Wigmore Hall partnership of Igor Levit and Alexei Volodin at its best in Rachmaninov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Igor Levit, Alexei Volodin (pianos). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.5.2023. (MB)

Igor Levit and Alexei Volodin © Christopher Axworthy

Schubert – Allegretto in C minor, D 915
Schumann – Arabeske in C major, Op.18
Mozart – Sonata in D major, KV 448/375a
Debussy – En blanc et noir
Rachmaninov – Suite No.1 in G minor, Op.5, ‘Fantaisie-tableaux’

Two-piano repertoire seems, for reasons I do not fully understand, to appeal more to pianists than to general audiences. The Wigmore Hall was nonetheless full and greatly appreciative for this recital on Coronation Day from Igor Levit and Alexei Volodin. First, though, we heard two solo items: Schubert from Levit and Schumann from Volodin.

It was Schubert, in the guise of the C minor Allegretto, who to my ears came off best. A wonderfully ‘sung’ opening phrase somehow managed to sound as if it were responded to by a piano ‘accompaniment’, and so forth, counterpoint proving the means through which the two ‘instruments’ were united. It was a startlingly rhetorical performance whose argument remained coherent, indeed gripping, throughout. And there was an undeniably Schubertian harmonic core to this well-nigh visionary opening. Volodin’s Schumann, the C major Arabeske, began in similarly promising, albeit more conventional fashion. It sounded immediately as one would expect, moments of robbed time and all. Points of detail illuminated rather than distracted. It was, moreover, good to hear the episodes played with due heart on sleeve. My reservations came, however, when they became more wilful, disrupting the overall line. Perhaps, though, that is more a matter of taste than anything else.

Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos in D major followed. There was much to admire in it, not least a responsorial opening to the first movement that seemed to take off where Levit’s own responsorial Schubert had left us. Tricky balances between contrast and complement were well navigated. Ultimately, though, I found it somewhat unyielding, especially from Volodin, the very opening of the development section a welcome exception. The slow movement was taken with welcome seriousness and attentiveness, though here and in the finale a little more smiling would not have gone amiss. Subtle ornamentation nonetheless proved a welcome addition. There was on occasion a sense of fun to the finale, mostly from Levit, but warmth and affection were in relatively short supply when compared with, say, the hallowed likes of Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich.

The duo captured well the abstraction of Debussy’s En blanc et noir, without neglecting the first movement’s more obviously ‘poetic’ passages, thereby thrown into greater relief. A due sense of mystery rose in all movements seemingly directly from the keys — and of course the fingers upon them. The dark malevolence of the second movement and a fine sense of aerial suspension in a nonetheless keenly directed closing Scherzando came close to the heart of Debussy’s enigmas, making this unusual work sound more characteristic than is often the case.

Crowning the proceedings was the first of Rachmaninov’s two suites for two pianos. The opening Barcarolle conveyed from the outset an impression of settled idiom, such that occasional languor could register meaningfully within its bounds. Chopin and Liszt both lay behind the writing, yet one could never reduce what one heard to mere ‘influence’. The two pianists offered an intriguing sense of a more modernist sense of proliferation than that with which we might always associate the composer. Richly Romantic, without indulgence, the second movement was similarly well judged in shape and direction, permitting a sense of the fantastic it is difficult not to stereotype as ‘Russian’ to take flight and form. Les Larmes built powerfully and subsided with equal care, founded on a deep-seated sadness that resists verbalisation. The closing Pâques showed Rachmaninov in Mussorgskian vein, bells from Boris Godunov sublimated (perhaps not entirely without irony) into celebration of Easter.

Mark Berry

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