Oresta Cybriwsky in CD debut

She began to study piano at age 5 with her father, George Cybriwsky, soon becoming the fourth generation of pianists in her family. During her formative years, the young musician vacillated between the piano and voice, but gradually "converted" to the instrumental world.

Her guiding lights shone at Yale and at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Master classes with Leon Fleisher and four years with the renowned Gregg Smith Singers applied the finishing illumination.

Despite a considerable affinity for French culture, Oresta Cybriwsky decided to shine first in Germany; her recent reviews as soloist and chamber artist are most encouraging.

Her first compact disc, titled "Prelude," is bilingual (English and German), complete with an autobiography and technical data on the recording that took place near Munich, Germany, in April 1996. Music supervision was by Mr. Cybriwsky, and it was to her father that Ms. Cybriwsky dedicated her debut on disc.

While no German music appears on the CD, preludes by six composers of other countries fill the gap. Each composer is announced admirably prior to his selections and all are programmed in a logical sequence. We first hear the Preludes Op. 28 of Frederick Chopin, "Polish poet of the piano and musical aristocrat." Strangely enough this music was once shunned by the eminent Chopinist, Artur Rubinstein, until in his later years he became convinced that the Preludes were worthy of their composer.

Ms. Cybriwsky presents the wide scale of Chopin's preludes, their ambiance and moods: the slow darkness of No. 4, the fleetness of No. 3 with all details still delineated, the beauty in F sharp minor (No. 8) which could use some more rough "agitato." The No. 24 in breakneck speed employs cascading thirds in the right hand - a nightmare for some pianists, yet on this disc they are one smooth and shimmering dream.

Alexander Scriabin, "the Russian mystic and visionary," began where Chopin left off, but soon chose his own way. Ms. Cybriwsky transmits his trek from prelude to prelude, his sound that was always searching, expanding, even risking failure in the ups and downs of the creative process. The Op. 37, No. 2 even contains fragments of his symphonic poems. By 1906 Scriabin was visibly moving towards larger forms, and by 1914 entered his final mystical and brooding stage.

While touched by Scriabin's sound, Lev Revutsky "of the emotionally overflowing Ukrainian soul" is heard in three preludes that really can be called his own. Like the preludes of Vasyl Barvinsky, these do not cite specific folk material, but in their spirit they are often nationally outspoken. (Some years back I sent the Revutsky preludes to Gary Graffman, who called them "intriguing"; however, a disorder in the pianist's right hand prevented Mr. Graffman from following through on his interest in these pieces.)

In the pianistic Prelude Op. 7, No. 2, Ms. Cybriwsky offers fine detail under the magnifying glass, so to speak, but the Op. 4, No. 1 does not project enough tonal range and dynamics, compared to, for example, the recording by Maria Krushelnytska. On the other hand, the Op. 7, No. 1, in heroic E flat sounds excellent and solid. One German critic noted Ms. Cybriwsky's "unbelievable precision, sensitivity and brilliance." The critic must have been listening to Revutsky, with the "Ukrainian soul overflowing" in the composer and in the pianist.

Claude Debussy, "the imaginative French dreamer," is just that in these recordings. The popular "Sunken Cathedral" is available also in Debussy's own recording, ancient but authoritative. Other pieces are less familiar, but equally worthwhile: "The Wine Gate" swings with unusual, even intoxicating finesse, while "The Mermaid" plays seductively with water reflections. Debussy's world is so different from everyday existence that it borders sometimes on the eccentric, just like the composer himself doubling as architect of still another universe.

"The matchmaker between classical and elevated popular music with jazz elements" is none other than down-to-earth George Gershwin. His Three Preludes, which had been signatures of Gershwin disciple Oscar Levant, offer alternating moods. Prelude No. 1 sounds very "Gershwineese," that is suitably unkempt in the over-all jaunty and jazzy precision, while No. 2 is reflective, rather than downright sad, as played by Levant on his down days. The final No. 3 ends the cycle with a sort of upbeat Gershwinian gratuity.

Ms. Cybriwsky recreates the worlds of Ukraine, France and America with affinity and conviction, but she saves the best for last the final and formidable "defender of the melancholy and passion of the Russian soul" - Sergei Rachmaninoff. I am not saying that the Russian soul is best, merely that it was Rachmaninoff's - the combination producing music rarely surpassed at the keyboard. His highly charged and dramatic approach to the piano was almost symphonic and, apparently, Ms. Cybriwaky studied his own recording. Her achievement is that of a young woman recreating a gigantic pianist with commitment of hands and pedal technique, with volume, drama and delicacy where needed.

The Op. 23, No. 5 entry, for example, is rhythmically spicy and powerful with that middle section study in beguiling lyricism. Listen sometime to the venerable recording by the composer himself and you'll not wonder why that performance was never surpassed on modern discs. The two final preludes of Op. 23 are most rewarding. The No. 4 in D major actually sounds sad in its majestic and deliberate design (Rachmaninoff's major modes often did their best in dark and saturated textures.) And No. 2 in B flat reaffirms once more the composer's firm belief in deliberate majesty also shown in his broad orchestral canvases. All-in-all, Ms. Cybriwsky literally shines in her Rachmaninoff.

It could be interesting to compare Rachmaninoff's sad major modes with an another phenomenon, the Ukrainian dance-songs, or "kolomyiky," they are often in the minor key, but sound happy and brisk nonetheless. This hints at basic, but rarely explored psychological differences between Russian and Ukrainian music.

All recorded selections are by composers who were also distinguished pianists with a full understanding of the piano's potential and how to realize it. Ms. Cybriwsky reflects these composers with directness and clarity of execution. She manages simultaneous contact with both the composers and her listeners. With fleetness, agility and clean technique to spare, her "Preludes" are a strong debut. While miniatures may be her forte, I would like to hear her summon that extra heft and weight necessary in Brahms or in a Rachmaninoff sonata. And why not the sonatas by Revutsky or Barvinsky?

Her programming of at least one Ukrainian composer among foreign masters strengthens the claim that music of Ukraine is not simply a strong mixture of first-rate folksong and second-class composers, but that it has long been and is a strong part of professional music worldwide. And one other thought: I am well aware that Ukrainian American pianists, born since 1950 are producing recordings, but Ms. Cybriwsky makes a strong case in the name of the young generation.

The German recording engineers employed careful, close miking, resulting in sound that is immediate and exciting. Furthermore, the digital technology, sometimes blamed for hard-edged sonics, did not interfere with the full-bodied and basically warm sound of the Steinway.

The German CD issue number is OGC 96-XIX with a total playing time of 73:30. Proceeds from the $15 disc will go to benefit the Children of Chornobyl. Orders may be sent to the Surma Bookstore at 11 E. Seventh St., New York, NY 10003.

A footnote: George Cybriwsky passed away on June 20, 1997, at the age of 74.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, July 20, 1997, No. 29, Vol. LXV

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