A Disappointing First Encounter with Arcadi Volodos

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schubert, Brahms, and Liszt: Arcadi Volodos (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 22.5.2012 (MB)

Schubert: Sonata in A minor, D 784
: Three Intermezzi, op.117
: Sonata in B minor, S 178

Though I have long been aware of his reputation, this was the first time, whether on disc or in the concert hall, that I had heard Arcadi Volodos. I suspect that it will turn out also to be the last.  In the first half there were peculiarities, which is arguably to put it mildly, but I had assumed that Liszt would play more to Volodos’s strengths; as it turned out, I should have been better advised to have left at the interval.

The first movement of Schubert’s A minor sonata, D 784, added up to considerably less than the sum of its parts, even when the parts were often distinctly odd. There were fine moments, such as a beautifully quiet opening, though the sonority seemed more suited to Tchaikovsky than to Schubert. Moreover, Volodos showed himself alert to, or at least suggestive of, those weird foreshadowings of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. However, one often had a sense of him holding back, for instance at the opening of the second group, afraid – doubtless not without reason – of unleashing his firepower upon a composer whose temperament might seem somewhat less than an ideal match. That said, there was certainly little holding back in the development section, which sounded, if hardly idiomatic, at least impressive. Volodos, from his outward appearance, was clearly committed to what he was doing, apparently lost in his own reveries. But as for what Schubert’s music might mean, let alone how it might add up… The slow movement had ultra-Romantic tone lavished upon it, and I can imagine that many would think it drawn out. Yet at least – and certainly by comparison with its predecessor – it had purpose and coherence. It sounded rather like a Liszt transcription of a Schubert song: not quite right, perhaps, but not so bad either. The finale had a surprisingly Brahmsian tone to its opening, not at all unfitting. Melodic oases were exquisitely voiced, moving in their way, though it was really too late by now.

The Brahms Intermezzi, op.117, received an individual reading by any standards, yet arguably provided the highlight of the evening. Each of the three pieces followed a similar trajectory: voicing as exquisite as that mentioned in the final movement of the Schubert sonata, with half-lighting – or perhaps rather less than half – wondrously evoked. I am not sure that I have ever heard the opening of the E-flat intermezzo so meltingly beautiful. Were the performances distended? Almost certainly, yet they intrigued rather than infuriated. Brahms sounded closer to Chopin, and in the central section of the third, to Liszt, than to Schoenberg; however, there was at the end a sense of loss, of aching longing, that stood not entirely unrelated to Brahms.

The Liszt B minor sonata opened with great promise, the piano sound apparently just right. Unfortunately, even that soon descended into bludgeoning, the delicate passages coming off much better. Why, however, I soon asked myself, all the agogic accents? Why the inserted pauses? Why was everything pulled around to no apparent purpose? This of all works, certainly the most extraordinary piano sonata in formal conception between Schubert and Boulez, requires a musician who will project both its overall structure and its motivic cohesion. Volodos turned the work into something resembling an over-extended operatic paraphrase. He did not deserve the minute or so when an audience member declined to answer the telephone, just as he had not deserved the barrage of coughing here and in the first half, but this was as uncomprehending a performance of Liszt’s towering masterpiece as I have ever heard. That many members of the audience could greet it with a standing ovation for me simply beggared belief. Whatever would they do, were they – to cite two recent outstanding performances on the South Bank – to hear Maurizio Pollini or Pierre-Laurent Aimard perform the work? Here, alas, there was not the slightest sense of an Idea. Most of the recapitulation was simply brutalised. Oddly, the first encore, Liszt’s En rêve sounded, if a little sugary, at least conceived of in a single breath. As for the other encores, I think I have said enough already.

Mark Berry