PERSPECTIVE – Pianist Vyacheslav Gryaznov has built a formidable reputation for both his technical and creative abilities. Besides performing all over the world, Gryaznov has two widely admired recordings of piano transcriptions — Russian Transcriptions, on the Steinway & Sons label, and Western Piano Transcriptions for Master Performers. In 2014, when he was 32, his mastery as transcriber and arranger won him a contract with Schott Music, the youngest Russian the publisher had ever signed.
Gryaznov, now 40, graduated with honors from the Central Music School of the Moscow State Conservatory, a pupil of Manana Kandelaki. He continued undergraduate studies at the Moscow Conservatory with Yuri Slesarev, again graduating with honors. As a post-graduate student at the same school, he served on the teaching faculty in the piano department He went on to complete the artist diploma program at the Yale School of Music under the guidance of Boris Berman.
Fellow Russian pianist Nikolai Petrov had high praise for Gryaznov’s Rhapsody in Black, based on a theme of George Gershwin. “It is no exaggeration to say that this is an absolutely magnificent piece of work,” said Petrov, adding that the piece was “brimming with virtuosity and explosive creativity.”
Gryaznov recently appeared as a guest on KZSU-FM, Stanford’s The Music Treasury, hosted by Gary Lemco. That conversation formed the basis for both a collaboration on the liner notes for Western Piano Transcriptions and for this interview.
You have completed around 35 transcriptions for the keyboard. Do you consider this activity the direct result of specific pedagogy, and do you mean it to be your “legacy,” as such?
My early teachers imbued in me a worldly sense of music, a concept, if you will, that would become more refined by conservatory studies by way of stagecraft and an IQ for social relationships and friendships. My various readings — Dostoevsky and Pushkin, in particular — made me attentive to what might be possible at the piano. I heard a powerful version led by (Valery) Gergiev of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, inspired by Pushkin, which conveyed to me a universal message. I soon realized that transcriptions would assume different goals for individual pieces. I had made a transcription of a folk song for a girl from Georgia whom I liked very much. Then, I arranged a quadrille and a Chinese song. I came to realize that so-called simple music allows me more freedom to improvise and insert my own imagination into the texture. I will address the second part of your question a little later in this conversation about legacy.
I would assume that Liszt and Rachmaninoff served as models for your own conception of transcription.
True, I would listen to certain pianists play Liszt’s arrangements of Bach — or Busoni’s transcription style — as well as look at scores. And Rachmaninoff left us his own recordings along with published scores. I think his rendition of “Lilacs” plays a significant role in my musical thoughts as a stylistic model. I would say that Liszt influences my own 2006 arrangement of Bach’s Organ Fantasia in G, though that impulse originated in my attempt to complete the great, unfinished fugue from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, No. 14. But I don’t discount the effect that chamber music had on me — the sense of ensemble and texture, the clarity, and diversity of colors. The piano is not as easy an instrument to reconceive music for. It has limited timbres and scales, so finding the idiom is the hard part.
You have taken on some complicated, and I daresay, challenging orchestral pieces, like Ravel’s La Valse, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and Mahler’s Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony — in a left-hand transcription, no less.
I liked the intricacy of both the Symbolist poem (eclogue) by Stéphane Mallarmé as well as Debussy’s musical response. The Faun posed a character complicated and contradictory: a kind of sensual luxury; his animal passion for the nymph Syrinx and a delicate innocence in Debussy’s flute part. My piano registers dispense with the need for the performer to try to imitate the orchestra, which would be futile. I wanted psychological nuances in my arrangement, since the creature’s passions easily compare to those of humans.
And the Mahler — that is a product of your having performed Ravel’s Concerto in D for the Left Hand?
I found Ravel’s treatment of the piano and orchestra very compact, so I decided to approach a major piece for a piano transcription. The Fifth Symphony’s Adagietto suited me, given its scoring for strings and harp, so I could limit the keyboard texture. It took me quite a while to play it in public, but for my album for Master Performers I decided it would be an important addition to my repertory. Both Ravel’s writing and Scriabin’s two pieces for the left hand play a part, given how each composer is capable of creating the illusion of two hands at work.
And Ravel’s La Valse — after all, he made both a solo and a two-piano arrangement. Could you improve on his own transcriptions of this thrilling orchestral piece?
My answer might seem contradictory. To me, Ravel’s work offers the temptation to intrude on it and overdo the various layers. I feel that Ravel (and Debussy) really require very little input. Ravel offers to me a sketch, an opportunity, as a pianist, to incorporate lines ad libitum, a freedom to add colors that will fill out the end-of-century aesthetic of his mad dance. I did not wish to over-simplify. This elegant dance becomes a black pearl, a piece that culminates in incredible agony. Dark energy, passion, beauty, and fire — they are all there! As you mentioned in our previous talk, the major dance forms — the Alborada, the Bolero, and La Valse — all explode in a kind of apocalypse. If Ravel were responding to the threat of war, or if he felt the grand illusion of civilization were crumbling, the sense of urgency drives these forms.
You mentioned creativity as an aspect of your legacy.
Yes, I feel that a period for original composition is upon me. Some of this desire for a more defining legacy comes from my long-deferred wish to examine Shostakovich further, especially his symphonic output. Whenever possible, I like to examine any particular composer’s piece — as I have for transcriptions of music by Monteverdi, Grieg, Mozart, Gershwin, and Falconieri — in light of that composer’s entire history, his personal background and aesthetic. So, if Shostakovich were to inspire an original piece in me or a transcription, it would result from an immersion into his creative psyche.
Shostakovich maintained an intense respect for Gustav Mahler, even imitating aspects of his work in his own Fifth Symphony and his treatment of scherzo movements.
Well, my own treatment of the Mahler Adagietto was meant to be an encore for one of my appearances with a symphony orchestra. I had been listening to a lot of Mahler at the time. His humor, mixed with nostalgia and yearning, influences Shostakovich, who can become very bitter. The percussive aspects in his music have to be put into their context, like war and political repression, so he calls for an interpreter who has totally familiarized himself with the total musical personality.
We should not overlook Evgeny Svetlanov, a major force in Russian and international repertory. This is another example of a musician who buries himself in the whole musical body of a composer in order to realize an authentic sound.
In these respects, you remind me of Horowitz, who looked through all the Gabriel Fauré oeuvre just to record something like two pieces for RCA.
No Russian pianist ignores Horowitz, who set such a conscientious standard. But creatively, he left one piece, Danse excentrique, a miniature. So, I have to maintain my own personality and seek inwardly for new challenges.