Fanfare Magazine, November / December 2020.   

The gifted young Ukrainian-born Liana Paniyeva is new to me, and to the pages of Fanfare. America in the post-Soviet era has benefitted from a wealth of Russian School pianists coming to this country, and the Boston-based Paniyeva is a very impressive example. This two-part video on YouTube, which comes in quite good sound, derives from a summer music festival at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts in 2018. Paniyeva’s ambitious program includes two masterpieces of the Russian piano repertoire, Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  Both works have been recorded by eminent pianists over the decades, and it’s a tribute to the continuity of piano culture in the Soviet Union that after its collapse such talents as Paniyeva perform with mastery of the tradition.

When Rachmaninoff based his set of 20 variations, with added Intermezzo and Coda, he thought that the dance melody known as La Folia was composed by Arcangelo Corelli, who had employed it in a violin sonata from 1700. The fact that the tune was far older isn’t important compared to how beautifully it served Rachmaninoff (and Liszt and many others). Besides being beautiful and memorable, La Folia is gravely melancholy, even mysterious, a fertile subject for Rachmaninoff’s imagination. 

A successful performance requires assured virtuosity, which Paniyeva has, along with two subtler things: the ability to preserve La Folia’s mystique and the temperament to capture the turbulent final variations before the calm return of the theme in the coda. Paniyeva possesses both qualities, and one immediately notices that she has a lovely legato line as well as the dramatic instincts to give each variation its own personality—her musical imagination allows her performance to sound free and spontaneous. There’s no hint of the prizewinner mentality placing technique ahead of musicality.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures are so colorful that performers can revel in painting each episode to evoke pictorial images. But the piece isn’t always highly pianistic, and I’m surprised more pianists than Vladimir Horowitz aren’t temped to doctor the writing to add more flash and piquancy. The template for virtuosity was laid down by Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter, but there is another way that serves the music first and foremost. This is Paniyeva’s approach.

She sets out to let Mussorgsky cast his spell, and although she has more than enough technique for the challenges of “Gnomes,” what’s really memorable is how she holds your attention with tender regard for the music, a captivating inwardness, and the same sense of free spontaneity shown in the Corelli Variations. The “Promenade” theme is gentle, giving a strong contrast when Paniyeva unleashes a big, powerful tone for “Bydlo.” Pictures verges on being a warhorse through over-familiarity, but it sounds fresh and interesting here because the performer is personally engaged. Her confidence in “The Great Gate of Kiev” captures every color in a piece that can sound clumsy on the keyboard. Horowitz and Richter are indispensable, but Paniyeva’s reading outshines many others in the catalog, including those by famous names. I can’t imagine anyone who loves this music not responding favorably.

I don’t have space to detail how well the shorter pieces are played, but Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” is refined and graceful in Paniyeva’s hands. The two scintillating Moments musicaux of Rachmaninoff display just the right balance of effortless technique, poetry, and sustained mood. The rarest item, Medtner’s Sonata tragica in C Minor, is in a single sonata-allegro movement and stands as the last in the second set of Forgotten Melodies. One is struck by its restlessness and the infusion of Rachmaninoff and early Scriabin. Sometimes performed for its ferocity, Paniyeva gives an unusually pensive account, but one that calls for unwavering concentration and rises to moments of fierce passion.

Paniyeva runs a private piano studio in Boston and has an intense interest in young pianists. During the COVID lockdown she undertook a unique project. In her own words, “I organized The First Online Young Stars International Piano Competition for young pianists, ages 6-14. Children from all over the world submitted their recordings, including Germany, Malaysia, Australia, Poland, Canada, Macedonia, Thailand, US, Taiwan, UK, Italy, India, Lithuania, and Azerbaijan. You can find the results here”

I hope Paniyeva gets wider recognition as a soloist in her own right. This recital is proof of a highly musical talent that gives outstanding performances of great Russian piano scores, far exceeding my expectations. Strongly recommended for any music-lover’s viewing.

Huntley Dent

Ms. Paniyeva impresses this listener right away as a sensitive player, opening her recital with the much-loved Gluck-Sgambati Melody (“Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orfeo and Euridice). Her earnest rendering sets a pensive tone for this rather weighty program, which continues in a similar spirit (and key) with the Rachmaninoff-Corelli Variations, Op. 42. Here again she reveals herself to be a musician of intense commitment. Her attention to detail through the entire performance is impressive, showing fine control and transparency in the complex textures and thoughtful delineation of phrases in slow lyrical sections.

There is an orderly, meticulous quality to all that Ms. Paniyeva plays, and this is accentuated visually by her preparation and cut-off gestures, which we can see thanks to the large screen with keyboard view that Mechanics Hall has onstage. The idea of an onstage close-up screen (prompted one guesses by the size of this imposing hall) is a wonderful feature in general for this increasingly video-oriented world, and though this concert is from 2018, pre-Covid, one can’t help thinking that with current social distancing we may be seeing a similar feature at venues that can manage it.

If there is anything missing in Ms. Paniyeva’s Op. 42, it is that one occasionally expects more of the sense of impassioned abandon in some of the faster, more driving variations, though her interpretation is quite persuasive as it stands. Speaking of things missing, one is also sad not to hear the craggy Variation XIX, which can build to hair-raising effect towards Variation XX. Now, Rachmaninoff did specify about Variation XIX, that “this variation may be omitted” (for, as the story goes, when he sensed that his audience was restless in his own performances, he would spontaneously drop a variation); this listener, though, at home during the pandemic and with no train to catch, would love to hear each note of the piece. (As an aside, it is interesting to speculate how these Covid days may change listeners’ expectations and wishes.) Thankfully, Ms. Paniyeva does play the other “optional” Variations, XI and XII, and they are compelling in their rhythmic energy.

Following this work comes more Rachmaninoff, two of the Moments Musicaux, Op. 16. The first in B-flat minor is fittingly brooding in Ms. Paniyeva’s rendition, mournful from the beginning through winding elaborations and back. Polish and accuracy are commendable here, with barely a flaw – a tall order with such an intricate piece. This listener is accustomed to a bit more contrast of dynamics and mood in the central section, but again, vive la difference! Ms. Paniyeva follows with the second piece of the same set (F minor), and she projects its surges and sweeps well.

Medtner’s Sonata Tragica (Op. 39, No. 5) is simply a gift to hear, as it is still underplayed, and Ms. Paniyeva gives it a marvelous performance. She lavishes care and attention on each nuance and storms through its virtuosic fistfuls with fire and command. Her special commitment to this repertoire is clear, and she is more than up to all of its substantial challenges. Brava!

The final work (and Part II of the program) is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, played with mastery of its many contrasting techniques and moods. What strikes this listener perhaps most about Ms. Paniyeva’s conception is her pacing and ability to hold power in reserve. Never does she turn the stage into a pool of sweat and pile of missed notes, as sometimes one sees and hears. She sustains intense focus and leads the trusting listener on her long journey with no histrionics.

Highlights include her “Tuileries” movement where she displays nearly Horowitzian staccato notes at high speed and the ” Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” – fittingly chirpy and whimsical. The “Bydlo” (Cattle/Oxen) movement is not quite as heavily lumbering in her hands as one often hears – refreshing in a way, and yet leaving some questions. Though Ms. Paniyeva favors tapered phrases and a rounded sound – qualities often falling under the heading “musicality” – perhaps more of the thundering bovine is justified here. Again, it is a matter of taste.

Another notable feature of Ms. Paniyeva’s conception is her omission of the fifth Promenade section, between “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle” and “The Market at Limoges.” The omission works well to sustain momentum (as various arrangers and performers seem to have agreed, notably Ravel). This reviewer is frankly prone to fatigue in many performances of this piece but Ms. Paniyeva’s performance keeps the flow. With the momentum sustained, one is then readier for the eeriness of the “Catacombs” movement and ensuing “Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua” – and Ms. Paniyeva plays them with fitting eeriness. “The Hut on Hen’s Legs” (Baba Yaga), while more deliberate than one often hears, is also very clean here with only negligible exceptions, and “The Great Gate of Kiev,” measured and mighty, is a victory lap capping off a fine performance.

In summary, this an excellent recital by a wonderful pianist. by Rorianne Schrade

Fanfare Magazine, November- December 2020

At least in my experience, one hears the Gluck-Sgambati “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orfeo ed Euridice as an encore. It is a lovely idea to have it at the outset, as Paniyeva places it here. It suits her playing too: sensitive, sculpted with real love. Liana Paniyeva, a name new to me, plays with a screen above and behind her, so that he audience can watch her fingers, hands and forearms.

Another nice idea comes to follow Gluck wrenched forwards and onto the piano by Sgambati with Corelli examined and explored by Rachmaninoff. The Corelli Variations remains, in my opinion at least, one of the composers very finest works. Paniyeva clearly understands Rachmaninoff's sophistication: there is no trace of over-indulgence here. Instead, we have a reading sculpted with real intelligence, and we witness a technique properly subservient to its musical mistress. This is a superbly prepared piano, too, the upper register pearly and perfectly in tune. One also gets the impression that Paniyeva revels in Rachmaninoff’s more adventurous writing in this piece. The wandering harmonies of Rachmaninoff’s op. 16/1 seem the perfect bedfellows to the Corelli Variations, while Paniyeva's fluency in op. 16/2 is perfect.

Medtner’s Sonata tragica is a work of great stature (why this composer has not yet had his day is completely beyond me). For the first time in the recital, the camera shot changes from back of the hall shot to close-up so we really see how she plays into the keys for the chordal work, achieving great depth of sound in the process. That fluency encountered in Rachmaninoff op. 16/2 returns here, but behind it lies a backbone of steel. Her wrist technique in octaves is superb, her running left-hand perfectly even, her right-hand legato near-vocal. Importantly, she never breaks the sound of the Steinway.

If anything, the Mussorgsky Pictures is even more successful. There is no sense of rushing, ever, and that enables the work’s noble, granitic dignity to emerge fully. That structural grasp and control we heard in the Rachmainoff Corelli Variations is once more in evidence in the Mussorgsky.

The “Promenade” sections are brisk and always fulfil their function as “markers”. Paniyeva’s control of tone color enables Mussorgsky’s masterpiece to emerge in all its variegated glory. A camera on the pianist’s left enables even closer examination of her playing, of her careful placing of chords, of the way she uses arm weight. The “Gnomus” has grandeur. Interesting to hear the left-hand “Promenade” (accorded the French horn in Ravel’s famous orchestration) heard with pedal, offering a cloud that extends over “Il vecchio castello”. Paniyeva reminds us of the beauty in Mussorgsky’s score and of the cheekiness (“Tuilleries,” with its terrific articulation) as well as the granitic (“Bydlo”). Paniyeva’s chicks do remain with the seriousness of her interpretation, as d the chattering ladies in the marketplace in Limoges; no bad thing, especially when one encounters a “Goldberg and Schmuyle” that is quite simply one of the best, on video or on disc, with every note perfectly placed and with a real grasp of the music’s inner energy.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures requires one aspect of technique to be perfectly in place that is perhaps used less elsewhere: tremolo, and Paniyeva’s control is perfect. If “The Hut on Fowls’ Legs” has something of a Sviatoslav Richter-in-Sofia approximation to it and does not quite carry it off in the manner of the Master, her way with the panel’s central section (more of those tremolos) is again one of the finest I have encountered, as are the bareness of the chords in the “Great Gate,” presented with such power, their melting graded with infinite care.

I definitely want to hear more of Liana Panayeva. On disc would be good.   Colin Clarke