Wael Farouk

“A formidable and magnificent pianist.”

- the New York Concert Review

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  • Concert Reviews

  • June 1, 2013 - Wael Farouk, piano; Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
  • May 19, 2012 - New York Concert Artists and Associates Winners Evening: Evenings of Piano Concerti in Review
  • September 2000 - A helping hand
  • May 2000 - Wael Farouk: Mountain madness
  • April 2000 - A touch of the devil
  • Wael Farouk, piano; Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.

    Rorianne Schrade for New York Concert Review; New York, NY

    June 1, 2013

    Just a year ago, I had the pleasure of hearing (and reviewing) Wael Farouk in one of the best renditions of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto I’d ever heard, and I could hardly wait to hear him again. The focus in that first hearing had not been his adverse situation as a pianist or, as his biography states, “small stature and an unusual hand condition that prevents him from making a fist or straightening his fingers” (though it was indeed striking to behold his hands’ miraculous maneuvers); what struck one most that evening was his tremendous music making, the kind that defies and transcends any and all challenges. His playing shows a commitment that is profound, and so does his repertoire, which according to his biography includes more than 50 concertos and 60 solo programs (of which he has given Egyptian premieres of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, and Prokofiev Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2, and 3).

    Mr. Farouk had been scheduled to give his New York recital debut in Weill Hall in November, 2012, but he was forced to reschedule the concert because of Hurricane Sandy. The debut finally materialized seven months later – an annoying amount of time to keep a program on the “back burner” while scheduled also for a 140th Anniversary complete Rachmaninoff cycle – but his devoted following was handsomely rewarded for the wait. There were, as will increasingly be expected, numerous pianists clustered near the stage, gesturing towards their own hands, speaking about sizes and stretches, and watching intently. As one may guess, Mr. Farouk’s magic is not so much about hands as about the inner musician.

    Mr. Farouk’s imagination was readily apparent from the very first notes of the Prelude in B-flat Minor, Op. 37, No. 1, by Alexander Scriabin. The gentle, almost glassily rendered melody of his opening announced the presence of a sensitive artist and set the tonal palette well for future building into the next work in the same key, Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2, Op. 36 (the revised version). Here Mr. Farouk shaped his phrases with elegance and an almost cerebral quality that is unusual among the many heart-on-sleeve versions. I must admit I lean towards the heart-on-sleeve interpretations, but it was fascinating to hear so many inner voices featured and such a sense of priority in the architecture. For me, there needed to be more building along the way (especially in top melodic registers) from the very first accelerando of the first movement to the clangorous almost bell-like resonances later on, but disagreements are inevitable, and Mr. Farouk always showed persuasive commitment. Vive la difference – Mr. Farouk will not be without controversy!

    To close the half (surprisingly, as one usually sees the Rachmaninoff Op. 36 closing a half), Mr. Farouk gave the U.S. premiere of “To Our Revolution’s Martyrs” by leading twentieth-century Egyptian composer Gamal Abdel-Rahiem (1924-1988). In two well-crafted movements, “Elegy” and “Clash” the music spoke of national struggles through a hybrid language of Arab and Western modalities (and outlines of diminished fourths never far). In light of 2011 events, it has an updated political resonance, perhaps the intent in Mr. Farouk’s programming; at any rate, it was particularly interesting simply to hear music of a composer who taught virtually an entire generation of Egyptian composers.

    To open the second half, Mr. Farouk gave the World Premiere of “I Colored a Wanted Music I Can Always Hear”- a tonally mild and quasi-impressionistic haiku-inspired composition by Scott Robbins (b. 1964). It was sensitively delivered, and the composer, present to take a bow, beamed with pleasure.

    Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 32, No. 5 in G Major made a skillful transition back to the Russian world, specifically to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Here was the absolutely masterful playing of the evening. Mr. Farouk distilled the essence of each feeling and image in Mussorgsky’s phrases and gestures. Each highly contrasting movement was a gem of color and spirit, overflowing with energy and life right up through the final powerful chords. The audience leapt to its feet and was rewarded with three encores, the Gluck-Sgambati Melodie, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12 and the brilliantly played Liszt Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto. Bravo – and encore! While, nothing has eclipsed the memory of that Rachmaninoff Third Concerto of a year ago, I would still say: run – don’t walk – to hear Wael Farouk!

    New York Concert Artists and Associates Winners Evening: Evenings of Piano Concerti in Review

    Rorianne Schrade for New York Concert Review; New York, NY

    May 19, 2012

    Most memorable on this occasion was the performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto by Egyptian pianist Wael Farouk. The term “star of the future” is not quite apt here, as Mr. Farouk is something of a star already, with a career that has included innumerable concerto appearances, including the Egyptian premieres of Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, and Prokofiev Concertos Nos. 1, 2, and 3. Imagining Egyptian audiences hearing the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto for the first time is exciting indeed, but those who heard Mr. Farouk play it in New York may feel they heard it for the first time as well.

    Contrasting with the many hulking pianists who treat this piece as an Olympic hurdle (yawn), Mr. Farouk simply lived and breathed the music with the poetry of a born artist. Incidentally, this pianist is not of hulking build, and anyone brainwashed by the “size matters” crowd might have expected a less-than-powerful performance; they would have been proven wrong (as they might have, if Josef Hoffman, the great but diminutive dedicatee, had given the piece a chance!). Mr. Farouk’s technique is unquestionably great, despite apparently small hands, though this listener didn’t think of the word “technique” once during the entire performance (rare for this piece). The performance lacked nothing, but the way Mr. Farouk sailed through the piece, as if daydreaming out loud, made masses of notes seem merely incidental. That is how it should be, but only when one hears it does one realize how rare it is. Soulful melodic inflection, growling outbursts, coruscating passagework, and powerful peaks all combined with the unity of a master to bring the piece the unique life it deserves. Mr. Farouk also seemed to inspire the orchestra to glorious new heights, not by brute force, but by force of musical spirit. I am now officially a fan of this extraordinary musician.

    A helping hand

    David Blake for Al-Ahram Weekly, September 2000; Cairo, Egypt

    The Rachmaninov No 3 is piano big deal. Many great players give it a miss, and it has the knack of lowering the status of those who fail to rise to its demands. Slash and bash will not do for this arrogant monster. It is, then, courageous that the young Egyptian player Wael Farouk should attempt it at such an early age. Horowitz did battle with it for most of his life, until at last, when old, he played it in public.

    If you intend giving a good performance of this concerto, then leave your hands at home. Go to work, play it and trust to the Almighty to find you the equipment to deal with its furious problems.

    Rachmaninov was famous for his large hands -- an octave stretch and then some more. Hangman's hands, they were called. But he was a quiet hangman. In performances at the old Queen's Hall, London, one was not even conscious of hands, so miraculous was his airborne technique, which gave him a nonchalant indifference to public performance. Some of this nonchalance arose from the orchestral layout when Wael Farouk came and quietly took his place at the piano.

    Toscanini maintained that this concerto was not a vehicle for virtuoso fire and brimstone but a legend, a song of regret, because Rachmaninov's beloved Russia was crumbling into 1917 when he wrote it. Its scope is vast, from affectionate and gentle to almost brutal, but stopping at the extremes. There were times in the performance when Farouk and the orchestra made it sound like a cradle song for the damned.

    Very soon the stops are out and the piano is thrust forward into the orchestral web, which it dominates. And so it was with Farouk's performance -- he was the master of it, though he seemed very young for this music. Yet the thing moved inexorably forward, and his courage and determination to reveal his own vision of Rachmaninov's elegiac Gotterdammerung soon bore fruits. He was once more the young person playing Schumann and Mozart, creating and thinking at the keys, not showing off. Farouk disappears and the notes take over. This is great piano playing. He seems always to attain his self-aspiration, and without any satisfaction.

    During the long first movement there are many sections which bear Rachmaninov's special signature. Quiet, composed and deeply felt, then rushing up and down the piano at electrifying speed. The bomb is built up to frightening heights. Neither orchestra nor players, however, went for noise. It was tone, tune and song, always sad and given the exact shape of a dying fall. This concerto is an autobiography, and the composer had a rather blasted life. War, revolution, migration, disorientation and mental breakdown, a worthless father who blew the family fortune on fripperies. But while many grumble at their fate, Rachmaninov never did. It all went into the music.

    His 1909 US tour, which featured this No 3, he detested. So he went further and further behind his mask. He fits no pattern, no time. As Farouk and Fournillier, his conductor, went deeper into the music it became a question of our own disorientation, not theirs. Where were we?

    "Is this a piano I see before me?" Macbeth joined in the elegiac song. Never did this third concerto sound so lovely. So successful were the two artists in showing the mystery of life, and never for one moment did the small, neat figure at the keyboard lose his way. As the allegro movement melted into the intermezzo there was excitement and a passion of chords, torrential but never blood-stained with heavy effort.

    How is it done? Ask Farouk. With the assistance of Patrick Fournillier, we were given the most astounding pianism. These two, masterful and majestic, cast a spell like the gorgeous cloak of the Kotshti in The Golden Cockerel over the Cairo Opera. Farouk and Fournillier had disappeared beneath it.

    Pokofiev was next. No concertos but the long Romeo and Juliet suite. It sounded rather dry after what had gone before. But that is its nature, so it was effective, if rather chill.

    These two Russians don't mix. Where are the snows of yesteryear does not go with the hard, brittle life-line of Renaissance Florence.

    Wael Farouk: Mountain madness

    Taking the time you take

    David Blake for Al-Ahram Weekly, May 2000; Cairo, Egypt

    It's a man. Look at it, sprawled out there displaying itself on the platform. It's a woman, all curves and flowing lines, voluptuous and enticing. It's neither, it's a hermaphrodite. When the Steinways put pressure on their creative genius to make the perfect piano, their resultant creature went far beyond their wildest dreams.

    This piano was neither man nor woman, but drawing force from the musical genius of both sexes. By the time it arrived in the new millennium it had become a miraculous, alluring Frankenstein, a metaphysical monster outclassing all other instruments in the force and delicacy of its scope.

    The piano embraces everything. By 2000, it is neither an instrument nor a symphony orchestra. It is a distillation of both. It is as capricious as a harlot. Try me -- I'm easy. And it will play a trash song or plumb the Blues. Mrs Everybody has her offspring taught the piano. It is so easy. And then let Brendel sit with it and bring forth Schubert's Wanderer Fantasia, and see the storm burst in fury -- or Pollini, like Wotan, can rip thunder out of it. Hail the Steinway, it has added another element to music -- uncertainty.

    Before this instrument, strong men tremble. So a small Egyptian boy with physically handicapped hands sees it as a dream challenge. He thinks he was created to coax it to befriend. The concert grand, whose indifference drives players to the edge of breakdown. Wael Farouk is a fairy tale gone real. How come the piano speaks its secrets to him especially, of all comers?

    Wael Farouk's father is a very frank person. Years ago, since the boy seemed to possess, besides musical ability, a strong, almost metallic resistance to social moves. He was a problem. "You can be what you wish, but your mother and I don't want you to become a social freak for whom people offer special pleading. The hands! You have to be judged apart from your hands." As Wael grew, he found the establishment regarded him with indifference, even dismay. His manner made them uneasy, and his talents suspect. He verged too far from the normal. Beauty and the beast? He's no beast, but by ordinary standards he's no beauty. And his manner can be chill and put-down to all comers, as he refuses to kiss the hand. So -- a difficult character? Not really, but wary, and he can be sharp-edged, in fact steely under fire.

    Some young people know the world on all its faces -- Mozart did, so does Wael Farouk. He set himself ruthlessly hard hurdles to cross. One of them is a certain piece of music by Sergei Rakhmaninov. When this composer wrote his third concerto, the piece in question in D minor, op.30, the composer was one of the living gods of music -- tall, strong, with mythically mighty hands, and the longest stretch at the keyboard ever recorded. He made a rhinoceros-like piece of music which players used to say was the south face of Mount Everest, almost impossible to play. It takes a superman to get away with it alive. It stands before the player, awesome, forbidding and totally indifferent to all effort. And it is before this concerto that Wael Farouk developed the mountaineer madness. He had to scale it, foolhardy vanity naturally going for gold, or in this case conquering an ice barrier -- part of the fairy tale of Farouk.

    Rakhmaninov's music in the third concerto has the assertive quality of anything which is better than nothing. It is this struggle we now enjoy in his music. It is majestic bullying, often cold, what they call dead-men's breakfast, the last gesture of a gone world. Whatever anyone thinks of Wael Farouk and his struggles, he is a mountaineer of force, born to struggle, so that there is about him a compelling quality of challenge. Whatever fears for his hide he feels, the society in which he chooses to work is a bed of thorns. And he cherishes peace, whatever that means, peace you will never find except in the performance of his chosen music. This is the ever-present anodyne with a power as endless as the spheres, outlasting anything but God. Since he and his fellow musicians feel the same about music, they are a special type of angel beyond human hurt, and call for our respect and love.

    Wael Farouk was born, or rather he seems to have occurred, in 1981. The event took place in Cairo. He was visiteur du soir. There was a mystery about him. He had tiny, sweet little hands, and never made a sound. But this all changed like a time race. The mother and father became aware that he had gifts, feelings which he made obvious; that any kind of music, especially Euro-classical, affected him profoundly. He would grow sad and weep at quite quiet sentimental stuff, brighten up at Bach and bounce at Mozart, which was play music to him. As he grew into childhood, which seems hardly to have existed for him, he made preferences obvious. He liked repeats, and to hear the same tunes at the same time, and would grizzle until he got them.

    Kindergarten brought teachers and lessons -- he was good at everything -- and then came music classes. Hurdle one had been reached -- his hands. His mother and father were normal, everyday sort of people, but not after Wael had grown into what they called childhood. Then it became apparent they were dealing with something different -- something without a name. They tried teaching him strings -- no play; woodwind -- no blow. The piano was not found. He had discovered it , and that was that. The end of the struggle, or rather the beginning, had arrived. These nice people had a phenomenon on their hands and in their home background. He kind of took over things, people, events and the daily timetable. A small person, he had made a space around himself, a draft which unsettled and puzzled -- and he did not grow up as others, remaining small, compact and very strong. And with the hands? The hands were a subject unto themselves. Farouk's hands were strong but did not grow outwards or lengthwise, never flat or spread. Nice baby hands, but for Brahms -- no.

    His parents stood by him and became the support of his life, lovely people ready for any sacrifice. He had an elder brother who understood little of Wael and went his own way. So in the shadow of the Pyramids of Giza, his life entered its teenage period. The brother would say, "The same old problem -- music and no money." He had something, but it was nothing compared to the big business manipulators who scoop up all the news because musicians are paid badly. To the general public, the Vienna Philharmonic is a band of overpaid specialists, but try reading through the schedule of their work for a month and see what it means. They are all infants of the storm, and the first to get pay slashes when the big cry goes up, "We can't afford it, we have no money."

    One of Wael Farouk's most active supporters through the years was maestro Selim Sahab, who first suggested, when he was about 10, that he try his fortune at the Conservatoire. But this institution said no. Hand problems were the cause. Other teachers said, "Try something else. The piano is not for you." But after three months' study, the Conservatoire took Farouk. He was given full entry marks and started working with Samir Aziz for four years. He played in church and took occasional concert bookings. And then in 1993 he began what were the most fruitful years of his early days. He was accepted by Professor Demidov from Moscow for three years, and stayed with him until 1996, when Demidov returned to Moscow. He left a fruitful flock behind him. Some of the pupils cracked up but struggled on. Wael Farouk took it as the professor said: "Keep cool. No one is indispensable."

    Demidov had passed on to him many things: to survive the pianistic jungle, get off the machine, refresh, refuel and start again. Some teachers teach the notes, but he taught the music behind the notes. He found in Farouk's nature a manichean streak -- how to bring out the devil. So Farouk's Mozart is like no one else's. It has black humour, shadows and the magnetism of sunshine and elegance. This gives Farouk opportunities for elegiac stretches that open the doors to interested listeners who look for new approaches to the time-worn classics which in spite of pop and media mockery still retain their hold over a vast public.

    Part of the new revolution to come as the century develops will be what happens to the classics. This was often in Demidov's mind. "The piano is wood, ivory and steel. How to evoke Debussy doing a Mediterranean Night Piece is part of the job of the human hand as it goes over the keys." Farouk has always felt a close association with the music of Rakhmaninov. Demidov knew about the boy's ambitions to play the third piano concerto. "No, Wael. Anything, but not that." And he made a gesture: the hands would not support it.

    Hands. Farouk made a study of them in piano history. Chopin had very small hands; so did another giant, Hans von Bulow, for whom Tchaikovsky wrote the formidable B-flat minor concerto. Von Bulow later took it to the US on tour. He also toured America with the entire piano sonatas of Beethoven, playing them from memory. What kept these players going at their Herculean labours? Not the physical, certainly. Then the other: Farouk thinks he has it, and so later this year he expects to give the Rakhmaninov no. 3 at the Opera.

    His previous concerts in Cairo reveal much. In 1995 he played the disturbingly mysterious Mozart Fantasia in D minor -- very special, difficult and seldom played. Then some Busoni, Scarlatti and Liszt. After Demidov left for Russia, he resumed lessons with Professor Edgar from Georgia.

    He played Tchaikovsky's B-flat minor concerto, and in 1999, with Patrick Fournillier, the Saint-Saens concerto no. 5. The visiting maestro left for France singing the praises of a very special musical genius. Then a concert with another of Mozart's mystery pieces, along Fantasia, and ending the concert with Rakhmaninov's huge, disruptive B minor sonata. So his public showing has been of the extremes -- the contemplative and the Russian tumult. Are they his two sides? He is not a show-off at all, but his love of Rakhmaninov puts him in this area. Maybe he feels it is a display of bravado expected of him: to show his hands will be the ultimate test.

    He need not worry.

    The piano has more than sheer noise to offer, and it is here Farouk enjoys himself. He says people in a concert hall waiting to hear him are terrifying; but, after he has marched out resolutely to his seat, and then, in that moment of frisson when he puts his hands to the keys, there is a pause. The electric generators of the brain must be pitched to highest proficiency. Then he begins. It works: brain and fingers are one -- the pianist's ultimate possession, no smallest doubt, quantum action. He can glide seamlessly with the most beautiful velvet tones, richly based in depth, the surface glazed with Venetian-like hues and inaccessible mystique of light and chiaroscuro few pianists can call out of their fingertips. He can stroke the piano into sunset tones, so after the turmoils of Russia, what a Fauré player he could be.

    Demidov said before he left for Russia, "Never mind all the physical handicap stories. Just listen to the results of the brain working in this boy. He has the mystery."

    A kindly, warm, lovable demon. A philosophic banana with a tough skin and that unique perfume inside. Egyptian. Maybe that is his mystery.

    A touch of the devil

    David Blake for Al-Ahram Weekly, April 2000; Cairo, Egypt

    Wael Farouk's piano recital gave more than a nod to the dark angel who was undoubtedly present at these concerts. With the performance of Don Wetzel as well, we had two showings of the marvellous, metamorphic, orgiastic composers of the latter part of the late 19th and early 20th century Russian piano school.

    Every listener has his own favourite maniac. Farouk's was the Rachmaninov of Sonata No.2 in B minor, which ended his storm-threatened concert. What was imminent finally burst upon us. Before it there were enough hints and predictions of unease. The concert began with Bach's Partita No.2 in six sections.

    Bach resembles Leonardo da Vinci -- a startling, immense mind always at work, weaving, conceiving and mostly shocking. But the Leonardo surface, like Bach's, is often so beautifully limpid it almost lulls us into acceptance of what is coming.

    Wael Farouk is very good at suggesting this angst in the music. Whether there or not, he probes it. The notes make his technique and he makes clear the almost invisible. This is the art of being a true musician, going behind the notes. As the Bach sections broke off from the parent architecture, the mood was almost sacerdotal, the lamps of reason glowing brightly, but then there was a gasp, a pause, a string of eventful hesitations.

    As Farouk played, it was like an unexpected rap on one's door late at night. Bach goes the entire way -- even the dances had a shadow across them. Each of the six pieces rocked gently back and forth. It's all OK, there is nothing to get disturbed about. Yet there was never anyone at the door when the knock came. So the Partita was the rhythm of an interrupted dance.

    Mozart is special. Melodies, surfaces and colours flip by as easily and untroubled as a summer day. But then comes something -- not the zephyr from a beloved landscape, but a cool, sharp breath from Don Giovanni's evening prowls. Mozart does all these things, yet keeps the surface unruffled. So many pianists miss the point: all we get is "jolie Mozart". But Wael Farouk's Mozart is often Manichean. There is the touch of the devil somewhere in the air, mocking the beautiful silence. So began the Fantasia No.1 in C minor -- the Mozart pieces that are Farouk's chosen ground.

    Farouk's touch is delicately deadly. The tone is of dazzling clarity, each note gleaming and fitting into the measure under scrutiny. He has a hunter's eye for detail, near or far, and the strength to allow streams of runs to issue from his hands with a laconic ease which positively shocks. And the sound is so light, silver-tipped, with a metallic centre. Does the key fit the lock of the door this time? Farouk speeds on through the dark. This Fantasia was a revelation of what can be done with the piano -- and a passing breath from the visiteur du soir.

    The following sonata in D major was difficult to adjust to. The Fantasia had wandered into the 20th century and was close enough to Webern. The sonata was formal classic and belonged in Haydn's era. Through all these three movements, the statue rose until it ended in a majestic greeting for times past, with Amadeus slipping one foot into the 20th century. All these changes and technical jests were played by the pianist with a clear, unbiased view of their daring and technical skill.

    What came next was shocking, deliberately so. Gone was Mozart and his reasonable century. We were to have a frontal view of fire, flood, revolution and total loss. Rachmaninov's large hands drew a nerve-wracking and uncomfortably real hell, slashed only occasionally with his melting melodic gift. Wave upon wave of murky colour, decible after decible of piano-role frenzy reared up through a hall too small to accommodate it. How do pianists play Rachmaninov? They do and they don't. The music of this sonata falls short of inspiration. It is eroded by the effort needed to play it. Many a brave body floats away on the blood-curdled waters of the Volga, without even a funeral march to send it to where keyboard heros go.

    But not Farouk. Blood-spattered he was but fighting to the end. He kept his clarity and sense of overview in spite of Rachmaninov's often bombastic tidal waves of messily written material. Not quite good Rachmaninov, but stunning nonetheless.

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