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Mikhail Shilyaev (piano)

Bach Partita No 4; Prelude and Fugue No 1 from the 48'
Haydn Sonata in c minor
Schubert 3 pieces D946, Sonata in A major D959
Brahms Scherzo Op 4
Rachmaninov Etude-Tableau Op 39/7
Ligeti Fanfares
Debussy Etude pour les doigts opposes
Chopin Andante Spianato + Grande Polonaise
Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody (Carnival at Pest )

Chris Elton, Mikhail Shilyaev & John Rubinstein

(promo compilation of live performances 2000-2005 in different venues)

Mikhail Shilyaev is a well-practised pianist, with well thought-out interpretations. His virtues are all the Apollonian ones - neat fingering, sensitivity, exact rhythm, good octave technique, well-articulated phrasing, transparent differentiation of parts.

The number of wrong notes is also more than acceptably low for unedited live recordings. As a result, his Bach is clear, his Haydn of exemplary structure, and something as notoriously challenging as Ligeti's Fanfares sounds effortless.

Musical virtues are, however, Dionysiac as well as Apollonian. Shilyaev's playing (unless it is just the recorded quality) needs more variety of tone and colour, more differentiation between first iterations and repeats, a greater sense of emotional engagement. The over-careful start to the Chopin Grande Polonaise , something as exuberant as the Liszt Carnival at Pest or as emotionally engaged as Rachmaninov Etude-Tableau Op 39/7 left me unmoved. Likewise, the excellent fingerwork that begins the Debussy Etude leaves me wanting, by the end, a greater sense of commitment.

In many ways, Shilyaev's confidence and certainty of interpretation, and his ambition in repertoire, are double-edged. Bach's Fourth Partita, for example, is one of the composer's most challenging pieces; Shilyaev begins with an admirably-voiced prelude. The famous Allemande, however, is more or less skated over. Without one suggesting that it must be played with the sentimental sensibility of Richard Goode's interpretation, one would certainly never guess from Shilyaev this is heralded as one of Bach's most profound keyboard movements. The following movements (and the opening of the Well-tempered Clavier on the other disc) are bright rather than imaginative.

Shilyaev seems most comfortable in Schubert, where his natural lyricism has free rein, and his structural strengths make especially good sense of the music. The first piece of D946 opens with beautifully crafted phrasing. The scherzo of the A major sonata D959 is sparkling, and the last movement has a fine singing line. Again, however, an atmosphere of Olympian detachment reigns and the many repeats in D946 become routine.

The slow movement of D959, and in particular its anguished middle episode, is one of the interpretative cruxes of the repertoire, often interpreted as the composer's meditation on his impending death. Shilyaev's is the calmest, least troubled slow movement I have ever heard! The big climax that ends the episode is more a consequence of inexorable logic than a despairing but necessary resolution. Again, many fine interpretations (such as Sokolov's) deliberately underplay the drama, but I know of none that avoids it altogether.

Shilyaev is controlled, and adept with both detail and structure. What his playing needs is more character. As Auden wrote: It's in perfect taste and it's never boring but it won't quite do.... lives must know the meaning of if. In other words, that music does form a bridge to another world, to a heightened awareness of life and beauty.

At this early point in his career, however, Shilyaev has plenty of time to develop such a distinctive individual voice. But a mildly depressing conclusion ensues: if these recordings had been issued by established artists - say Hewitt in Bach, Haebler in Schubert, Howard in Liszt, their classical purity and exactness would surely have been praised. But whether one can tell from them that one day we will admire Shilyaev's D959 as we do Lupu's, Shilyaev's Brahms as we do Backhaus' or Kempff's, his Bach as we do Fischer's, I simply do not know.

© Ying Chang

Mikhail Shilyaev will play Beethoven's Emperor Concerto at St John's Smith Square, 20 October 2006

See also Ricci Foundation Award 2006