A Probing, Highly Original Recital from Yevgeny Sudbin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Scarlatti, Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel: Yevgeny Sudbin (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 16.6.2016. (RB)

Scarlatti: Sonata in D minor, Kk213; Sonata in C major, Kk159; Sonata in D minor, Kk9

Beethoven: Piano Sonata in C minor, Op 111

Mozart: ‘Lacrimosa’ from Requiem in D minor, K626 (arr Sudbin)

Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit

Yevgeny Sudbin has brought out two widely acclaimed recordings of Scarlatti and this concert provided an opportunity to showcase three of the sonatas which feature in his most recent recording. Sudbin provided his own well-written and informative programme notes and they provided a fascinating insight into his approach to the works on the programme.

Sudbin used the full resources of the modern concert grand in the opening three sonatas by Scarlatti. His playing reminded me much more of Horowitz’s approach to these works than modern day Baroque purists such as Angela Hewitt. The opening D minor Sonata, Kk213 was poetic and dreamy (there were hints of Schumann’s Eusebius) and Sudbin used the pedal to give the piece a rich romantic glow. He adopted a fairly relaxed tempo which allowed him to mine the poetry and the drama of the work and much of the playing was highly expressive. Michelangeli loved to perform the C major Sonata, Kk159 and Sudbin’s account was every bit as good as the great Italian pianist. He evoked Baroque trumpets in the opening bars and there was a wonderful variety of touch and timbre while the ornamentation was tastefully executed. Sudbin adopted a relatively brisk tempo for the final Sonata, Kk9 and much of the passage-work was executed with brio. He used the pedal in a skilful, highly imaginative way and the performance had a distinctive Mediterranean feel in its evocation of strumming guitars and castanets.

From Scarlatti we moved to one of the most sublime works in the whole of the repertoire – Beethoven’s C minor Sonata, Op 111. Sudbin brought enormous weight and depth of sound to the opening Maestoso, projecting the towering, monumental nature of the work. The ensuing Allegro con brio ed appasionato had a dark whirling energy and Sudbin did a magnificent job conveying the titanic struggle at the heart of the music. On occasion I felt he could have used the pedal more sparingly and I would have welcomed cleaner textures. However, there was much to admire here and his handling of the stabbing chords and the whispered contrapuntal lines at the end of the movement was particularly impressive. In the second movement Sudbin brought a rapt serenity to the opening Arietta and I liked his handling of the first few variations including the jazzy third variation. The final section of the work defies analysis and there is no correct way to play it. Sudbin’s performance underlined some of the extraordinary contrasts in the music and there was an impressive range of highly imaginative tonal effects. However, it did not quite capture that elusive sense of transcendental radiance and tranquillity that permeates the final part of the movement. The redemptive qualities in the music need to emanate from the core of the pianist’s being and I did not feel that with this performance.

The second half opened with Sudbin’s own transcription of the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. In his programme notes Sudbin described it as: “a great exercise in exploring the huge range of deep and vocal sonorities of the modern piano”. He certainly did summon an impressive range of sonorities from his Steinway and he did a magnificent job maintaining the narrative flow of the work and in layering the sound.

The final work on the programme was Ravel’s highly virtuosic Gaspard de la Nuit. The work is based on three macabre poems by Aloysius Bertrand which describe the activities of a malevolent water nymph, an arid scene where a dead body hangs on a gallows and a devilish night goblin. The extreme technical demands did not pose any difficulties for Sudbin and the notorious right hand figurations in ‘Ondine’ and highly demanding passage-work in ‘Scarbo’ were handled with ease. I loved the shimmering opening of ‘Ondine’, the depiction of the ripples and eddies on the pond and the atmospheric moonlit scene. The song of Ondine was beautifully shaped and the build-up was impressive although I found this performance a little too cool. Sudbin argues in his programme notes that Ondine lacks a soul and the music cannot be over-romanticised, which is fair enough but she is also a powerful seductress and the elements of danger were not quite there. The repeated B flats depicting the tolling bells were beautifully handled in ‘Le Gibet’ and Sudbin did a marvellous job sustaining the line and maintaining the tension throughout. He did not always follow composer’s dynamic markings although he notes that Ravel did not practise what he preached when it came to dynamics in his own recording of the work. This was a strikingly red blooded performance of the work which was intriguing but it did not entirely convince in terms of its depiction of the grisly, eerie scene. Sudbin’s performance of ‘Scarbo’ was highly athletic and virtuosic and for me this was the most successful of the three movements. The repeated notes were played with scintillating brio and Sudbin conjured up a symphonic range of textures and sonorities. His handling of the double octaves at the climax was electrifying and the final extinction of Scarbo in a puff of smoke was spellbinding.

Sudbin performed a number of Scarlatti sonatas as encores, including the D minor Sonata, Kk141 which is a great favourite of Martha Argerich. Overall, this was a probing, highly original evening of first rate piano playing. I did not agree with all Sudbin’s interpretive decisions but it is a clear that he has a keen musical intellect allied with an impressive virtuoso technique.

Robert Beattie


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