While possessed of a technique amply capable of tackling the grandest of challenges, Ilya Poletaev is clearly a thoughtful and serious pianist uninterested in obvious effects or easy virtuoso conquests. Witness the program choices the 36-year-old Astral Artists laureate—Russian-born and now living in Canada—had made for his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society debut recital.
For Bach, he gave us not the exuberant Italian Concerto but the B-minor French Overture or Partita that is its much darker companion piece in the second part of the Clavier-Übung (displaying the same sensibility when, at the end of the evening, he chose for his encore not one of the lighter dances in Bach’s French Suite No.5, but the quietly meditative Sarabande). And on either side of intermission we had rare opportunities to hear an unremittingly serious sonata by George Enescu and the Humoreske that Schumann accurately described as “not very cheerful, perhaps my most melancholy work.”
Witness also the way he played. The Bach Overture was set forth with delightfully springy rhythms, a constantly stimulating interplay of contrapuntal lines, and tone that was clear and warm with no suspicion of harshness. Stylish as it was, with intricately detailed embellishments, this was also romantic playing – which, in my opinion, all good playing is.
Enescu’s F-sharp-minor Sonata offers a very different picture of Romania’s greatest 20th-century composer than his deservedly popular Romanian Rhapsodies. Its three strongly chromatic movements (the slow one coming last) are resolutely inward in their emotional gaze, but repeatedly break away from introspection with emphatic gestures that demand forceful execution. This Poletaev managed while keeping even the loudest outbursts within the bounds of euphony.
Profoundly involuted as that segment of the program seemed, the Schumann that followed was still more unrelievedly saturnine. Humoreske is a deceptively innocent-sounding title for this ambitious and plangent work. Close to half an hour in length, it consists of a string of independent but thematically related sections all projecting melodic lines that never seem able to escape from the brooding intensity that surely presages, already in the composer’s twenties, the madness that lay in wait for him just a decade or so in the future.
Poletaev followed it with the less portentous Arabeske. Even in this relatively untroubled piece, his playing took account of the serious undercurrent beneath the tuneful surface. And his way with the encore completed a consistent expressive circle, taking us back to characteristically contemplative Bach to conclude a recital of not merely high promise but already high achievement.