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The Greatest Pianist of Our Time
By Christoph Schlüren, Crescendo magazine, Germany, December 2017 issue
Is there such a thing as a paradigm shift in music listening? Glenn Gould’s Bach performances had a revolutionary impact; no one could escape it whether it be in affirmation or in rejection. The fanatic advocates of so-called ’authentic performance practice’ raise such a claim. Some people today see Teodor Currentzis as the catalyst of such a turning point the classical music world hopes for as if it were the entry into paradise.
When I recently got Anton Batagov’s new Bach double-CD that doesn’t contain anything further than the Partitas Nos. 4 and 6 and the figured choral ’Jesus bleibet meine Freude’ I was a bit surprised. I knew Batagov’s magnificent recording of ’Kunst der Fuge’ that – out of stock for a long time now – does more justice to this magnum opus than any other. But more than one hour for the sixth Partita? Even if I attach no importance to such outward appearance – is there something bizarre going on? And can he keep up the tension, can he shape the form as a perceptible whole?
Batagov can. And he overcomes any traditional physical measure. His Bach is even more suspenseful and dense than all his colleague’s attempts if the listener enables himself to leave behind anything he already knows in the moments of intense listening. His performance immediately transcends the material world. The mastery of counterpoint – this means to articulate the individual melodic lines that oppose each other as a living unity in large space – is overwhelming, and at the same time he guides us into a world where rhythm in all its precise clarity is free of any mechanical strictness. It even touches us like an improvisation that is never arbitrary mannerism but thoroughly organically developing one from the other. Almost always Batagov plays the first time in an extremely broad tempo and takes the repetition significantly faster, and, yes, this new contrast works! What can we learn from it? In any case to widen our limits of a material idea how a continuously developing and potentially coherent form can be manifested.
Anton Batagov, born in 1965 and naming Svyatoslav Richter as his musical guiding star, has been a Tchaikovsky competition laureate and has always been a rebel against the commercial music business. He stopped playing in public for twelve years from 1997 to 2009. Today he performs mostly for Russian audiences. His Moscow concert for Philip Glass’ 80th birthday in the 1700-seats Svetlanov Hall was sold out weeks before the event. Whoever discovers him now will not wonder about this exceptional position in a country that impresses the world with Sokolov and Trifonov.
Since Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli there has not been any such complete pianist as Batagov. If we define technique correctly as the ability to reproduce exactly the most simple as well as the complex structures and relationships I don’t know any other pianist today who is on such a level. It is scandalous that our music conservatories are not fighting to engage a ’Professor Batagov’, just as if our scientists wouldn’t have understood the significance of Einstein’s relativity theory.
Anton Batagov is more than just a phenomenal musician. As a composer he goes his way between minimal music, progressive rock succeeding the fantastic King Crimson, Indian and Far-Eastern traditions, and the achievements of Western classical music, developing some of these things further on toward the unknown. His gripping album with the Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo (Thayata. Tibetan Voice Meets Russian Piano; Cantaloupe Music), his benchmark-setting Ravel album ’The New Ravel’ (Arbiter) that paved the way for Brian Eno to classical music, his timeless recordings of Messiaen and Feldman are recently joined by Philip Glass recordings (’Prophecies’ and ’The Complete Piano Etudes. Live in Moscow’) that in their hypnotizing power and most subtle differentiation of the most delicate details reveal this composer in never seen light. At least in this regard I completely agree with Teodor Currentzis: that Batagov is ”the greatest pianist of our time”. And he is a lot more than that.