Mikhail Rudy in the London Pianoforte Series

Scriabin, Ravel and Chopin: Mikhail Rudy (Piano) Wigmore Hall, London 10.5.2011 (RBB)

Alexander Scriabin

8 Études from Op 8, Op 42 and Op 65
Op 8 No. 11 in Bb minor; Op 8 No. 5 in E
Op 42 No. 3 in F#; Op 42 No. 5 in C# minor
Op 65 No. 1; Op 65 No. 3
Op 42 No. 4 in F#; Op 8 No. 12 in D# minor

Maurice Ravel

Oiseaux tristes (Miroirs)
Gaspard de la nuit

Frederic Chopin

2 Nocturnes Op 27
Nocturne in C# minor Op. posth.
Nocturne in C minor
Piano Sonata No. 2 in Bb minor Op 35

The programme notes for this concert reminded us that Mikhail Rudy’s concert debut was a performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Rostropovich and Stern, and that he subsequently played with Maazel and Karajan. Given this auspicious start and his distinguished subsequent career this concert was something of a disappointment. Rudy is able to coax a lovely tone from the piano and has some interesting and innovative musical ideas but some of his passage work was rather untidy and there were more inaccuracies and wrong notes than I was expecting.

Scriabin’s Études are full of intricate textures and rhythms and are technically demanding works. The Op 8 and Op 42 sets are varied and rich romantic works that have features which are reminiscent of both Chopin and Rachmaninov. The Op 65 Études were written in 1912 – the same year as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. They have no tonal centre and are harmonically and rhythmically very daring. When he wrote these later works Scriabin declared: “I am God, I am play. I am freedom. I am life. I am the boundary, I am the peak.” So there is a general consensus that the composer was losing his grip on reality at this time.

The Scriabin set was the best part of Rudy’s recital. He used subtle pedalling and a wide range of tone colour to capture the romantic musical exoticism and decadence of Scriabin. His playing of the Op 65 Études was particularly good as Rudy successfully conveyed the ethereal and disembodied feel of these works and made musical sense of material which can sometimes come across as abstruse and incoherent. I was less convinced with his rendition of the great D# minor Étude (popularised by Horowitz) which lacked power and rhythmic incisiveness.

Gaspard de la nuit (or ‘Treasurer of the Night’) is a set of three piano pieces by Ravel inspired by poems of Aloysius Bertrand. ‘Ondine’ is a water sprite who tries to tempt men into her watery domain. ‘Le Gibet’ is an eerie piece, which describes a bell “ringing and the walls of a city on the horizon and the carcass of a hanged man reddened by the setting sun”. ‘Scarbo’ describes a small fiend, half goblin, half ghost, who pirouettes and dances around in a menacing way before vanishing into air. It is a fiendishly difficult work – Ravel when writing Gaspard said that he wanted to write a work that was more difficult than Balakirev’s Islamey.

Rudy’s performance of Gaspard seemed under-prepared and there was a lot of untidy passage work and inaccuracies, particularly in ‘Scarbo’. He did not display the full dynamic range that Ravel asks for in ‘Ondine’ and, while he once again generated some lovely tone colours and textures, Rudy did not convey the mercurial nature of the water sprite and the underlying sense of hidden threat and menace that one hears in the best performances of this work. ‘Le Gibet’ was more successful with some nice phrasing and beautifully layered textures although I thought it lacked intensity. Rudy partly redeemed himself with ‘Oiseaux triste’, the second piece in the piano suite Miroirs, where he generated some lovely sounds from the piano and nuanced textural layering.

Rudy’s performance of the Chopin nocturnes was more polished although the ideas were rather generalised. I particularly liked his performance of the popular Db nocturne where he generated warm tone colours and some nicely crafted filigree work, and the C# minor where he really made the piano sing.

Schumann described Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata as four of “his most unruly children under the same roof”. It contains the ubiquitous funeral march and the quicksilver spectral finale – described by Rubinstein as “wind howling around the gravestones” – that is like nothing else in Classical music. There was again some rather untidy and uneven playing both at the start of the first movement and in the scherzo. Rudy chose very fast tempi for both movements but then seemed unable to produce a polished performance at these speeds. The funeral march was better and there was a good build-up and some fine cantabile playing in the central section. Rudy played the last movement in a very impressionistic way, creating a fascinating mix of light and shade but some of the passagework seemed rather sketchy.

As an encore, Rudy played one of Prokofiev’s piano pieces from Romeo and Juliet. He seemed more at home with this work, which he played well.

Robert Beattie