first in its famous orchestral/ballet version, when Arthur Rubinstein, then 34, offered 5000 francs for Stravinsky to create a three-movement piano version. Stravinsky’s first sketches of Petrushka (from the summer of 1910) took the form of a concerto for piano and orchestra, and it was only at the urging of impresario Diaghilev that he rerouted his energies into a theatrical vein and produced the now well known work. Strangely enough, Rubinstein never recorded these “Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka,” though accounts of his many live performances of the piece testify to his close sympathy with the music.

All three movements include wild and rapid jumps which span over two octaves, complex polyrhythms, extremely fast scales, multiple glissandos, and tremolos. It’s almost as much fun to watch performed as it is to hear. Saïtkoulov’s was a stunning performance of a piece I absolutely adore. The audience loved it — this is an irresistible piece when played this well. But no one expected, after this exhilarating display, an encore. Or, for that matter, two — A tender, calm Nocturne
in D flat major, Op 27 no 2 by Chopin and Liszt’s virtuosic “Paraphrase on Verdi’s “Rigoletto.””

*The Ballets Russes Arts Initiative was co-founded by Anna Winestein and Peter Rand in 2009. Winestein explains: “Our model is the legendary performing arts company known as the Ballets Russes, which existed between 1909 and 1929, based loosely in Paris and later Monte-Carlo. Composed initially of performers and creatives (composers, choreographers, designers) from the Russian Empire, it quickly incorporated many Europeans and even Americans, who worked together with their Eastern counterparts to revolutionize dance, theater, visual art and music. Also, although many of the premieres took place in France, the troupe travelled incessantly around Europe (they actually performed more times, in total, in England than in France). The Ballets Russes even came to the US as well as South America, spreading new aesthetic ideas around the world. This was possibly the greatest example of Eastern European cultural engagement and exchange with the West, and a model for the creative collaboration and cultural understanding that we seek to enable.”

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

1 Comment

  1. Raoul Henri Alcala on November 8, 2018 at 10:10 pm

    Very enlightening review; quite a performance by Roustem, indeed!

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