The first time I heard Alexander Kobrin play was two years ago at a concert in Concord, NH. I had never heard of him before, but a Russian friend and colleague at school had called my attention to the concert.
Kobrin had programmed the four Scherzi by Chopin. I must admit that they are not my favorite pieces, but when Kobrin played them, they sounded like music I’d never heard before. There was the glitter, the passion, the technical perfection, but they were means to convey a meaning, rather than an end in themselves or a means to show off the skills of the pianist.
Every phrase was shaped to the very last note. In the mezzo piano to pianissimo range his playing had the intensity of whispering a secret to the audience. I've hardly ever heard anyone conjure such a wide range of colors out of the piano and control them with such perfect mastery. Obviously, a general concept was underlying the interpretation, nevertheless the performance felt completely alive, every sound genuinely created in the moment.
I always figure when someone plays music you don’t feel particularly close to in a way that makes you want to listen to it again, that was a convincing performance.
The encore he played in Concord, “Catch me if you can” from Schumann’s “Scenes of Childhood” was like a spook. Incredibly fast, and incredibly soft, it sent a shiver down your spine, so intense, you don’t forget it as long as you live.
Seeing his name on the faculty and list of performers of the International Keyboard Institute at the Mannes School of Music in New York City made me eager to hear him again, and find out whether my first impression would hold up. The program he played last Friday consisted of Haydn’s Sonata in D-major Hob 16/37, the Phantasiestuecke op. 12 by Schumann, and the Sonata in b-minor by Chopin.
The impression I got at the concert in Concord wasn’t only confirmed, but reinforced. I’ve never heard the Haydn Sonata played with such humor, imagination and elegance. I felt inspired to look for new ideas in this popular teaching piece and couldn’t help thinking “I wished my students could hear this.”
The Chopin Sonata was haunting, conveying a sense of discomfort, disturbance - parts of it sounding almost like an improvisation. At the same time, he didn’t place “special effects” merely to attract attention.
The interpretation of Schumann’s Phantasiestuecke presented them reflecting the complexity of human emotions, states of mind rather than images of nature, to which some of the titles refer. While each detail was meticulously shaped, it seamlessly integrated into the piece as a whole. Pieces like “Aufschwung” (Soaring) and “In der Nacht” (At night) began softly, reserving the forte for the climax of the piece in the recapitulation. Yet, the playing didn’t sound as if he was intellectually “following” a plan, rather, he seemed to be “feeling” the plan in the process of playing the piece.
Watching Kobrin play gave me the impression of a musician whose mental energy is completely focussed on the sound he hears in his mind. No energy is wasted on excess body motion or facial expression - though I did find it a little disturbing that he was humming along with his playing at times.
The Keyboard Institute also offered the opportunity to observe Kobrin teach private lessons. In addition to his magnificent playing, I found him a respectful, kind, supportive and yet intense teacher. He didn’t merely use the students to demonstrate how he felt about the the music, but interacted with them, asking questions, inviting them to think and start searching for their own answers in the music, rather than impose his own interpretation on them.
His comments during the lessons confirmed my impression that he is a pianist in search of truth rather than effect in the music.
One of the students played Schumann’s “Davidsbuendler”. After a conversation about her background and her thoughts about the pieces he said: “ The contrast between the two characters Florestan and Eusebius, and ‘Schumann was crazy,’ that’s how most people think of these pieces. But matters are much more complicated than that. The music expresses very mixed emotions. They change all the time, and you have to feel out those subtle shades of emotion.” For this reason, Kobrin counts “Davidsbuendler” among Schumann’s most difficult piano works, together with the Fantasy, Humoresken and Kreisleriana.
He commented further: “You have to ask yourself what is the meaning of the music? How does it reveal itself in the structure. Pay attention to all the small differences, and ask yourself why are they there, what is their meaning?”
Regarding the relationship between thinking and feeling he said: “Your first reaction to the music is : “This is beautiful”. The next step is to study the score and examine all the details of the music - the structure, not just the overall structure of the piece, but every detail, every phrase. Knowing what makes the piece beautiful doesn’t get in the way of the beauty. When you perform, you must have a plan in terms of understanding the meaning of the music. At the same time you have to remain very flexible to feel all these subtle changes while you are playing.”
Kobrin’s playing draws you in rather than sweeps you away in big waves of sound. The remark of a friend, who visited the concert together with me made me realize that it may not be the kind of playing that makes every listener sit on the edge of the chair, electrified with tension. But I find that it is a kind of playing that reaches out to the soul and leaves an imprint.
A final remark: After the concert, I listened to some of Kobrin’s recordings on the internet. I feel they don’t do justice to his playing, because the subtle nuances that make it so special get lost. If you get a chance, go and hear one of his live performances instead.