The meditative focus and rare stillness of Armenian-American pianist Sergei Babayan’s keyboard artistry prompted the Hamburger Abendblatt to liken him to “one of those Japanese calligraphers who contemplate the white page before them in silence until, at the exact right moment, their brush makes its instinctive, perfect sweep across the paper”. Babayan himself has observed that making music should be open to surprises and spontaneous insights, allowing unexpected emotions to emerge and subtle shadings to evolve naturally. His thoughtful musicianship has grown over decades of painstaking musical explorations, and during the course of his career he has built a broad and deep repertoire encompassing well over sixty concertos and other works by composers from Bach, Beethoven, Ligeti and Lutosławski to Prokofiev, Pärt, Rameau and Ryabov.
Babayan’s first album for Deutsche Grammophon was released in March 2018. Prokofiev for Two, for which he formed a duo partnership with the legendary Martha Argerich, comprises Babayan’s scintillating transcriptions for piano four hands of movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and other works. It was hailed as “the CD one has waited for” by Montreal’s Le Devoir, while critic Norman Lebrecht said it took “the piano duo to a new level,” adding, “if all music was like this, there would be no sorrow in the world”.
In July 2018 Sergei Babayan signed an exclusive contract with the Yellow Label. “I was first introduced to Deutsche Grammophon when I was fourteen, through Martha Argerich’s recording of Chopin’s E minor Concerto,” he recalled at the time. “That formed me as a musician and to this day continues to be one of my guiding lights. This label represents the world and works of the artists I’ve admired most deeply throughout my life. Other recordings deeply etched in my mind from those early years are by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Vladimir Horowitz. To be a Deutsche Grammophon artist myself today is, for me, the highest possible privilege. I am deeply grateful to my destiny for giving me such a great honour.”
Now he has recorded his debut solo album for DG – a very personal selection of music by Rachmaninov, whose work has been central to Babayan’s life since he discovered the Second Piano Concerto at the age of thirteen. Set for international release in August 2020, the album features a carefully crafted sequence of miniatures. This includes pieces from the Préludes op. 23 and op. 32, Études-Tableaux op. 33 and op. 39 and Moments musicaux op. 16, as well as transcriptions of the third movement of the Cello Sonata op. 19 and “Lilacs” and “Melody” from the set of 12 Songs op. 21, all of which are woven together to form a rich and vivid musical narrative.
Born into a musical family in Armenia, Sergei Babayan received his first piano lessons at the age of six from Luiza Markaryan, then was taught by pianist Georgy Saradjev, a leading representative of the St Petersburg school and former student of the legendary Vladimir Sofronitsky. Babayan subsequently studied with Lev Naumov, Vera Gornostayeva and Mikhail Pletnev at the Moscow Conservatory. As the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, he became the first artist from the USSR to attend international competitions without state sponsorship.
Babayan made his breakthrough in 1989 with a consecutive series of competition victories, generating news headlines and attracting interest from fellow artists by winning the Robert Casadesus International Piano Competition (since renamed the Cleveland International Piano Competition), the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in Japan and the Scottish International Piano Competition. Following his move to the United States, he joined the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1992 as artist-in-residence. In high demand ever since, he has performed at such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, the Théâtre des Champs-Elyseés, Konzerthaus Berlin and Munich’s Prinzregententheater, appeared at the Salzburg, Verbier and La Roque d’Anthéron festivals and worked with many of the world’s leading conductors, among them Valery Gergiev, Neeme Järvi, Rafael Payare, David Robertson, Tugan Sokhiev, Gábor Takács-Nagy, Yuri Temirkanov, Joshua Weilerstein and Nikolaj Znaider.
In November 2019 Sergei Babayan was Curating Artist at Konzerthaus Dortmund, where he presented a festival of performances with his closest musical partners and friends, including Martha Argerich, Daniil Trifonov, Mischa Maisky, Sergey Khachatryan, and Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. Other highlights of Babayan’s 2019–20 season include debut performances with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester and the Toronto Symphony orchestra, piano duo concerts with Daniil Trifonov in the US, and recitals of works by J.S. Bach and Chopin.
His plans for the forthcoming season include appearances at the Tsinandali Festival in Georgia in September, Montreal’s Bach Festival in November and the Verbier Festival in July 2021; the Grieg Piano Concerto in Brussels with the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Alain Altinoglu; and performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in Meiningen and Leipzig.