Mainly Brilliance in Sudbin’s Tchaikovsky

CanadaCanada Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Ravel: Yevgeny Sudbin (piano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Ryan McAdams (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 21.3.2015 (GN)

Mussorgsky: Khovantchina: Introduction
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23
Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Ravel: Rhapsodie Espagnole


Yevgeny Sudbin is one of most distinguished young pianists of the current generation. Although he moved from St. Petersburg to Berlin at the age of ten and then to London at seventeen, graduating from the Royal Academy of Music, he remains a clear representative of a Russian tradition of imaginative, technically-astute pianists that includes such legendary artists as Andrei Gavrilov, Grigory Sokolov and, of course, Sviatoslav Richter. His dozen BIS recordings – from Scarlatti to Medtner –  have received the highest praise, as have his recent Beethoven collaborations with fellow BIS compatriot, Osmo Vänskä. Sudbin has previously made some splendid appearances in Vancouver, and this time he returned to play the ever-popular Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 – not my first choice, but the concert was a sellout. The VSO was directed by another in the stream of young conductors on display this year, American Ryan McAdams, a Julliard graduate in 2006, who has recently begun to make a name for himself.

 I have always admired Sudbin’s pristine keyboard control. He has steel in his fingers and can explode with Horowitz-like bravura when needed, but what lies behind this is his quickness and subtle touch. Few pianists can change dynamics and projection so fluently, moving, for example, from a legato line to staccato and back again in a single phrase. When he is at peak form, the pianist’s little twists and accents can be an interpretative gold mine, unearthing an endless array of subtle detail and sentiment.

 Sudbin’s Tchaikovsky days are perhaps now slightly in the past (his recording was 2007), and while I could still see the outlines of a fine reading, the reality was that this performance was variable and less than fully committed. The pianist exhibited a commanding style in the opening movement, and there were many glistening and illuminating long lines. But there was also an unsettled quality, including technical glitches early on and phrases that seemed to be pushed forward all the time, leaving no room for repose. One could appreciate some of Sudbin’s unconventional turns of phrase as well as his moments of sheer finesse, but much of the movement tended to be hurled around in bravura style. This had the virtue of a seeming spontaneity but, frankly, I have rarely witnessed so much rubato. The best one can say is that we were introduced to an unusually rhapsodic view of this movement, physically powerful and exciting at points but emotionally diffuse.

 The Andantino brought more reflection and more composure: moments of genuine beauty and elegance flowed out of Sudbin’s little flicks of a phrase and subtly contoured lines. Nonetheless, in the finale he again set out at a terrific pace, and though I often wondered how fingers could move that quickly, he seemed impatient and not fully engaged. For all the crowd-pleasing brilliance, my feeling was that Sudbin has perhaps played the Tchaikovsky one time too many. The orchestral contribution was conscientious but ended up as mainly dutiful, young Ryan McAdams clearly having his hands full just keeping up with the pianist’s gyrations.

 As observed in the concerto and in Mussorgsky’s Introduction to Khovantchina, Mr. McAdams can get a nice full sound out of the orchestra but tends towards a fairly smooth, relatively safe interpretation. At this point, I would say that he does not fully respond to the sharpness or directness of Russian expression. In the Mussorgsky, the opening hushed string tremolo was neither intense nor soft enough, and the wonderful cantabile theme that follows was a bit too glossy and generic. The absence of sharply-etched contours was even more of a liability in the Stravinsky, where an attempt to generate additional warmth and breadth simply slowed the work down and compromised its line. The execution needed to be tighter and more characterized –  in the pointed rhythms, and certainly in the winds and brass. The conductor was more at home in the sensual and radiant textures of Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole, where he found considerable colour, a better sense of phrase and more strength overall.

 Geoffrey Newman


Previously published in slightly modified form on


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