Ever since the release of her Piano Classics discs of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Zlata Chochieva has moved strongly into the spotlight; Gramophone named her Chopin Etudes among the Top 50 Chopin recordings ever. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. She made her Moscow concert debut when she was eight years old, received inspired guidance from Mikhail Pletnev and has previously won ten international piano competitions.
The current concert of the Etudes Op.25 and Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations did not disappoint: the pianistic strength, thoughtfulness and individuality of this 34-year-old Russian artist are exceptional by any standard. But it was not just her strong technical capabilities that impressed. It was more the immediacy of her grasp of the meaning and significance of the music being played, and the human face she gives to it. While always faithful to the score, the sense of absorption in her playing suspends one very quickly and never lets go, weaving narrative lines that add up to a striking emotional whole. This is pianism of great character, and the concentration Chochieva achieves over the longer span is magnetic.
Chochieva is clearly drawn to the poetic aspects of the music, but there is also a sinew in her playing that brings out tensions between top and bottom voices. Her tonal shadings are imaginative, and she never settles for being ‘pretty’. The pianist has the strongest agility in her right hand; she is able to vary her articulation and weight at the greatest speeds and softest volumes, but can still float the most tender cantabile lines with beauty and composure. Her rhythmic anchoring in the bottom hand is just as impressive, capable of opening out to bravura weight when needed. It’s interesting to watch how she selects colours and techniques to probe the specifics of what she is playing; there is nothing remotely uniform about what she employs. Nonetheless, her decisions seem natural and convincing, sufficiently so that one forgets her technique and just thinks about the music.
One can think of Chopin’s Etudes as a set of separate studies, each one a jewel in itself. This approach has had a strong historical following, but Chochieva clearly aims beyond it. While giving every etude its full due – and never shying from virtuoso demands – she is acutely aware of how the character and spirit of each one fits with the others in developing an organic unity. Such an approach is possibly closer to that of the 24 Preludes. On this occasion, it seemed that the pianist was even more spontaneous in the Etudes Op.25 than in her recording. The tender, searching flow in No.1 remains special, but here it was even closer to that of water (as in Op.10 No.1), fluid, free, with great relaxation and a sense of wonder. The next etude has more caprice in it, perhaps hinting at Schumann’s Carnaval. Nos.3 and 4 exhibit wonderful rhythmic strength and precision, with tinges of delight and joy, but they also reveal a more defined rustic foundation than before. In fact, it was the sense of ‘dance’ in the playing and the elation conveyed in the rustic motion that really stood out, almost taking me to the heady feelings of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. Her articulation in No.6 remains masterful.
These six treatments are special because Chochieva also manages to find a subtle undercurrent that never lets the listener forget the joys are fleeting and just the other side of a deep fragility and vulnerability. The natural transition is No.7, where the melancholy becomes explicit. As this etude moves on, the rumblings of the left hand almost suggest the ominous spectres of Schubert’s last sonatas. Beautifully appointed and capricious renderings of Nos.8 and 9 allow a time-out, but the final three etudes dig into a very dark story. ‘Winter Wind’ was almost terrorizing in its volcanic left-hand protestations, while the sense of finality and fate was vividly etched in No.12. Chochieva’s secret was to maintain the sense of intimacy alongside more objective forces, conveyed in the strength of the urgent rhythms in the left hand. Here an unrelenting and unforgiving Nature ultimately rides over everything human – and that is where tragedy is exposed on the world stage. Quite remarkable!
Rachmaninoff’s solo piano variations have a tendency to sprawl in lesser hands, but Chochieva had her finger on the composer’s nerve-ends and method of structural development in the Corelli Variations. She fashioned a reading of strong organic unity: I’ve rarely heard its dramatic arc so well defined. The pianist was discerning in developing the variations right after the opening motive, following the letter of the score but showing great patience and dynamic control in exposing their logical relation. There was a lovely inward quality to the playing, and her chords were etched in stone. After that, she had all the freedom in the world to cultivate the composer’s rhapsodic musings. A natural flow and suspension took over, artfully mining all the contrasting shades of melancholy. Indeed, her overall pacing and her perception of the sadness in this writing was very special. The last variations build to a demonstrative outpouring (‘agitato’), overwhelming in weight and attack, but the way Chochieva retreated from this peak, controlling tensions all the way to the restatement of the Corelli theme, was masterly. There was so much feeling in the final sustained chords, and one felt complete unity and balance.
Three Rachmaninoff transcriptions completed the programme, allowing for a glimpse of her next recording venture. The rarely-heard Violin Suite (after Bach) was a particular delight, showcasing her stallion-like right hand (very Russian indeed) in the Prelude, and her pristine rhythmic point in the Gavotte and Giga. It was Chochieva’s flexibility of phrase and rhythm, plus her ability to make so many voices simultaneously transparent, that stood out in the arrangements of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne and the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The encore was Chopin’s ‘Black Keys’ Etude from Op.10.
I can think of few finer piano recitals than this. Chochieva never attempts to endow the music with extra drama or interpretation: she just reveals her personal struggle to expose the music as it is. Her probing honesty and imagination place the listener in a multi-layered emotional world which is both evolving and immediate, and one simply feels impelled to follow her.