Alexei Volodin Particularly Impresses in Russian Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky: Alexei Volodin (piano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 13.6.2012 (RB)

Beethoven: Sonata in E Flat major Op 31 No. 3
Sonata in C minor Op 13 ‘Pathétique
Tchaikovsky arr. Pletnev: Concert Suite from ‘The Nutcracker’
Stravinsky: Three movements from ‘Petrushka

Alexei Volodin is a former student of the famous Gnessin Music School and of the Moscow Conservatoire, and he won first prize at the Géza Anda competition in Zurich.  This was very much a recital of two halves with the first part consisting of two middle period Beethoven sonatas, while the second half included two virtuoso ballet score transcriptions.

The third of Beethoven’s Op 31 sonatas was written in 1802 when the composer was in the process of acknowledging his encroaching deafness.  It is an innovative work which harks back to Haydnesque Classical models and is in four movements.  In the opening Allegro, Volodin captured well the wit and quirkiness of the work and demonstrated a real lightness of touch and excellent articulation.  However, some of the tempo fluctuations were a little erratic and I lost the sense of the music’s overarching structural cohesion as the movement unfolded.  The scherzo was fast and nicely pointed with Volodin again bringing out the humour of the piece although I would have preferred the pulse to be steadier and for the staccato left hand to be more even and weighted.  The Menuetto was played very well with Volodin conjuring a warm, rich sound from his Steinway and playing the ornaments with real charm and delicacy.  The textures were very clear and transparent in the hunting finale which was taken at a brisk pace, although some of the dynamic contrasts were a little over emphatic.

Volodin produced weighty sonorities for the opening of the ‘Pathétique’ and took the subsequent Allegro di moto e con brio at a blistering pace, keeping the passagework very clean and tidy.  The central Adagio cantabile was played with a real sweetness and with delicacy of tone and attention to textural detail.  I would have liked the famous melody to have sung out a little more and to have been more expressively shaped.  The final rondo was played with flair and brilliance bringing this most famous of sonatas to a thrilling conclusion.  Some of Volodin’s playing in the first half was very fine and he displayed a real ear for tone colour but in general I thought his Beethoven was a little uneven.

I thought the two pieces in the second half would suit him more and they did.  Pletnev produced his transcription of ‘The Nutcracker’ when he was just 20 and used his pianistic imagination to invest the piece with a vivid range of orchestral colours and pianistic brilliance.  Volodin summoned a range of orchestral effects for the opening March and achieved an astonishing level of textural clarity.  He mimicked perfectly the sound of the celesta in ‘The Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy’ and he allowed the sonorous melody to sing resoundingly through the harp figurations in the famous Intermezzo.  He highlighted the brilliance of the piano writing in the ‘Russian Dance’ and realised perfectly the mischievous and enchanting elements of the ‘Chinese Dance’ coping well with the awkward leaps.  In the final ‘Pas de deux’ the arpeggio figurations were played very evenly and with a range of timbre.  Volodin succeeded in finding the romantic kernel of the piece, achieving a great swell of romantic longing.

Stravinsky wrote the three movements from ‘Petrushka’ for Rubinstein, describing the work as a re-imagining of the original work rather than a transcription.  It is one of the most technically demanding works in the solo piano repertoire and Rubinstein was never satisfied with his own performance and never left a recording.  The first thing to say is that Volodin coped exceptionally well with the almost superhuman technical demands.  He used the pedal sparingly in the opening ‘Russian Dance’ and achieved a high degree of textural clarity and definition.  I thought he could perhaps have made a little more of the vibrant orchestral colours and dynamic contrasts.  In ‘Petrushka’s Room’ Volodin displayed a gift for storytelling, perfectly conveying the dramatic action of the ballet and he was fully on top of the rhythmic complexity and intricacy of the opening section.  The final movement, entitled ‘The Shrovetide Fair’ uses every technical device in the pianist’s arsenal and Volodin rose exceptionally well to the challenge.  He conveyed the full range of orchestral sonorities capturing superbly the carnival atmosphere and was responsive to the rapidly changing and highly charged rhythms.  This was a barnstorming piece of piano playing that brought the house down.

Volodin was clearly energised after playing the ‘Petrushka’ dances and played four encores:  Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G sharp minor, Chopin’s Waltz and Nocturne in C sharp minor and a 20th century jazz-inspired piece which I did not recognise (perhaps Kapustin).


Robert Beattie