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S & H Recital Review

Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, Schubert/Liszt, Liszt/Volodos Arcadi Volodos (piano). Royal Festival Hall, Thursday November 29th, 2001 (CC).

Arcadi Volodos almost seems to belong to the Golden Age of the piano virtuoso. His programme on this occasion would certainly stretch all but the most leonine of keyboard interpreters: he seems to positively thrive on vast swathes of semi-quavers (or demi-semi-quavers, for that matter). In fact, this event was part of a major tour: Volodos has already given this programme in Athens, Lucerne and Bologna. In December he will repeat it in four German cities (Bamberg, Berlin, Wiesbaden and Aachen). The sheer stamina of the man is amazing.

Using a chair rather than the more usual stool, Volodos breathes a quiet confidence as he approaches his instrument: you just know, before he even sits down, that you are in the safest of hands. Programming Brahmsí Theme and Variations in D minor to begin with was a stroke of genius. This piece (the composerís own transcription of the slow movement of his String Sextet No. 1 in B flat, Op. 18) requires exactly the qualities Volodos imbued it with. Here was playing of real integrity: the stately opening was richly toned and dignified. Volodos used a wide variety of tone-colour to shape the variations. He was not afraid to play drily (as in Variation 2). Only in the passionate third variation could the left hand have been even more sonorous.

The sheer volatility of Schumannís multi-persona makes Kreisleriana a real interpretative challenge for any pianist and Volodos rose to this magnificently. Like Horowitz, he shows a proclivity for highlighting inner voices, but unlike Horowitz, Volodosí choices consistently make perfect sense, illuminating rather than contradicting the musical surface. The opening of this piece is one of the most perilous in the Romantic repertoire, but Volodos appears to have been blessed with a steel-plated set of fingers. The most notable aspect of this finely wrought interpretation was his refusal to gloss over any of Schumannís sometimes startling textures, which meant that some of the resultant sonorities came over as remarkably modern. None of the multiple technical challenges were allowed to stand in the way of this imposing, wonderfully shaded conception. The central ĎSehr langsamí section acted as a perfect, still centre.

It was quite a shift, then, to have Schubertís E major Piano Sonata, D157 after the interval. This (Schubertís first sonata) is a torso, comprising only the first three movements (ending with a Menuetto). Volodos scaled down his sound to fit this lighter sound world and proved himself to be a player of not inconsiderable subtlety. Within these new limits, he made the most of the initial dramatic gestures. The tone of the Andante second movement was limpid, concentrated and delicate to contrast with the more robust Menuetto.

Three Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs made the transition to the final barnstorming Hungarian Rhapsody: Der Müller und der Bach (from Die schöne Müllerin); Aufenthalt and Der Doppelgänger (both from Schwanengesang). The simplicity of Der Müller und der Bach hid the mastery behind the piece; Aufenthalt was dramatic, its middle section an encyclopaedia of Lisztian pianistic devices. It was Der Doppelgänger which impressed most, however. Here is desolation defined in music, a short segment of unremitting, unsettling bleakness. Once again, Volodos was uncompromising in his approach.

As if Lisztís Hungarian Rhapsodies are not difficult enough, Volodos took matters even further to provide a truly astonishing experience which effectively silenced criticism. The demands of this arrangement are near superhuman. Volodos once more pounced on any obstacle in his path, projecting great blocks of sound one minute, sending out fluid flourishes the next. He was particularly scintillating in the passages which concentrated in the higher registers, but it seems almost unfair to single out any particular element. This was great piano playing which left the audience scarcely able to believe its ears.

The encores were, predictably (if one can use such a word in connection with this pianist) breathtaking: a Feuille díalbum by Scriabin, the sparkling Moszkowski Etincelles (memories of Horowitz again!) and finally Rachmaninovís Italian Polka, arranged by Volodos himself.

Volodos is a many-sided player. If he were to rely on technique alone, the attention may well have wandered. As it was, I can hardly remember when two hours seemed to fly by so quickly.

Colin Clarke

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