Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838) [30:25]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Miroirs (1904-05) [25:44]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Sonata no. 5, op. 53 [11:32]
Alexei Volodin (piano)
rec. 21-23 September 2010, Kurhaus Bad Reichenhall, Germany. DDD
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72354 [67:41]

Apart from the piano sonatas, most of Schumannís extended piano works consist of a number of pieces with an overarching theme. Examples of these include Carnaval, the Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana. The title of the work alludes to E.T.A. Hoffmannís fictional poet Johannes Kreisler, a "romantic brought into contact with reality". The music follows the shifting moods of this persona, providing an underlying unity to the eight extremely varied movements. Written at the height of his courtship of Clara Wieck, the mood of Kreisleriana is impassioned and mercurial. The structure allows Schumann to avoid the repetitiveness of some of his longer works, and the brilliant piano writing and melodic invention create a rich fantasy world.

Alexei Volodin plays Kreislerianaís opening movement quite fast and in a rhapsodic fashion; the articulation, however, remains clear. The mid section is a little slower, and the theme is well differentiated from the accompaniment. The reflective melody of the second movement is well shaped; the faster sections are more vigorous. The two-against-three rhythm in the third movement is precisely played. In this and the following movements one appreciates also the delicacy of Volodinís dynamic shading. The finale is driven quite fast, but again maintains articulation; the dotted-rhythm interjections in the left hand with are superbly done. There is a feeling of spontaneity and fantasy about Volodinís approach, and his tonal beauty and variety of tone colour approach that of Sviatoslav Richter. This is a Kreisleriana with a lot to like.

If I thought Volodiní opening movement was brisk, Jonathan Biss is faster still; his time for this movement is just 2 minutes, 20 seconds faster than Volodin. Biss does not play the fast sections that much faster; it is more that he does not slow down in the contrasting sections as much as Volodin. This points to a basic difference in these two interpretations, Biss being more classical than Volodin. The rest of Bissís timings were quite similar to those of the Russian pianist. I still feel that the Biss recording is one of the best recent Kreislerianas, played with just the right combination of passion and tenderness. However Volodin gives a very fine reading too; he achieves a greater tonal variety than Biss, and his rhapsodic approach suits the music well.

Like Kreisleriana, Ravelís Miroirs comprises a number of relatively short movements. Each has a distinctive title, and each creates a self-contained musical mood or situation. Some of these are descriptive or imitative, like Oiseaux tristes or Une barque sur líocťan, while others such as Noctuelles concentrate on musical techniques such as chromatic harmonies. Ravel later orchestrated Une barque sur líocťan and Alborada del gracioso, and as a result they are probably the best known of the five. Miroirs is not quite as virtuosic as Ravelís later piano work Gaspard de la nuit, but it still bristles with difficulties, particularly in the Spanish-flavoured Alborada del gracioso.

Volodin plays the skeletal opening of Noctuelles in a mysterious fashion, adding colour as it builds. His performance is distinguished by wide dynamic contrasts, sensitive pedalling, and beautiful colouration. Volodinís phrasing captures the motion of the waves in the Barque, and the climaxes are well shaped. Alborada del grazioso is brisk but his articulation remains clear; the repeated notes are very even and varied in tone. The improvisatory manner of the Vallťe des cloches unfolds with great sureness, fading away at the misty final cadence. Ravelís impressionistic piano writing allows Volodin to show off an even greater range of tone colours, and his technique is more than up to this workís challenges.

Werner Haas was a student of the great Debussy interpreter Walter Gieseking. His Philips set of the Ravel piano works dates from the 1970s, but still sounds well. His approach to Miroirs is a little firmer and less spontaneous than Volodinís. The Barque scuds along to a stiffer breeze; Alborada del grazioso is more deliberate, but the rhythms still dance. The treble lacks the ring of Volodinís digital recording, although the piano recording is very natural.

Volodinís program concludes with the Sonata no. 5 by Scriabin. This piece was written around the same time as the Poem of Ecstasy. It consists of one tumultuous movement, which seems never to settle harmonically, being a sort of free fantasia. The writing is reminiscent at times of Ravel and Rachmaninov, wrapped in Scriabinís mystical harmonies. Volodinís performance is virtuosic and sensitive to the continuously unfolding vistas of Scriabinís very personal style. Sviatoslav Richterís 1963 recording knocks about 45 seconds off Volodinís time; it sounds a bit scrabbly at the very beginning, but this is an incendiary performance with some extraordinary sonorities.

This disc reveals Alexei Volodin as a thoughtful and versatile artist as well as a pianist with a fine technique.

Guy Aron

A rhapsodic Kreisleriana, a vividly-painted Miroirs and a virtuosic Scriabin sonata make up a convincing and varied recital.