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MUSIC REVIEW : Petrov Returns to Ambassador

Times Music Writer

A virtuoso disguised as a teddy bear, Nikolai Petrov looks benign as he enters the stage, reassuring when he sits at the keyboard. Steinway-friendly, he begins to play.

Even then, the Russian character of this pianistic bear does not emerge immediately. Slowly, the sonorities pile up, the technique dazzles, the range of dynamics opens like a chasm. Respect turns to admiration, then to awe. At the end of Petrov’s performance, one starts to suspect that underneath his conventional evening clothes is a cape--the kind worn by Batman and other superheroes.

Returning to Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena for a second annual appearance, the 45-year-old Soviet pianist brought a challenging, provocative program titled “Invitation to the Dance.” Under Petrov’s ministrations, invitation became seduction.

Invigoratingly, this was a collection of old-fashioned, hair-raising showpieces, an agenda from the era of pianistic personalities at the beginning of this century.

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It put together Bach’s finger-testing English Suite No. 6; a perpetual-motion Fandango by Padre Soler; Carl Tausig’s filigree-rich transcription of Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance”; two Delibes waltzes transcribed by Dohnanyi; Shostakovich’s famous and largely unheard Polka from “L’Age d’Or,” and Liszt’s famous and familiar “Grand Galop Chromatique.”

Great fun--genuine fun. Petrov proved again to be effortless and imperturbable in his pianism. This time around, contrary to last year, he charmed with his modest and unassuming stage manner and the sincerity of his hand-on-heart bows.

A colorist he still is not. Yet it hardly seems to matter, given the velvet of his touch, the power and reserve of his keyboard address and the controlled speeds of his quick tempos. Apparently, he can do anything at the piano, while specializing in both louds and softs--but never, ever, making a strident sound. And music flows from his fingers. One has such a good time listening to him, there is hardly a chance to miss a full palette of staccatos and legatos and myriad emotional hues.

The marathon nature of this program placed equal emphasis on each of its parts. But there were climaxes:

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Soler’s relentless, toccata-like Fandango, which seemed to become--before it ended abruptly--a metaphor for sexual staying-power. Ravel’s sensuous rhapsody-in-the-form-of-waltzes. Dohnanyi’s flamboyant, lovingly realized excerpts from “Naila” and “Coppelia.” Cape or no cape, this pianistic hero is a poet.

For encores, Petrov offered pieces by Ginastera (“Dance of the Graceful Maiden”) and Zez Confrey (“Kitten on the Keys”).


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