Hurdy-Gurdy Volodos

ItalyItaly Brahms Schubert, Arcadi Volodos piano). Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome 13.05.2015 (JB)

Arcadi Volodos last played in Rome in May 2001.  Here is what I wrote on that occasion:

Arcadi Volodos.  Piano.  Accademia di S Cecila  25 May 2001.

It used to be said that there are two ways to open a concert: either stun the audience into submission right away with some kind of a shocker or begin on the bottom line, from which point the concert can only get better.  Arcadi Volodos, age twenty nine and a half, chose the second approach.  It would be hard to find a piano piece as dull, ponderous and witless as Brahms Theme and Variations in D minor (a rehash of a string sextet, which he dashed off for Clara Schumann).  The programme says there is ten minutes of music.  It felt like ten hours.

From young Brahms to young Schumann.  Kreisleriana  is a difficult piece to bring off, requiring great subtleties and gradations of tone, all of which flew by the twenty nine and a half year old fingers.  He sounded as if he was playing the week’s laundry list.  Next came the interval; so far the best thing on the programme, so that second formula of concert planning was working.  And it continued.

There was some surprisingly skilled architectural building of the structure of Schubert’s first  (E flat) sonata and nothing that had gone before could have led us to guess that the twenty nine and a half year old explorer would be an illuminating guide through these peaks and valleys.  He was involved and involving in this musical adventure.  For the first time in the evening he pulled out his unsurpassed cantabile.  Where Schubert is witty, passages were dashed off with impudent panache; where he is lyrical, the piano tone was unforgettable.  And there was better to come.  Formula two is on line.

Three Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs were hypnotically beautiful; not just easy, pianistic virtuosity, but velvety tones which would have been the envy of the greatest singers.  There is a twenty nine and a half year old love affair with this music and it is a love which overwhelms its hearers.  And not in any facile way.  Maybe “seduces” is a better term.  For although Arcadi Volodos is in the very best traditions of pub pianists, there is nothing vulgar when he plays these transcriptions.  I can’t wait to rush out and buy the Sony CD of these pieces.  Superb cooking music.  I’ll buy the next round of drinks on this.  While his performance didn’t deliver beyond the first row in Brahms, in the Liszt,  he was comfortably reaching people outside in the street. 

Let it be said that there is great merit in being in the pub pianist tradition.  Shura Cherkasky was the last of them.  With him too, virtuosity and great taste met.  He would often hack his way through Beethoven or Schumann, to the point, sometimes, of it being unrecognisable;  then he would begin on Pabst and other transcriptions: as with Arcadi Volodos, the concert began where it ended.  I lost count of how many encores we enjoyed last night, everyone offering to pay for the next round.

Last night’s recital – 13 May 2015 had a good deal in common with all this.  But detrimentally.  A kind of musical dry rot had somehow set in.  He began with the same dreary D minor variations, op 18b of Brahms.  They were delivered mechanically and for the most part, aggressively.  Mechanical playing can make its mark when it is carefully served with an air of nonchalance.  But there was no hint of that here.  Just insistent bashing.

The six Brahms piano pieces of op 118 fared a little better.  There were some impressive pianissimi.  The Intermezzo calls for more drama and less force Brahms asks for andante teneramente  but Volodos gave non of the latter; even his fine pianissimi were ruined by exaggerated allargandos  The quiet, controlled passages of the Romanza  were surprisingly well-measured.  Here, his pub pianist approach was taking a well-earned rest. 

Most offensive of all was his massacre of the Schubert sonata in B flat D960.  In the scherzo’s Allegro vivace con delicatezza,  the delicatezza was nowhere to be heard.  The only compensation was some joyous abandon in the Allegro ma non troppo  finale.  Schubert gave us his sublime understanding of the hurdy-gurdy man in his final song of the Winterreise.  But Volodos put the organ grinder in charge of this entire sonata.  He ought to change instrument. 

Jack Buckley

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