Normally when pianists do well at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, they end up touring the world with the biggest, bombastic concertos in the repertory. The competition has launched the careers of prominent musicians from Barry Douglas to Mikhail Pletnev. After placing at the competition in 1986, Anton Batagov could have followed the same, well-worn career path.
Batagov, however, chose a different course for his career. After winning, he passed the concerto repertory by, and instead committed himself to bringing contemporary American music – John Cage, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass – to Russian recital halls. Batagov also used the minimalism and chance idioms pioneered by the American composers he admired as the basis for his own compositions.
Batagov’s unconventional career of performing and composing came to an abrupt pause in 1997. In a move that would have delighted Glenn Gould, he stopped performing in public. For almost 20 years Batagov’s work was limited to composing and studio recordings. A call to Elena Dubinets, one of the central figures toiling behind the scenes in Seattle’s classical music scene, changed this. Batagov wanted to play again and he wanted Dubinets to help.
Insiders credit Dubinets’s influence and persistence for the increase in contemporary music showing up on concert programs in town. If you’ve been to a concert where Morton Feldman, John Cage, John Adams, Nico Muhly, Henri Dutilleux, or Russian avant folk music was on the program chances are Dubinets was involved.
Last week, not only did Batagov make his return to the concert stage but he also made his Seattle debut. For the occasion, Batagov played at the Good Shepherd Center.
Although Batagov has played and can play typical piano repertory, for his return recital he chose a program of pieces that he composed himself. A handful of pieces for Russian television shows and movies were tucked between short pieces with names like “Piano/May 1994” and “Piano/October 2005.”
Batagov’s compositions are heavily influenced by American minimalists and avant garde composers of the last century. On the one hand his solo piano music not written for television or the movies, resembled Morton Feldman’s sparse ruminations. On the other hand, the pieces he wrote for movies are more accessible, less personal, and sound reminiscent of John Adams’s piano music. While the two types of pieces were different in style and tone, I didn’t get the impression Batagov was pandering or sacrificing creativity for the sake of his popular audience. There was enough similarity that what I heard was Batagov’s assertion that popular compositions can be serious, listenable, and fun.
In both instances, Batagov’s music makes ample use of peddling to trim and elongate notes. At first, Batagov’s peddling was distracting in the same way too much vibrato can hamper the sound of a string piece. But, it didn’t take long before I started to hear what Batagov was doing. His pieces and playing reminded me of sound paintings. like washes of color, music lingered long after the pianist struck the keys on the piano. Short phrases and transitory ideas melted into other notes creating masses of sound. Other times, he used peddling to punctuate notes, adding detail where it was needed.
I wish Batagov had added other repertory to the program to compliment his own pieces. What was missing is the context for his own evolution as a composer. The recital was as much about Batagov’s own music as it was about his keyboard artistry. A scan of his discography reveals unorthodox – if the critics are to be believed – recordings of Ravel, Debussy and Bach. Even some of the American composers he has touted would have helped set the stage for his transfixing music.
Batagov’s return to public performance is welcome news. Whether Batagov is providing his own, unorthodox view of the classics or exposing audiences to his own compositions, he will surely shake up our notion of what a solo piano recital can sound like. Comparisons are always tricky, but Batagov’s interpretive style, his desire to compose, and his disappearance from the public stage are too Gouldian to ignore. Will Anton Batagov, like Glenn Gould, capture his own devoted following now that he has returned to public performance? I certainly hope so.