Rare Medtner caps an absorbing recital by Yevgeny Sudbin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Liszt, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Medtner: Yevgeny Sudbin (Piano) Wigmore Hall,London. 28.7.2011 (RB) 

Haydn: Piano Sonata in B minor HXVI: 32

Liszt:  Three Petrarch Sonnets S158

Shostakovich:  Four Preludes from Op 34

Rachmaninov:  Four Preludes

Medtner:  Sonata Tragica in C minor Op 39 No. 5

In the last few years Yevgeny Sudbin has brought out a number of prize winning recordings, and he has just released a new CD of Haydn piano sonatas.  I had not before heard him ‘live’ so I was interested to see how he would fare in this intriguing mix of classical, romantic and 20th century works.

Haydn’s sonata is the last of a set of six piano sonatas composed between 1774 and 1776, and is interesting in the way it foreshadows Beethoven and in the emotional range the composer exhibits throughout the work.  I am not sure if the sonata features on Sudbin’s new disc, but he had clearly made a close study of the work and gave an excellent performance.  In the first movement (allegro moderato) he used a full and weighty tone to convey the depth and seriousness of the music.  He was attentive to the nuances of the multiple voicing and modulations in the long development section and displayed a full tonal and dynamic range.  The second movement menuet was elegant and refined and there was some beautifully tapered phrasing, with Sudbin deploying richer tone colours in the more emotionally charged trio.  The repeated notes, rapid fire passage work and octaves in the presto finale were dispatched with aplomb.

Sudbin’s performance of the three Liszt Petrarch sonnets was slightly disappointing compared with the exceptionally high standards in the rest of the concert.  I felt he did not have the same emotional connection with this music as with the music in the rest of the recital and wondered if he had elected to play these pieces as a nod to the Liszt bi-centenary.  I thought Sudbin could have made the opening melody sing more over the choppy passage work in the first sonnet, and he could have made more of the soaring passion.  The shaping and phrasing of the famous second sonnet was untidy in places and the build-up and emotional climaxes in the work lacked punch.  I thought Sudbin redeemed himself with a more atmospheric performance of the third sonnet and there was some excellent delicate filigree playing at the end.

Sudbin’s playing in the all-Russian second half of the recital was superlative throughout.  He elected to play four of Shostakovich’s preludes from Op 34 which are distinct and separate from the more famous Preludes and Fugues.  He characterised the spiky and sardonic A minor prelude beautifully and there was some dazzling intricate passage work in the B minor piece.  The largo prelude in A flat was evocative and alluring while the final D minor prelude was witty and playful.

The four Shostakovich preludes were followed by another four from Rachmaninov, three from Op 32 and the final one from Op 23.  Sudbin deployed a rich range of tone colours for this music, which is harmonically very rich.  He was fully on top of the demanding pyrotechnics in the F minor and G minor preludes, and he displayed a  nuanced poetic refinement for the G sharp minor and G major works.  I thought he could perhaps have allowed the soulful melody of the G sharp minor prelude to breath more, and made slightly more of the atmospheric textures but this should not detract from what was an excellent performance.

Thehigh pointof the recital was the performance of Medtner’s Sonata Tragica, a work which is not performed very often nowadays.  Medtner was a contemporary of Rachmaninov and like Rachmaninov he continued to compose romantic piano music in the first half of the 20th century, seemingly disregarding the new musical innovations of Bartok, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  His works are perhaps not as immediately appealing as those of Rachmaninov, which may explain why his music has been partially eclipsed by the latter.  However, a number of pianists, including Gilels, Hamelin, Kissin and Sudbin (who has recorded the first two Medtner concertos) have done an excellent job in making his music more widely known to the general public.

The Sonata Tragica is in one movement and, technically, is intensely demanding.  Sudbin’s performance of this work was absolutely breathtaking.  He immediately gripped the Wigmore Hall audience with the opening declamatory chords.  He used a wide range of colours and the multi-layered textures were shaped and shaded beautifully.  As the work progressed Sudbin seemed to completely lose himself in the music and the virtuoso pyrotechnics he unleashed were absolutely staggering.  This was an absolutely wonderful performance and I very much hope Sudbin commits it to disc:  if he does I am sure Medtner will continue to enjoy a wider audience.

This performance received rapturous applause from the Wigmore audience who were rewarded with another wonderful performance of a sonata by Scarlatti.

Robert Beattie