SCRUTINY | Sofya Gulyak Dismantles and Disarms at Heliconian Hall

By Robin Roger on May 4, 2015

Photo: Ben Duffy/SWPIX.COM
Russian pianist Sofya Gulyak Photo: Ben Duffy/SWPIX.COM

Syrinx Concert Series: Sofya Gulyak at the Heliconian Hall, Sunday, May 3, 2015.

In 2009, at the age of 30,  the Russian pianist Sofya Gulyak became the first woman to win the 1st prize and the Princess Mary Gold Medal at the Leeds International Piano Competition. (The first Canadian to win this competition was Jon Kimura Parker, in 1984, the same year that Canadian pianist Louis Lortie stood fourth.)

Yesterday, at the Heliconian Hall, she was the first pianist I have ever seen begin a recital by dismantling the Steinway when she removed the music rack. So many pianists perform without a score these days that the humble but critically important page turner has almost become obsolete, but usually the performers lower the deck that holds the score in place and leave it in place.

Gulyak strode the stage and lifted the entire piece, propped it to the side and then took her place on the bench. I couldn’t help but imagine what this would look like at other venues on larger pianos. No doubt Gulyak could manage the largest of music decks, using her broad shoulders and formidable determination.

The intensified volume was highly suitable for a program that showcased Gulyak’s force, accuracy and at times even terrifying power. But this was good terror. The Wagner-Liszt Isolde Liebestod held us in the lowest, darkest tones of the keyboard where the risk of love in the music is matched by the risk of skill taken by the pianist, and the aptly named Liszt Transcendental Etude: “Chasse Neige”, though at odds with the gorgeous weather enjoyed by the audience during the intermission, was a chilling confirmation of the brutal winter from which we have recently emerged.

Following these two pieces, Gulyak hoisted the music rack back onto the piano in order to play from the score of Canadian Composer Jean Coulthard’s Piano Sonata #2. For this she was joined by a page turner, and the two of them struggled with a rebellious score, that refused to stay in place. It was not surprising that this did not faze Gulyak.

The artist proved that she was capable of the fullest range of nuance in her performance of the Chopin “Andante Spianoto: Grande Polonaise Brilliante”, when she produced the tenderest of notes, by stroking the keys with the gentleness of a doting parent stroking an infant’s face. Her final piece, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition once again drew upon her impressive endurance as well as her technical security. At times her hands were raised in the shape of a fist before descending to the keys, at other times, the fingers appeared to be transformed to steel and at all times she was utterly secure while executing the most demanding musical challenges possible.


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Robin Roger

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