United Kingdom Brahms, Schubert: Arcadi Volodos (piano), Barbican Hall, London, 14.12.2015. (RB)
Brahms: Theme and Variations in D minor, Op 18
Eight Piano Pieces, Op 76
Schubert: Piano Sonata in B Flat major, D960
Since his New York début in 1996, Arcadi Volodos seems to have been on an extraordinary journey from dazzling virtuoso firebrand to poet and seer of the piano. His performances in London are all too rare nowadays so it was no surprise to see a packed Barbican Hall. For this concert Volodos presented works by two of the composers with whom he has become most closely associated: Brahms and Schubert.
The recital opened with Brahms’ Theme and Variations in D Minor which the composer wrote at the behest of Clara Schumann before presenting the work to her as a birthday present on 13 September 1860. The theme is a transcription by the composer of the slow movement of his own First String Sextet and the work has an air of dark brooding solemnity. Volodos brought a silky touch to the opening section and he allowed the music to evolve and expand in a living organic way. He coaxed an extraordinary and imaginative range of colours from his Steinway, presenting us with a highly poetic and individual reading of the work. There were some striking contrasts in mood from the turbulent third variation with its rippling left hand to the radiant fourth and some of the pianissimo playing was breathtaking (Volodos takes composers at their word when they ask him to play very quietly).
From the Op 18 Variations Volodos moved to Brahms’ Op 76 miniatures which are all capriccios or intermezzos. These pieces were written in the same year as the Violin Concerto and they prefigure the composer’s later sets of piano pieces. Volodos’ performance of these miniatures was absolutely spellbinding and I was struck by the way he created a sense of closeness and intimacy in such a large concert hall. The rolling arpeggios of the F Sharp minor Capriccio were allowed to ruminate and build before igniting into flame and the flickering embers seemed to permeate the ensuing melodic fragments. Delicate traceries of sound brought this highly poetic conflagration to a tranquil conclusion. The B minor Capriccio with its bouncing staccato lines was taken at a relatively slow pace which allowed Volodos to mine and exploit the composer’s textures and inner voices in a highly original way. The Schumannesque fourth intermezzo in B Flat major was gorgeous with Volodos creating a rich Romantic tapestry of colour. The C Sharp minor Capriccio with its sweeping upsurge of anger was powerful and climactic; here Volodos showed us Brahms at his most destructive and nihilistic. There was ingenious use of pedal in the A major Intermezzo with its cross rhythms and harmonic dislocations before Volodos brought the set to a conclusion with a highly cultivated account of the mercurial C major Capriccio. This was a towering interpretation of the Op 76 pieces and the high point of the recital for me.
The concert concluded with Schubert’s sublime final piano sonata which was written in the final year of his short life. Volodos has recorded Schubert’s G Major Sonata to much critical acclaim so I was intrigued to hear how he would approach the towering B Flat. The opening movement had a radiant bloom and Volodos seemed at pains to avoid any excessive sweetness or lyricism. This was a very poised Classical account of the work, albeit one imbued with a rich Romantic colouring. I have to say that I was not completely persuaded by this interpretation and I was longing for Schubert’s wonderful melodies to sing out more – it seemed to me to be the one false step in an otherwise outstanding recital. In the slow movement Volodos seemed to regain his form again. The opening section was rapt and meditative with Volodos demonstrating an exquisitely delicate touch and wonderfully soft dynamic shadings while in the middle section the composer of songs really came to the fore. The scherzo seemed to materialise out of nowhere and Volodos deployed flexible phrasing and a subtle range of textures to bring out the fragility and delicacy of the music. The playful elements in the scherzo seemed to flow into the darker trio section where Volodos used pointed staccatos and accents to play with light and shade. Volodos’ tempo for the finale (Allegro, ma non troppo) seemed spot on; he was alive to the harmonic ambiguities, shifts in mood and combustible quality of the music. The whirling presto coda was like a sudden gust of wind hurling us gently but inexorably towards an emphatic conclusion.
Overall, this was an evening of cultivated, highly poetic and imaginative playing by one of the great masters of the piano. The audience gave him a number of standing ovations and we heard encores by Schubert, Brahms and Mompou as well as his own virtuoso transcription of Malagueña by Cuban composer, Ernesto Lecuona.