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Review of “The Return” in MusicWeb International

The title of this disc from the Armenian-born American pianist Raffi Besalyan comes from the painting ‘The Return’ by Arnold Böcklin, which inspired Rachmaninov’s B-Minor Prelude. That piece is included in the selection of seven Preludes he plays here, to which he adds four of the composer’s Études-Tableaux. Besalyan is an idiomatic Rachmaninov player, as the ubiquitous C sharp minor Prelude Op.3 No.2 makes clear at the start of the disc. The broad outer sections are sensitively phrased, and the fast central part is accurate although with a very slight rhythmic stutter at one point. The ensuing G minor, hardly less celebrated although a much stronger piece, is swift and properly rhythmic throughout. The lyricism of the E flat Op.23 No.6 brings out the poetic side to his playing, but without dragging. In the C minor he nails the stormy mood of the swirling figuration from the start through to an emphatic close.

The Op.32 group has many of the same qualities. The evanescent whimsy of the G major is exquisitely captured, with perhaps the most alluring playing on the disc. The great B minor, which the album’s title alludes to, opens hauntingly enough, and the central climax has nobility aplenty. The G sharp minor has good technical control in the service of its elusive character. The group of four Études-Tableaux has equally successful playing, not least in the big E flat minor that Sviatoslav Richter once said he did not play as it made him feel naked. There is plenty of naked emotion in Besalyan’s passionate account. The Corelli Variations are well characterised, and more important still, placed as building blocks in a cumulative structure. The twenty individual variations are quite short, between 30 and 80 seconds long, so a sense of continuity is essential to a successful account of Op.42. Here the music grows convincingly right through until the andante coda.

The disc is not an all Rachmaninov affair, for we also get four quite short pieces by Arno Babajanian, an Armenian composer and pianist during the Soviet era. Barbajanian lived and worked mainly in Moscow, and so this piano music looks back to his native Armenia in music that blends his native folk idiom with the Russian school. This invests it with great charm. The booklet note speaks of the first piece ‘Prelude’ as having a “line of inheritance from Chopin via Rachmaninov”, and while you can hear that, this music is a little lighter than that makes it sound. The touching ‘Elegy’ was composed in memory of Babajanian’s fellow Armenian composer, Aram Khachaturian. The final work ‘Vagharshapat Dance’ is an early composition and apparently “one of Babajanian’s most popular works”, which it is easy to believe. These are all beguilingly played, and make both a neat introduction for many of us to the composer’s music and an attractive end to the recital.

Overall this is an appealing disc. The Rachmaninov pieces have been widely recorded, especially recently, and collectors may already know several accounts from star pianists that perhaps eclipse the recordings here. But at the very least Besalyan is an artist who does justice to each of these works, and those unfamiliar Babajanian morsels are an appetising addition. The booklet is in English only, with more photos of the pianist than we probably need, and the notes give useful background when both the soloist and one of the featured composers might be unfamiliar. The Sono Luminus label has produced a number of issues like this one with the material on both a CD and a Blu-ray audio disc. The sound on both carriers is very good.

Roy Westbrook, for MusicWeb International, June 13, 2016

Review of the Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto with the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra: Outstanding

FV Symphony Hits a High Note

“Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, like so many of his works, begins with a little musical surprise for the audience. In this case, it is the solo piano playing the opening measures to introduce the concerto, a simple phrase, echoed by the orchestra, engaging the listeners into the beauty of the music, while leaving us unaware of the powerful measures that are to come.

The soloist for this performance was Raffi Besalyan, a gifted pianist who was more than capable of managing Beethoven’s beautiful, yet demanding 4th concerto.

There was a certain sense of lyricism to his playing, and his technical prowess was made known as he mastered the numerous passages filled with scales and arpeggios. It was in several of these passages where I marveled at Besalyan’s ability to clearly delineate the different voices Beethoven had layered into the music.

Also significant was Besalyan’s ability to bring out striking dynamic contrasts in the music’s lines, this was most notable in the cadenza of the first movement.

His interpretation of the stark, yet passionate, second movement was quite lovely. He handled the dialogue between soloist and orchestra skillfully and with elegance.

Beethoven’s firey finale, Rondo: Vivace, is enough to put any soloist to the test. It was in this movement where Besalyan’s technical artistry came to the fore. He played the movement with flair of ease, meeting one challenge after the next. Once again, he was at his best with his interpretation of the cadenza, crisp, coherent, and musically satisfying.

For an encore, Mr. Besalyan performed a delightfully pleasing selection, “Spring,” by the Armenian composer Komitas.”

James Chaudoir, for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin on, March 21, 2016

Review of “The Return” in Audiophile Audition Magazine

Riveting sound and brilliant performances add up to a most desirable set.

I had no idea that such a powerhouse pianist as Raffi Besalyan worked so close to me. Just downtown from where I live, as Assistant Professor of Piano at Georgia State University, resides this technical wiz and bold Rachmaninoff master.

On the basis of this recital, the recital hall at the university must be rocking these days. Besalyan has a frightfully gripping command of all this music, navigating its formidable technical traps with ease, and displaying a wonderfully lively tone and subtle sense of phrasing. Too often pianists try to hide behind Rocky’s high cholesterol harmonies and wildly efficacious pedaling, covering a host of sins. Not Besalyan—though his pedaling is obvious it is also quite controlled and introspective in many ways. His concern is, more than most, for the careful delineation of sub-phrases in the context of the whole, not a large sonic wash than can sound exciting but also cover up half the music. Rachmaninoff can be as chum in the water is to a shark, and too often recordings by extremely different pianists sound remarkably the same, but this one is different in its clarity and emotional content.

The Variations on a Theme of Corelli, “La Folia”, taken from that composer’s Twelve Sonatas, Op. 5, is the only work for solo piano that Rachmaninoff completed outside Russian soil, the other music done before he left his homeland. Besalyan dexterously dances through the difficulties of the masterly work. The album name, The Return, refers to Rachmaninoff’s B-Minor Prelude inspired by the painting The Return of Arnold Böcklin, and the piece was a favorite for his own recitals and a reminder of Russia. These selections are among the most well-known (and popular) of the composer, and Sono Luminous has given us luminous multichannel sound indeed, as realistic as having the Steinway Model D sitting right in your listening room. The pieces by noted Armenian composer and pianist Arno Babajanian (1921-83) are composed in the Rachmaninoff mode, quite enjoyable yet suffering the comparison.

Aside from the CD, there are also MP3 and FLAC files available for download by running your Blu-ray player through your Wi-fi hookup using mShuttle technology, in order to make the music available on a wide variety of devices. This is a fine disc in superb sound with performances that match the technology.

Steven Ritter for Audiophile Audition Magazine, February 23, 2016

Review of “The Return” in the CD Journal, Japan

Dynamic and nostalgic, Besalyan’s playing of Rachmaninoff captivates the listener with its power, suppleness and emotional expression. It is also full of shadows and twilight. This wonderful recording has a very wide dynamic range and really dense, detailed sound. It is splendid.

CD Journal, Japan

A Scintillating Piano Recital – Review of “The Return” on

Let’s start with Arno Babajanian, an Armenian composer who matured during the Soviet era and died in 1983; a quick internet browse reveals that a minor planet was named in his honour three years after his death. This recital disc by the brilliant Armenian-American pianist Raffi Besalyan contains four Babajanian miniatures. They’re gorgeous; the Prelude and Melody paying homage to Rachmaninov, the Elegy a sublime, songful tribute to Babajanian’s fellow Armenian Aram Khachaturian. A pungent folk dance closes the disc, and promptly sent me online in search of more Babajanian.

All else here is Rachmaninov: a selection of the Préludes, the Etudes-Tableuxand the Corelli Variations. And very smartly played – the Op. 23 G minor Prelude’s rhythms have a brilliantly incisive snap, reminding us that Rachmaninov’s music isn’t just about woozy lyricism. The G# minor Prelude in the Op.32 set glitters, Besalyan’s right hand ideally clear. Unfussy, highly readable notes by theartsdesk‘s Gavin Dixon reveal that the sixth Etude-Tableau in the Op. 33 set was based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and also tell us why this CD bears the name The Return. Op. 39′s No. 6 is dark, percussive and propulsive. The Variations on a Theme of Corelli are nicely played; the short movements seamlessly knitted into a cogent whole. Stunning, intelligent playing and ripe, detailed sound – some of the best solo Rachmaninov I’ve heard recently.

Graham Rickson for, June 13, 2015

Review of “The Return” in Audiophile Sound Magazine (Italy)

Artistic judgment: Outstanding/Exceptional

Take a large man affected with an inherited sensitivity, force him to say goodbye forever to the land he loved above everything else, make him live the rest of his life in a world he no longer felt was his – a regret he infused into most of his musical work which was idolized by many but not always by the critics – combine all of the above and you will have Rachmaninov.

There is no use listening to the music of this phenomenal pianist and composer “démodé” without taking into account that Rachmaninov’s work is a fusion of influences of Tchaikovsky (of whom Rachmaninov considered himself a humble follower) and a confrontation between the world of the past and the one he lived in, especially during his American exile, which he never managed to understand or accept apart from his unconditional love of jazz.

This CD, recorded by Armenian-American pianist Raffi Besalyan (like Rachmaninov, who was first Russian then became American), is an exploration in a little less than sixty minutes of the human and musical universe of Rachmaninov. The title of the album, “The Return,” is inspired by the painting of Arnold Bocklin. The recording consists of Rachmaninov’s seven Preludes, four Études-Tableaux and the Corelli Variations. The remainder of the album is dedicated to compositions by an Armenian composer Arno Babajanian, a student of another sublime musician of Armenian descent, Aram Khachaturian.

The “Rachmaninovian” Armenian pianist un-weaves his Penelope’s web with a mix of nostalgia and pain (the opening track, the famous Prelude in C# minor Op.3 No.2 is an example), enthusiastic vigor (the volcanic Etude Op.39 No.5), and through passages of high definition in the “Return” (Prelude Op.32 No.10). Besalyan possesses formidable technique (critics are already comparing him to Horowitz … but hold on to your easy comparisons); indeed, today without a first-class technique one cannot go anywhere. Besalyan’s playing combines exemplary clarity of sound and crystalline touch, it is full of magic, shadows and twilight (are we speaking, or not, of Rachmaninov?), yet he is explosive as well. Listen to the beginning of Etude Op.33 No.6: powerful, massive, granite-like when needed, of course.

And then, the variations [are] among the best I have ever had the opportunity to hear … In essence, Besalyan’s Rachmaninov is exceptional (hence the judgment), and I expect to hear him on other shores and climes (in 2008 Koch International published his Bach-Busoni recording, played with Sara Buechner, but I have not heard it yet).

Technical score: Outstanding-Exceptional


…If you want to get an idea of what a Steinway concert grand piano is capable of with its dynamics, with the multiple shades of the color palette, with the support of the pedals, then you should listen to this recording. The lucky owners of the Blu-ray will go to heaven…terrific dynamics, natural and clean sound, sumptuous sound stage. With this recording, Sono Luminus will certainly receive another Grammy nomination.

Andrea Bedetti, musicologist and music reviewer for Audiophile Sound magazine, May 2015

Review of “The Return” in Classical CD Reviews from the UK

The music of Rachmaninov is clearly dear to Armenian pianist Raffi Besalyan’s heart. This is his second album, after the 2012 Dance, Drama, Decadence, and while both programmes are mixed, both are dominated by Rachmaninov. This time round we hear a selection of preludes (from opp. 3, 23 and 32), Etudes-Tableaux and the Correlli Variations. They are popular works all, and well represented on disc, but Besalyan more than justifies his survey with playing that is passionate and involving – plenty of drama and plenty of poetry – but which is also precise, disciplined and intelligently paced throughout.The programme begins with a lollipop, the C Sharp Minor Prelude, op. 3/2. But from the very opening phrase it is clear that Besalyan intends to keep us on our toes. The pause after the first three chords is teasingly held far longer than the opening tempo suggests. Then the quieter textures enter, and the music gradually gets back up to pace. The structuring here is excellent, with the tempo and density of texture gradually increasing up to the climax. Within this, individual phrases are shaped, but with infinite subtlety, so as not to disturb the flow. To continue, the G-Minor Prelude, op. 23/5, another favourite, and a chance for Besalyan to demonstrate a more strident approach. Louder dynamics never compromise Besalyan’s clarity of tone or precision of articulation, which gives these passages all the more impact. The quiet music, too, benefits from that impeccable control.  A real highlight of this disc is the B-Minor Prelude, op. 32/10 “The Return”, from which the album takes its title. The prelude was inspired by a painting by Böcklin, and the entire album takesthis as a theme. It shines through this performance, and through Besalyan’s ability to express Rachmaninov’s bittersweet nostalgia without ever wallowing in sentimentality. The Etudes-Tableaux introduce more varied textures and moods. A highlight here is the Appasionato, op. 39/5, one of the more substantial and involving of Rachmaninov’s piano works, and an excellent showcase for Besalyan’s structural thinking. Despite the agitated and dramatic textures from the very start, he is able to shape and build the music, giving focus and direction to every phrase.So too with the Corelli Variations. The theme is presented here with the utmost simplicity, giving no hint of the complexity and turbulence to follow. As ever, discipline and clarity are as evident as emotional engagement in Besalyan’s playing, and the contrast between each of the variations, while unmistakable, is never exaggerated, the better to articulate the work’s overall structure. An unusual choice to conclude: four short works by the Armenian composer Arno Babajanian. We’re not far from Rachmaninov here, Babajanian drawing on the older composer’s work for textural and harmonic ideas. But the melodic material is Armenian, as lyrical as Rachmaninoff’s but less complex. There is less emotional sophistication here than in any of the Rachmaninoff, but that very directness itself is attractive. The best of the Babajanian works is the Vagharshapat Dance, it has the most regional colour of the four and the expansive piano textures are engaging, especially when rendered with the clarity and evenness of touch Besalyan brings.Attractive packaging, with plenty of pictures of the pianist, although sadly no reproduction of the Böcklin painting from which the recording indirectly takes its name. The liner essay is informative, erudite and intelligent (full disclosure: it’s by me). Sound quality is good, the recording made at the Sono Luminus Studio with what sounds like an excellent Steinway D. A Blu-ray audio disc is supplied along with the standard CD, and chances are that sounds even better still. Recommended.

Gavin Dixon for Classical CD, April 17, 2015

The Distinguished Artists Concert Series

Raffi knocked it out of the park last night. The audience gave him a standing ovation at the end of the first half. It was beautiful playing and he looked like he had a ball playing the CFX. Thank you, Tina so much for providing us with everything we needed to make the concert a great success, which it was!

John Orlando, Executive Director of The Distinguished Artists Concert Series, Santa Cruz, CA, March 28, 2015

Review of a concert for Pro Musica of Detroit

Pianist Raffi Besalyan presented the Pro Musica audience with a lavish smorgasbord of 21 piano works, some of them well-known, but the majority were experienced by us for the first time. Judging from the reaction and post-concert comments by audience members, it was a terrific evening.

It was only right that Mr. Besalyan would devote the first segment of his concert to works by composers from his native Armenia. “Spring” by Komitas has a gentle beginning, followed by an emotional passage, then returns to the quiet of the opening. This was followed by the powerful Prelude # 6 by Eduard Bagdasarian.

The highlight of the Armenian program was the quartet of pieces by Arno Babajanian, beginning with the peaceful Prelude, then the exquisite “Melody,” so song-like, and unmistakably from the Caucasus, as was the Elegie, and such great playing by the right hand! It was so beautiful! The energetic Dance concluded this segment.

The first half of the recital was dominated by the music of Rachmaninoff. Five of his 24 Preludes, including the two most popular ones. The ubiquitous “Bells of Moscow” received excellent pacing by Mr. Besalyan, and the G minor was performed brilliantly. The E-flat Major is so lyrical and it reminded me of “that” passage in his 2nd Piano Concerto. Raffi showed “rolling notes” discipline in the C minor in a dazzling display, each hand taking turns in wave after wave of sound. The G Major Prelude closed the set in a quiet mood. It was a love song.

The three Etudes-Tableaux were revelatory. “Scene at the Fair” reminded me of the C minor Prelude. The C minor Etude was insanely energetic, and the one in A minor (“Little Red Riding Hood”) was alternately humorous and sinister, ending in two snarling “bites.”

Following Intermission, Raffi played three Preludes by Gershwin. He showed a real flair for the “bluesy” style. I loved his rendition of the “Blue Lullaby,” and the “Spanish Prelude” was wonderfully rhythmical.

The Ukrainian Nikolai Kapustin also was fond of jazz. Raffi performed his Prelude in E Major. If you don’t think jazz can be beautiful, listen to that piece, as performed by Mr. Besalyan. And the Concert Etude in F minor, fiendishly difficult, was given a bravura reading.
Chopin’s famous Waltz in C-sharp minor was played with such graceful sensitivity. Raffi used his rubatos to great effect.

The maniacal Mephisto Waltz # 1 by Liszt closed the program. Its technical difficulties were negotiated with aplomb, but what a jaw-dropper! Face it, the piece is mostly empty bombast, but it is so much fun, and it displays a pianist’s exceptional skills. Raffi Besalyan has a surfeit of them, stamina and strength foremost in this opus.

What a glorious evening this was! Mr. Besalyan generously gave of his time at the Afterglow, graciously speaking with the many people who wanted to interact with him.

He had also given of his time and talents to the Detroit School of the Arts pupils in the morning. He listened to three pianists, gave helpful instruction to them, and played three of the works he would play on his program. Three of the youngsters were in the evening audience.
Stan Beattie, who with Carol, hosted Raffi for two-plus days, took him to the statue of the Armenian mystic and composer Komitas on Saturday. The statue is just off Hart Plaza, on the median of Jefferson Avenue. He took several photos, certainly a very happy proof of Raffi Besalyan’s unforgettable visit to Detroit.

Josiah Tazelaar for Detroit Performs (, October 10, 2014

American Record Guide review of “Dance, Drama, Decadence”

Besalyan has been lauded as the “true heir of the mainstream of Russian pianism, like Horowitz” (Chopin Magazine). Those are big shoes to fill, but this Armenian pianist’s debut album proves that he is a formidable pianist with a commanding presence and rich interpretive gifts.

As Besalyan was trained in the Eastern European piano tradition, it is no surprise that he has an affinity for Rachmaninoff, whose revised version of the Piano Sonata No.2 opens this program. Considering his background, one might expect melody and lyricism and an ear for luscious piano harmonies supplemented by dramatic force. His Rachmaninoff is impressive, with sweeping lines and vivid textures. Besalyan is absolutely in control of every tempo change, figuration, and dynamic marking, balancing restraint with emotion so that the sonata is full of pathos without sounding overdone. The following polka is vibrantly done.

Besalyan’s fiery Mephisto Waltz serves as another showcase of his technical abilities and discipline. It never feels rushed and retains coherency despite its temperamental nature. This is not just ferocious virtuosity, either:  Besalyan draws forth tender moods, too. The closing Ravel is orchestral in scope.

There are pieces by two Armenian composers. Baghdassarian’s preludes follow Rachmaninoff’s aesthetic closely with emphasis on lyricism and lush harmonies. Besalyan presents these engagingly. His interpretation of Komitas’s ‘Garuna’ is exquisite—and extremely lucid. Following the Liszt, it offers a welcome respite from Faust and shows that Besalyan is able to summon the utmost delicacy.

The recording has a rich and pure sound, capturing every sonority. Besalyan is an artist to watch, for sure.

American Record Guide Magazine, March/April 2013

Pianist Fascinates and Charms Audience with Chopin and others

The first concert in a series of four concerts presented by Niigata Nippo newspaper featuring pianist Raffi Besalyan was held on the evening of November 22nd in Joetsu city’s Joetsu Concert Hall. The large audience was captivated by Armenian pianist’s performances of masterworks by Chopin and other composers.

Besalyan who has won numerous international competitions, showcased Chopin’s Etudes, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Gershwin’s own piano solo version of Rhapsody in Blue among others, enchanting the classical music fans with his delicate touch and powerful and authoritative playing.

Pianist Raffi Besalyan can next be heard at Nagaoka Lyric Concert Hall on Nov.24, Shibata Shimin Concert Hall on Nov.25 and Niigata Shimin Geijutsu Concert Hall on Nov.28.

Niigata Nippo Newspaper, Japan, November 23, 2012

Debut CD “Dance, Drama, Decadence” Receives Prestigious “Jun-Tokusen” Award from The Record Geijutsu Magazine Japan

Raffi Besalyan studied under Sergey Barseghyan at the Yerevan State Komitas Conservatory in Armenia and later continued his studies with Byron Janis in the US. He also studied under Nasedkin and Merzhanov at the Moscow Conservatory. A former faculty member of Rowan University, he is now a professor of piano at the University of Wisconsin.

Besalyan immediately displays his supreme virtuosity from the opening of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No.2 (revised version). Indeed, he is a “true heir of the mainstream of Russian pianism, like Horowitz” (CHOPIN Magazine) as is mentioned on the sleeve of the CD. Besalyan’s sophisticated and exquisite tone colors that are full of nuance and the tasteful and rich singing manner in which he turns the phrases resemble Horowitz. Besalyan fuses his western suave and polished elegant qualities perfectly. Pianist’s sorrowful, deeply colored interpretation of the 2nd movement is phenomenal. It leads us to a highly dramatic, emotional performance of the 3rd movement. Besalyan’s dexterity and agogic accents bring out the humorous expressions in the Polka de W.R.

The pianist’s choice to include some pieces by Armenian composers Komitas and Baghdassarian in the program is an interesting factor. Baghdassarian’s Prelude in B minor is a virtuosic piece combining Rachmaninoff-like lyrical singing melodies. Besalyan’s playing of the Prelude in D minor with its Armenian folk-like melody is simply splendid. In his pure expression, Besalyan becomes one with Komitas’ “Spring”. It is a magnificent interpretation, full of pathos.

The “show” of a performance of the piano solo version of Ravel’s La Valse proves yet again that Besalyan is a master of his art. Tsutomu Nasuda

Raffi Besalyan is one of the most outstanding pianists to emerge from Armenia. After completing his graduate studies at the Yerevan State Komitas Conservatory in his homeland Armenia, Besalyan moved to America to further his education there. He has won various prizes in numerous competitions prior to his appointment at the University of Wisconsin, where he is currently a professor of piano. Besalyan has been repeatedly visiting Japan since 2001, and this CD was also recorded here in Japan in Plaza North Hall, Saitama.

The program opens with a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No.2, which gives the listener a real taste of the so-called Russian pianism. The playing is powerful and vigorous in every way. Here, Besalyan demonstrates brilliant virtuosity and employs his precise touch. He also reveals abundant emotional commitment to the music, which is strongly evident in the memorable interpretation of the second theme of the first movement (and its recurrence). These are the qualities that inevitably draw the listener’s attention to Besalyan’s performance. His playing is at a superior level throughout.

After Rachmaninoff’s Polka de W.R., the program continues with Three Preludes by Armenian composer Baghdassarian. Despite the fact that Baghdassarian lived in the 20th Century (1922-1987), his style, with its romantic elements and tendencies, is very similar to Rachmaninoff’s to an extent that you may easily think that you are listening to the works of the latter. Nevertheless, Besalyan performs the works by these two composers with much love and affection. Then there is the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No.1, and, let me tell you, this is also stunning! After “Spring”, the work by another Armenian composer, Komitas, Ravel’s La Valse ties up the entire program.

This substantial and satisfying recital gives you enough reasons to place the spotlight on this pianist.           Jiro Hamada

This large piano has an impressive sound and a brilliant tone. I get an image of the instrument that is vibrating richly and singing in the air freely. The attack is clear and clean. You can also sense the grand scale. The alluring tone that is carefree and tender has velvety qualities, spreads in front of the eyes and puts you in comfort. This is a piano with vivid colors. Kazuo Kanzaki

Special Critics’ Choice Award
The Record Geijutsu Magazine Japan, July 20, 2012

“Dance, Drama, Decadence” is Mainichi Shinbun’s Classical Album of the Month

In his debut album, Armenian pianist Besalyan plays Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 and other works, articulating the wistful romanticism with a kind of nostalgic tone. The expressive interpretations of Baghdassaryan’s Preludes and Komitas’ “Spring”, compositions from the pianist’s home country, also deeply touched my heart. Tokihiko Umezu

Mainichi Shinbun Newspaper Japan, August 22, 2012

“Dance, Drama, Decadence” Recommended by CD Journal Japan

This superb debut album consists of works that represent Besalyan’s true strength.

CD Journal Japan, August 2012

Fanfare Magazine Interview

Raffi Besalyan has much in common with Sergei Rachmaninoff. Both were trained in the great Eastern European piano tradition, with its focus on intensity and drama. They also share a passion for melody and lyricism, regularly subduing their turbulent piano textures in favor of graceful melodic lines. And both crossed the Atlantic to bring these Eastern qualities to appreciative American audiences.

Dance, Drama, Decadence is the name of Besalyan’s newly released debut album, and it’s no surprise to find Rachmaninoff at the top of the program. “I always felt a very strong affinity for Rachmaninoff long before moving to the US” Besalyan recalls. “I remember hearing his C# minor Prelude for the first time when I was ten and being in awe. It was definitely a love from the first sight, or rather first hearing. Immediately after that I went to the library, borrowed the score and learned the work within a week or so. It felt incredibly satisfying physically and emotionally to play Rachmaninoff! This was the time when I firmly decided to become a professional pianist.”

Besalyan hails from Armenia, where he began his training, before moving to the US, with a very important stop en route in Moscow. “In 1996, at the end of my conservatory years in Armenia, I saw a poster advertising the 2nd Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition in Moscow, and was determined to enter it. After hearing my performances at the competition, a piano professor from the States extended an invitation for me to come to the US to further my career. I have been extensively performing Rachmaninoff’s music around the world and teaching it to my pupils for many years now.”

He’s not the first pianist, of course, to take Rachmaninoff’s sensuous music to his heart. Besalyan locates his own interpretations within a tradition that has developed on both sides of the Atlantic. Vladimir Horowitz is one of his heroes. Besalyan describes him as a “temperamental virtuoso with an enormous color palette and an extreme range of sound and dynamics.” Another influential figure was the American pianist Byron Janis, a pupil of Horowitz and an heir to his passionate interpretive approach, which, Besalyan points out, is clearly demonstrated in Janis’ famous recordings of the Rachmaninoff concertos. “I am proud to say that I have had the privilege of studying with Mr. Janis at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Mr. Janis’ colorful and brilliant performances that are full of great imagination became a huge inspiration to me.”

So how better to open his debut CD than with one of Rachmaninoff’s most famous compositions? “I could not think of any other work than his bold and magnificent Sonata No.2 to open the program on my debut CD!” Besalyan says. He has opted for the revised 1931 version of the work, which is shorter than the original. But that greater concision really helps it to pack a punch. Besalyan quotes Rachmaninoff on the revision “…in this sonata, so many voices are moving simultaneously, and it is too long. Chopin’s Sonata Op.35 lasts 19 minutes, and all has been said.” “I completely agree with this statement,” Besalyan continues, “even though there are some gorgeous passages with lush harmonies in the original version, I still feel that the revised version is so much better in terms of the form and structure. I personally like the compactness of the 1931 version.”

To Western ears, the distinctions between Russian and Armenian approaches to piano playing can be difficult to gauge, so how do Russian audiences respond to Besalyan’s Rachmaninoff interpretations? “They think my playing is temperamental and powerful,” he says. “In Russia, Armenians are considered very temperamental and hot blooded,” a view that listeners to Besalyan’s Rachmaninoff are likely to share. When performing in Russia, Besalyan is also often commended for the flexibility of his phrasing. A particularly Armenian quality? Perhaps. “One Russian critic even said that my rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations reminded him of ancient Armenian Chants.”

Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata is followed on the disc by music from four other composers, two of whom are Armenian, Edward Baghadassarian and Komitas Vardapet. Baghadassarian is not yet a household name in the West, in fact he’s not even in Grove, so Besalyan fills us in on the composer’s background.

“Edward Baghadassarian (1922–1987) was a graduate of the Yerevan State Conservatory where he double majored in piano and composition. He later studied at the Moscow Conservatory and afterwards joined the faculty of the Yerevan Komitas Conservatory. Among his works are a Symphonic Poem, a Sonata for clarinet and piano, an Overture for symphony orchestra, a Rhapsody for violin and orchestra, 24 Preludes for piano, the ballet Chess, a Piano Concerto, romances, choral works, incidental music and movie scores.”

Baghadassarian’s piano music, at least under Besalyan’s fingers, sounds a lot like Rachmaninoff. He has the same intensely lyrical approach and an impressive ability to voice his harmonies to create an expansive resonance from the piano. So was Rachmaninoff an important influence?

“I feel that most Soviet era composers were more or less influenced, perhaps inspired, by the late Russian Romantic music, including Rachmaninoff’s. I believe it was hard to resist the lush harmonic language and the sweeping melodic lines, not to mention the exquisite pianistic writing. Despite all of these influences, one can undeniably recognize purely Armenian folk characteristics – unique harmonies, melismatic melodic twists stemming from ancient Armenian sacred music, and the many dance-like sections.”

Komitas, Armenia’s famous composer-priest, has a higher profile on the international music scene. His is fine music, again based on a natural gift for melody. But has the recent rise in his profile been the result of the many recordings on labels like ECM, or does it indicate a resurgence in Armenian national identity among classical musicians?

“I think it is both. In recent years, more and more gifted Armenian musicians have had the opportunity to go outside of the country and promote their cultural and musical traditions. Komitas, who is the father of Armenian classical music, and whose works have become symbols of the nation, deservedly receives quite a lot of attention. Songs such as Garun a (Spring) and Krunk (Crane) are particularly recognizable.”

Besalyan performs the music of both composers with passion and commitment, making the best possible case for their work. He clearly doesn’t think they need special treatment, as between the two Armenians he sandwiches music by one of the greatest piano composers of all time, Franz Liszt. Do the challenges posed by Liszt differ from those posed by Rachmaninoff?

“I do enjoy playing Liszt and include his works in my concert programs often. I tend to like his compositions that are programmatic and more theatrical in nature, such as the Mephisto Waltz that is on this CD, his B minor and Dante Sonatas, and some of the Transcendental Études.

Both Liszt and Rachmaninoff were considered among the greatest pianists of all time. Even though very challenging, their music is extremely pianistic and settles under the fingers comfortably (of course, assuming that one has developed a certain level of technical fluency). It is the artist’s challenge not to make Liszt’s music sound purely virtuosic. One must approach Liszt’s works with a subtle taste for color and rubato, and also tonal sensitivity and imagination. Some of the challenges presented in Rachmaninoff’s music are the more polyphonic writing, dense chordal textures and complex forms. Both composer’s music is quite temperamental and emotional, and it is the pianist’s obligation to deliver performances that are full of excitement and fire and are multidimensional in nature.”

The program concludes with Ravel, the solo piano version of La Valse. Many think of this work as the final summation of the Romantic era. Is this why Besalyan has chosen it to end this program of Romantic works?

“You could say that. La Valse is the summation, or perhaps the “decay and destruction” of the Romantic era. Also, since the title of my CD is “Dance, Drama, Decadence”, I felt that this composition in particular fits all three categories and concludes the program with an exclamation point.”

It certainly does that. Besalyan often mentions color among the qualities required of a pianist by composers like Rachmaninoff and Liszt. Does he aim for an orchestral color palette from the piano when he performs this transcription of the famous orchestral score?

“I look at the piano as an orchestra of its own. I do always aspire to produce orchestral sounds and colors when playing the piano literature. In the case of La Valse, it feels natural and necessary to do so. I do also enjoy the theatrical component of this work (un poem choreographique), as it was originally conceived as a ballet. To me Ravel’s own words describing this work are the most inspirational: “…one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement.””

In addition to his successful career as a performer, Besalyan devotes much of his time to teaching. He is a member of the Faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point where he is Associate Professor of Piano. Besalyan received his own musical education through a very different system, and recalls the rigors of the intensely structured program he followed in Armenia. As a child, he won a place at a special music school for gifted children, which provided high quality teaching and a continuity between the school syllabus and the conservatoire that followed.

“Music education in Russia and Armenia is more performance oriented.” Besalyan says “By the time students enter the conservatory they are pretty well equipped technically on their instrument and have a thorough musical background. At the conservatory they polish and refine their skills with an established professor on the way to becoming artists or teachers themselves.”

It’s an intensive system that makes high demands on the pupils. Things may be a little more relaxed in the States, but Besalyan detects a desire among his students for Soviet-style rigor.

“Many students come to study with me expecting the Russian approach. They know my expectations of them, they know it is not going to be only “fun”, but hard and serious work in order to achieve a certain quality. They want and expect constructive criticism all the time.”

One of the valuable links to Russian and Armenian pianism that Besalyan is able to offer his students is the repertoire he loves. His pupils come from all over the world, but many have come to share his passions. He currently has a Korean student studying some Baghadassarian Preludes, and he has also mentored a number of American students in the music of Komitas.

Rachmaninoff is a favorite for many of his Japanese pupils, and Besalyan’s own concert schedule suggests that Japanese audiences also share the passion. He regularly performs in Japan, and finds that the late Romantic repertoire goes down particularly well there.

“Yes, in Japan they definitely value the late Romantic piano music, especially Rachmaninoff’s.” And they obviously value Besalyan’s interpretations just as much; his new album has been awarded the “Jun- tokusen” special commendation by Japan’s leading classical music magazine, Record Geijutsu.

The album was recorded in Japan, and from Besalyan’s description of the project, it sounds like a great place to make and record classical music. “Record sales are healthy there,” Besalyan says, “because in Japan classical music is almost equally as popular as the other genres. Many young people are quite knowledgeable about classical music (almost everyone in Japan takes serious private music lessons as a youngster), and they attend classical concerts and buy records as well.”

And as you might expect, Japanese sound engineers have both the technology and the expertise to achieve the highest recording standards. “The equipment is definitely of high quality and the crew is very meticulous.” Besalyan enthuses, “I had a great recording engineer in particular. He had a great ear, as well as excellent taste and knowledge of music and of his craft.”

So can we expect any further recordings in the near future? Besalyan’s growing fan base, especially in Japan, makes that prospect all the more likely. He’s in discussion right now with the label about a follow-up disc. Possible repertoire includes piano sonatas by Prokofiev and Scriabin. It turns out that Gershwin is very popular in Japan. He’s one of Besalyan’s favorite composers too, so some Gershwin Preludes are likely to make the cut. Then of course there’s the Armenian repertoire, and Besalyan is certainly planning to get some more of his compatriots’ music on the new disc. “Nothing is finalized yet” he adds with a note of caution “but there is definitely interest, so hopefully we can realize this project in the near future.”

Interview with Gavin Dixon, November/December 2012 Issue

Fanfare Magazine Reviews of “Dance, Drama, Decadence”

Besalyan travels to Japan often to appear in concerts and conduct master classes, so it’s understandable that he would be engaged by a Japanese record company to produce his first solo commercial recording. He is no stranger to the U.S. Besalyan has appeared in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and he is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Japan’s Chopin Magazine hailed Besalyan as a “true heir of the mainstream of Russian pianism, like Horowitz.” Of his diverse training, however, which ranges from Armenia’s Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory and the Moscow State Conservatory, to New Jersey’s Rowan University, the influence I hear most strongly in Besalyan’s playing is that of Byron Janis, with whom he studied at the Manhattan School of Music.

There’s a physical strength and virility to Besalyan’s technical address mated to a bold spontaneity that can come only from a consummate mastery of the instrument and the musical notes. Horowitz, agreed, was a brilliant technician and an equally brilliant showman. But he was also careful. One never felt that Horowitz took unnecessary risks, like playing faster than he knew he could navigate a piece without mishap. What makes listening to Besalyan so exciting is that he plays very fast, almost daringly so, such that you expect a mishap to occur at any moment, and yet it never does. There is great authority, absolute control, and huge tonal resource to Besalyan’s Rachmaninoff Sonata that reminds me of Janis’s “Rach-3.”

For those who may not know Rachmaninoff’s Polka de V. R., it’s a short virtuosic arrangement of a piece by Franz Behr titled Lachtäubchen, a scherzo polka. The tune was a favorite of Rachmaninoff’s father, Vassily, hence the “V. R.” in the title.

Baghdassarian’s three short preludes are breathtakingly beautiful, a real discovery. Clearly influenced by Rachmaninoff—hints of the Russian composer’s Second Piano Concerto flit by in the B-Minor Prelude—other influences come to the fore in the E-Major Prelude, namely early Scriabin, Medtner, and even a brush against the cheek of Debussy. I, for one, would really like to know more about this obscure composer and hear more of his work, because these preludes are gorgeous, and Besalyan plays them with sweeping romantic gesture, expression, and poetry.

Garuna (Spring) is one of Komitas’ songs, which has here been arranged as a solo piano piece by Robert Andreasian. It, too, like the Baghdassarian preludes, is a really lovely, touching nocturnal song without words.

Of Liszt’s four Mephisto Waltzes, the No. 1 played here by Besalyan is the most popular. It, however, along with the No. 2, is one of the two scores that were originally composed for orchestra and only later appeared in piano arrangements. The Nos. 3 and 4 are the ones originally composed for piano. Being as familiar as I am with the No. 1 in its orchestral guise, it’s hard for me to cotton to it on piano, but the devil’s costume fits Besalyan well. His pitchfork thrusts and jabs, his barbed tail lashes wildly, and his horns gore savagely, creating a fevered dance of seduction between Mephistopheles and Faust.

Ravel’s famous La Valse is another work originally conceived for orchestra and only later transcribed for piano by the composer. Its first keyboard version, however, was not for solo piano but a two-piano reduction that was likely intended as a rehearsal score to a ballet Ravel was promoting to the great impresario Diaghilev that never materialized. It was only then that Ravel made the solo piano arrangement, an extremely difficult work that’s had fewer advocates on disc than the two-piano version.

Whether one feels a solo piano can ever do justice to the toxic fumes and vapors Ravel brews in his original orchestral score, the piano version is one of the ultimate technical challenges to test a player’s mettle, and Raffi Besalyan rises to the occasion with incredible panache and a performance that seems to transcend the possibility that this can be one man with only two hands and 10 fingers producing these sounds.

This is phenomenal pianism from a keyboard phenomenon that needs to be heard by everyone interested in pianists and the piano. Jerry Dubins

Judging by the concert reviews posted on his website, Besalyan frequently programs the three Baghdassarian preludes included here. They sound a lot like Rachmaninoff, with no hints of even conservative modernism. Notwithstanding their anachronistic style, these pieces are evocative, idiomatically pianistic, and well worth hearing. The B-Minor Prelude is technically demanding and gives the pianist an opportunity to display his excellent technique. Komitas is a national institution in Armenia and performed the same role there as did Bartók and Kodály in Hungary and the Mighty Handful in Russia, collecting and transcribing folk melodies and incorporating them into his compositions. He was primarily a vocal composer, and the piece offered here is one of his songs (its title translates as “Springtime”), in a piano transcription by Robert Andreasian. I know nothing of the song text, but the mood of the music, far from unalloyed joyfulness at the arrival of the season, is tinged with sadness and regret. In any case, it’s a rewarding piece, colorful and poignant. At the beginning there is a hint of Debussy, who reportedly had a high regard for Komitas, but the rest sounds rather like Russian piano music of the late 19th century.

Like Earl Wild (Ivory Classics) and Olga Kern (Harmonia Mundi), Besalyan performs the Rachmaninoff Sonata in its 1931 revision, and he yields nothing to those rivals in technical prowess. If his rendition seems less overtly brilliant, it is partly because he places more emphasis on the darker colorations of the left hand. The many tempo contrasts built into the sonata are less wide in Besalyan’s performance, with resulting gains in continuity and integration. Besalyan is easily competitive in this league, and his interpretation is perhaps the most satisfying of the three overall. He dispatches the Rachmaninoff Polka with a winning combination of grace and energy and is more persuasive than Kern, whom I find too lightweight here even for this lighthearted piece.

In the Liszt Mephisto Waltz, Besalyan impresses with clear articulation, well-judged tempo choices, and technical command. As in the Rachmaninoff Sonata, he succeeds in imposing unity and continuity on a piece that can seem episodic but still characterizes individual passages sensitively and effectively. He does not hurry the opening pages but supplies plenty of excitement and energy as well as flowing lyricism where they are needed. More than many interpreters, he treats this piece as music of substance rather than a mere vehicle for virtuosic display, although his virtuosity is not in question. Besalyan’s Mephisto is polished and gentlemanly sort.

Ravel’s La Valse is more often heard in a four-hand or two-piano arrangement, but Besalyan here tackles the composer’s 1921 transcription for a single pianist. In Besalyan’s hands, it works very well as a piano piece. He seems to have no difficulty with its fearsome technical challenges, and I am once again impressed by his tempo control and ability to maintain linear continuity while characterizing individual passages effectively.

The recorded sound on this disc is well balanced and highly realistic. On the evidence of this recital, Raffi Besalyan is a pianist of formidable ability, and one would like to hear more of him. In the meantime, I recommend this release for its compelling performances and as a sampling of this pianist’s artistry.             Daniel Morrison

Rachmaninoff’s piano music needs passion, but it also needs control. Raffi Besalyan is one of the few pianists active today who is able to give both in equal measure, and without any feeling of compromise. His tempos are fluid, but they never go to extremes, nor do his dynamics. He is able to draw a huge range of colors from the piano, which gives a real sense of purpose to Rachmaninoff’s accompanying textures, preventing them from ever sounding frivolous. Besalyan also has a keen sense of the inner life of Rachmaninoff’s melodies, giving them the rubato they need to breathe, but always keeping half an eye on their structural significance too.

This debut CD opens with the revised version of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata. That’s a very popular choice for debut recital CDs, so there is an onus to make the interpretation a distinctive one. And that’s exactly what Besalyan does. It’s the discipline of his playing that separates him from most of the competition, but the discipline never stifles the emotion. The articulations and dynamics are all finely judged, and patiently graduated in the longer crescendos. Contrasts between sections articulate the structure well, especially in the first movement where the turbulent first subject is ideally complemented by the delicate and lyrical second. Pedaling is generous, but again clearly thought through with great care in advance.

The program continues with Rachmaninoff’s Polka de V. R. before moving to music by one of Besalyan’s Armenian compatriots, Edward Baghdassarian. Unless you are following the track listing, you are unlikely to notice where the Rachmaninoff ends and the Baghdassarian begins, such are the stylistic similarities between them. That doesn’t make the latter particularly distinctive, but it does mean that all the musical virtues Besalyan brings to the Rachmaninoff can be applied here with equal effect. And while Baghdassarian won’t win any points for originality, the skill with which he continues Rachmaninoff’s aesthetic is laudable.

We can have no such qualms about the originality of Liszt’s music, and his Mephisto Waltz No.1 sets the pianist some very different challenges. But Besalyan again takes a disciplined and clearly articulated approach. Liszt gives him the opportunity to conjure up some entirely different colors from the piano, which he again does with impressive poise. While the results are technically accurate, the sheer quantity of control can oppress this music slightly. There is little of Liszt’s demonic side in this reading, and if Besalyan were to show off his virtuosity more, that might be more in the spirit of the work.

After an exquisite and beguiling miniature from Komitas (a staple for most Armenian musicians), Besalyan concludes his program with an impressive rendition of Ravel’s piano version of La Valse. Besalyan’s ability to subtly grade his dynamics is an invaluable asset in a work based on a gradual crescendo lasting some 13 minutes. And the patience with which he paces the work gives him (and us) the chance to appreciate the beautiful harmonies and textures along the way. At the climax he finally lets his enthusiasm run away with him, to dizzying effect in those glorious final pages. Gavin Dixon

Fanfare Magazine, November/December 2012

Genuine Descendant of Russian Pianism

Armenian-born pianist Besalyan possesses truly lucid and beautiful sound that reminds you of perfectly matched pearls. It was in the Rachmaninoff group in the first half, where the pianist displayed this quality with tremendous conviction. From the penetrating chords and piercing harmonies in the G minor Prelude Op.23 No.5, the beautiful melody leafed out and floated in the air, pouring out deeply personal inconsolable feelings. The depth of the melody in the bass of the G sharp minor Prelude Op.32 No.12 was admirably contrasted with the brilliance of the arpeggios in the higher register.

The rampant image of Mephisto roaming at will appeared from Besalyan’s tenacious and unyielding chords and octaves, and his capricious, and at times, leisurely changes of the mood in Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. One could even hear the high-pitched satanic laughter.

The audience was dazzled and fully captivated by Besalyan’s bell-like tone in the music by Armenian composers Komitas and Baghdassarian, which were performed with magnificent imagination and splendid colorful changes of tonality.

Earl Wild arrangements of Gershwin Songs were snappy and tasteful.

In Besalyan’s rendition of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata the “violence” and the “cool‐headedness” were brought out with much power and set apart vividly from Prokofiev’s hollow and distorted melodies.

I must say that Besalyan is a true heir of the mainstream of Russian pianism, like Horowitz.

Izumi Hall, Osaka, Japan, April 13, 2008
Chopin Magazine
, July 2008
, Japan

Raffi Besalyan and Yuri Segawa Duo Recital
Since his successful concert tour in Japan in 2001, Armenian-born pianist Raffi Besalyan has been invited back every year to play concerts and teach master classes. He has been steadily establishing his name and musical career in this country, and on August 29, 2010, Besalyan and his wife violinist Yuri Segawa Besalyan made their duo debut in Phoenix Hall in Osaka.

Recital began with Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano.  Besalyan’s accompaniment was solid and reliable from the start. His tender tone and gentle sonorities were filled with colorful nuances throughout. Segawa’s true abilities were revealed as the movements progressed; her sound attained the necessary warmth and she brought the music to an exciting finale.

Darkly passionate and colorful works of Armenian composers Babajanian and Komitas are highly folkloristic. As a native Armenian, Besalyan deeply felt this music and enchanted the audience with his temperamental phrasing. The convincing performance demonstrated that the feelings and emotions expressed by the two musicians were mutual-Segawa felt precisely the same way as her husband did, her violin sang with great affection, passion and yearning. Komitas’s “Crane” was glorious. Both Besalyan and Segawa brought the rich ethnic music to life and performed it with great pathos.

Last in the first half of the program was Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No.3.  Distinctly dynamic and symphonic in nature, Besalyan’s magnificent sound filled the entire hall. He manipulated the leaping rhythms with intensity throughout all four movements, and built the music into a solid three-dimensional architecture employing his warm, deep touch at the keyboard. Besalyan aimed for the portrayal of Scriabin as a masculine “Russian Virtuoso” on the edge, rather than only a “sensuous romantic.”

The second half of the program began with Besalyan’s account of three
Chopin Etudes Op.25-the famous “Butterfly”, the “Octave” Etude and the “Ocean”. Besalyan’s Chopin had a solid core, it sang with a rich juicy tone. Here again, his playing was dynamic, the music came alive throbbing with excitement. These are perhaps some of Besalyan’s best qualities.

Next was Ysaye’s “Poem Elegiaque” for violin and piano. Segawa’s melancholic expression and skillful use of portamento combined with her profound emotional approach captivated the audience with persuasive power. She executed the technical passages, double-stops and octaves with vivid colors. Her beautiful singing tone had a strong appeal and was quite seductive. This was very different from Segawa’s interpretation of Debussy. Indeed, Besalyan and Segawa are a married couple, they were in complete harmony with each other once again-the timing and direction of their phrasing in absolute unison.

Ravel’s own transcription of “La Valse” for piano solo rounded off this memorable recital. Here, Besalyan vigorously and persistently pulled out the poisonous characteristics of Ravel’s “La Valse” with its seditious rhythms in the lower register and brilliantly sparkling magnificent passages. It was again, exceptionally entertaining. Besalyan’s impellent power and boldly emotional performance aroused the entire atmosphere. The pianist used the instrument to its full capacity to create a wide range of marvelous sounds and colors. Besalyan drove the work to a fiery, dramatic coda with overwhelming intensity. It was definitely a jaw-dropping performance of a masterpiece!

Besalyan and Segawa were called back several times by the continuous applause of the audience. It was unforgettable when Segawa said, “even though we sometimes argued during our practice, we worked very hard to bring-up this music.” The duo recital was full of warm love from the wife and the husband who share their life and love for the music.

August 29, 2010 (Review written on August 30, 2010)
Phoenix Hall, Osaka, Japan
Cremaster 5「男前な音楽」
Web Music Reviews

Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen 
”SAL celebrates 30 years on WPR”
Spring unraveled like a beautiful secret at the hands of pianist Raffi Besalyan as he performed a work called Spring by fellow Armenian composer Komitas. Besalyan threw in some Mozart, a Chopin Scherzo, a few Gershwin tunes (including the ragtime-infused and torrential “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” transcription by Earl Wild), Rachmaninoff and ended on a fiery note with Liszt’s  Mephisto Waltz. 

Classical music fans who don’t tune into the weekly live chamber music series on Wisconsin Public Radio are missing some incredible live performances in this series broadcast before an audience by WPR from the Chazen Museum of Art on the UW Madison campus.

SCENE Newspaper (WI), by Jim Lundstrom

“Rachmaninoff was performed with a nice juicy singing tone, lovely, nice inner voicings”

“Technically brilliant… Besalyan played with a great deal of temperament, speed and power.”
“…audacious spirit and poetic substance, deeply felt tenderness.”
“The Liszt Mephisto Waltz…was hair-raising. One could not help but admire the opening and the famous treacherous octave leaps later on.”
“Besalyan has many wonderful elements in his playing that cannot be taught.”
“Mozart Sonata in C Major, K330 began with a lively tempo and lucent tone. Immediately one sensed his enjoyment in playing and love of the music.”

Carnegie Recital Hall, New York
New York Concert Review Magazine

“Besalyan is transformed by the substance of the music into a persona of greater authority and power.” “Rachmaninoff’s works truly exposed Raffi Besalyan’s poetic world. With concentration to detail, he aspired to and revealed the inner intricacies of the music.”
“Besalyan’s magnetic presence, so necessary for the audience, was evident throughout the entire Liszt Sonata in b minor, where he displayed his highest skill in mastery of the unity of developing musical drama.”

AZG, Yerevan, Armenia

Pianist wows audience in performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto
“Standing ovation and cries of “Bravo” and “Encore” went to pianist Raffi Besalyan… mesmerized the audience with his gracious, delicate yet powerful presentation of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No.3.”

Armenian Reporter Int’l, New York

“Bravo for the (Chopin) Fourth Ballade!!”
“…I am sure Raffi will do many wonderful things with this great concerto (Rachmaninoff’s Third).”
“Raffi is a gifted pianist with his own face.”

Byron Janis, concert pianist

The flow of Baghdassarian’s Prelude instantly changed the color and the air of Izumi Hall. The entire hall was devoured by Besalyan’s glorious touch and crystalline sound.

Besalyan brought early Spring to his audience with the tender melody of “Spring”, a piece by another Armenian composer Komitas.
“..the flower buds in yet cold and young spring unfold and bloom one by one.. beautiful flowers are everywhere.. the gentle breeze goes through..” Not only did I, but so did the audience truly feel such illusion.

Besalyan’s performance of the Rachmaninoff Sonata No.2 was technically authoritative and full of passion and expression. As soon as he started the piece, variety of sounds and colors began stirring in the hall. Besalyan’s sound was ringing, flowing and singing. There were beautiful moments of suspension and sweep, one could even hear sounds that were almost imaginary, non existent. Besalyan was not just playing the piano, he was creating wonderful art, and treated the piano with his love for the music.

Sotokuan Press, Osaka, Japan

The audience couldn’t help but be blown away by the talent of guest pianist Raffi Besalyan and his wife, violinist Yuri Segawa Besalyan, when they performed Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto with the Tulare Symphony recently at the Fox. The outstanding performance was even more amazing because the violinist filled in with one week’s notice after the original guest violinist couldn’t get a visa out of Russia.
The audience rose to its feet to give a standing ovation to the violinist and her husband.

The Times-Delta, CA

And then there is music. In its varied forms it is performed and partaken of indoors and out in our towns, something for everyone with ears to hear. The other day, fresh from a stunning Rural Musicians Forum concert at Taliesin’s Hillside School, which showcased the remarkable talents of a lanky, Armenian-born pianist and his diminutive Japanese-born violinist wife, now both living and teaching in Wisconsin, I was reminded poignantly of how music is the universal language. The collaboration of this man and his wife against the formidable odds of geography and cultural heritage underscored that idea charmingly. One piece in particular on their program illustrated for me the rewards of hearing and seeing music performed live. I can hum the themes in the Stravinsky they played, being familiar with it from hearing it on the radio over many years, but until I SAW and heard it played I had not properly appreciated the complexity of the fingering techniques and special effects in the violin part. I shall carry the images with me each time I hear that composition again.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Historic Taliesin Theater
Home News, Spring Green, WI

An Evening to Remember

I attended the piano recital of Armenian-born pianist Raffi Besalyan in Clintonville on April 16. What a splendid interpretation of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff – I was totally mesmerized by Mr. Besalyan’s dynamic performance. The rest of his repertoire, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, Chopin’s Etudes and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue were played with extreme perfection, Mr. Besalyan really let “the piano speak”. Indeed, we are very fortunate to have this magnetic and passionate pianist to share his gift of music with us. Wow! And, Bravo!

Tribune Gazette, WI

Raffi played magnificently and now has legions of fans in Tubac. The audience barely breathed while he played.  And such a difficult program!  We all feel very privileged to have heard him and will watch his career with great interest. It was a real thrill.

Tubac Concert Association, AZ

“Besalyan’s playing is superb… The audience went wild!”

Overture Concerts, Nelson BC, Canada

Thank you, Raffi Besalyan, for a magnificent end to the concert season!

Wisconsin Public Radio –  Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen