Review by Lynn René Bayley (Fanfare Magazine for July-August 2014 edition)

Sometimes it’s interesting to compare and contrast pianists with different approaches to music, and this was the case for me. I came to Sophia Agranovich’s recital of Beethoven and Chopin (titled Passion and Fantasy) after listening to Jerome Lowenthal’s collection of such modern composers as Rochberg, Chicara, and Rorem, and the contrast was not just in the material being performed but very much so in their approach to piano playing. Lowenthal, a pupil of William Kapell and Alfred Cortot, is all about touch and nuance; despite a superb technique, he takes time to investigate, you might say, the spaces between the notes. Agranovich, on the other hand, is a Russian (Ukrainian) pianist, and thus by training and instinct a musician of direct gifts. Trained by Anna Stolarevich, Alexander Edelmann, and (at Juilliard) the great Russian émigré Nadia Reisenberg, her métier is geared more towards music as architecture: a stylistically direct approach, albeit with fascinating and telling moments of rubato, an evolving sense of both mood and structure as two sides of the same coin, and a smoldering sense of passion in her playing. In short, she is a tigress of the keyboard, yet one who knows just how much to attack and when to pull back. She is a sort of cross between György Cziffra and Dinu Lipatti, a tigress who is also a poet.
Listening to the first movement of her playing of the “Appassionata” Sonata, one hears a number of moments when Agranovich pulls back from her forward thrust to inject rubato, moments of sensitivity, even complete stops when the music and the mood call for them. More interestingly, she allows only a few seconds’ silence between the end of the first movement and the start of the second. Since we know that the last movement is played after the second without a break, this gives the whole sonata a feeling of unbridled momentum. She can, then, both shoot the moon and pull back on the reins in a way that keeps the listener fully engaged in her music making. It is musical brinksmanship of an extraordinarily high order.
Since Agranovich studied with Reisenberg, an outstanding Chopin pianist, I was particularly interested in hearing her performances of the Polish composer’s music. Yes, there is some of the Reisenberg “touch” in her playing, but her sense of time—her specific way of phrasing and use of rubato—differ in many small details from the way Reisenberg played. Yet it is certainly valid and interesting Chopin, a shade more delicate on balance than her Beethoven, yet without sacrificing her keen feeling for the musical line. Still, Agranovich’s Chopin has much more in common with the post-modern approach of Ian Hobson than with Reisenberg.
In the Sonata No. 3, I was able to compare Agranovich with not only Reisenberg but with Lipatti, Cortot, Cherkassky, and Cliburn—certainly a clutch of outstanding pianists to drawn on. Agranovich does not really resemble any of them but comes closest to Lipatti, who also brought out the structure of the music he played. Yet I found her approach more poetic in places than his, pulling back a bit more on the phrases to allow moments to linger in the mind.
Agranovich is an interesting pianist. I certainly look forward to her future releases.

Lynn René Bayley
Posted on 11 Apr 2014, 3:18 PM