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CD Review: Toronto pianist Boris Zarankin surprises and delights with recording of two Schubert Sonatas

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It’s appropriate that Toronto pianist Boris Zarankin should launch a new recording of two landmark sonatas by Franz Schubert on the composer’s birthday.

I wish I could provide audio samples here, because the interpretations are startlingly different from anything we’re used to.

Here is my review, published in today’s Toronto Star:

BORIS ZARANKIN
Schubert: Sonatas (DoReMi)

*** ½ (out of 4)

Toronto pianist Boris Zarankin takes the overt emotional turmoil of Romanticism, and buries it deep inside the soul in this set of two late Piano Sonatas by Romantic great Franz Schubert (1797-1828). The usual virtuosic fireworks recede to reveal a kinder, intimate and more melancholy music. Yes, there are a lot of technical demands in these pieces, which Zarankin overcomes without fuss, but the real attraction here is how the pianist causes time to slow down and, on several occasions, to stand still as his fingers indulge the composer’s creative ramblings.

Schubert’s A minor Piano Sonata D. 784 sprang from his pen right after he was diagnosed with syphilis. in his existential angst, he threw out the formal sonata style of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven in favour of something more impulsive and indulgent. Even more sprawling is the B-flat Major Piano Sonata D. 960 that Schubert finished a couple of months before his death. These are two of the great works of the piano repertoire, usually forced into narrative coherence by strong-minded interpreters. Zarankin’s magic touch is that he simply lets the music happen. Schubert’s little black dots guide him, not the other way around. It makes for compelling repeat listening.

Zarankin performs both pieces live on Feb. 5 for Off Centre Music Salon, at the Glenn Gould Studio.

The mysterious art of interpretation

Boris Zarankin and Inna Perkis

I arranged last week to have breakfast with Zarankin and his wife and fellow pianist Inna Perkis this morning, after my review was due to be published, so I could probe and poke him about how he arrived at these interpretations.

Zarankin, a man of much music, but few words, explained how he begins by reading as much as possible about the composer’s life and mindset. He then pulls apart and analyzes the score — not just in terms of harmonic or thematic structure, but also looking for quotations and allusions.

Then he learns the piece, experimenting with hundreds of different possibilities for phrasing, articulation, touch and pedal work.

Zarankin said that listening to Schubert’s orchestral music is also key here, because he believes the composer was aiming to get the full range of orchestral colours out of two hands on a piano keyboard.

So far, it sounds like a recipe anyone should be able to follow.

But, then, the final interpretation is what feels right to him, as well as to Perkis’s critical ears.

What feels right is, ultimately, the key to what a listener or audience will respond to. For the umpteenth time, I’ve been reminded how reaching this state of satisfaction with the shape of a piece of music is a mix of the performer’s temperament and context, including the type of piano and hall they are about to perform in.

The rightness is as fleeting as the music itself, and as difficult — if not impossible — to describe.

But that doesn’t stop any of us from trying, does it?

John Terauds

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