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REVIEW: Pianist Alexander Malofeev a big hit in San Diego debut

San Diego Union-Tribune

Christian Hertzog
November 1, 2021

In La Jolla Music Society concert, 20-year-old virtuoso captivated a full house in Baker-Baum Concert Hall

On Sunday afternoon, a solemn, thin and intensely blond young man walked on to the stage of Baker-Baum Concert Hall. If audience members did not know who he was, 2 1/2 hours later, Alexander Malofeev’s startling performances of Schubert, Rachmaninoff and Nikolai Medtner were likely etched into the memories of all present.

The 20-year-old Russian pianist already has a following in Europe and China. His YouTube channel has almost 80,000 subscribers. He’s not so well known in America, but after this tour, he should gain many new fans here.

Thank the La Jolla Music Society for bringing Malofeev to San Diego. He looks much younger than 20 years old, but his technique and musicality would be exceptional in pianists twice his age.

Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Minor, D. 784 opened the program, an odd choice for a virtuoso in that the first two movements aren’t all that obviously virtuosic. But then Malofeev blazed through the third movement in under 4 1/2 minutes, quicker than I’ve ever heard it played.

After this, fast tempos were the order of the day. He was able to fire off flurries of notes, but this sometimes came at the expense of clarity or balance. At times, the piano sounded bass heavy, making melodies more difficult to discern. Less frequently, the texture became muddy enough to obscure different lines, but the speed at which he played without dropping a single note was astounding nevertheless.

American musicians aren’t very interested in Medtner, but in Russia, his works still appear on piano recitals. Malofeev played the Sonata in G Minor, Opus 22, composed in 1910. As Debussy, Schoenberg and Scriabin were all writing revolutionary piano music at that time, Medtner happily composed in a late 19th-century idiom. What is original about this work, however, is its single movement form and its use of simultaneous contrasting rhythms. In the slow sections, Malofeev lavished expressive rubato on the music but played the fast sections straight ahead.

Medtner’s “Two Fairy Tales, Opus 48” are based on dance forms. Malofeev kept the momentum going in each piece, brilliantly navigating Medtner’s wide-stretching chords and swirling arpeggios. It’s obvious to see what pianists admire in these works. They are technically challenging without any off-putting harmonic complexity, virtuosic pieces that under the right hands — such as Malofeev’s — dazzle listeners.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 28 is problematic in several respects. First is its difficulty — a pianist must be able to play this dense, virtuosic work, untangling the various lines that frequently crisscross each other. Second, the Sonata’s form is unwieldy, a rambling structure that needs the proper performer to tie it all together.

Malofeev’s performance was heroic, but he didn’t quite meet these challenges. Sometimes lines were lost in a blizzard of runs or arpeggios. At others, the left hand textures overshadowed melodies in the right hand.

Far too often, his playing seemed like a series of beautiful moments instead of a musical narrative leading up to important arrival points. This was most noticeable in the second movement.

Nevertheless, for a 20-year-old to perform this fiendish work as well as Malofeev did was a real accomplishment, deserving of the standing ovation (and cheers in Russian from various audience members) given him.

Following this, we were treated to an unheard-of five encores. He looked as if he wanted to play even more but must have been mentally and physically exhausted. It seems a safe bet that this ambitious, talented young man will make a huge mark in the classical music world.