A memorable Salzburg recital by Arcadi Volodos

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival 2023 [3] – Mompou, Liszt, and Scriabin: Arcadi Volodos (piano). Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, 18.8.2023. (MB)

Arcadi Volodos in the Mozarteum’s Grosser Saal © SF/Marco Borrelli

Mompou – Musica callada, Nos. 1, 2, 27, 24, 25, 11, 15, 22, 16, 6, 21, 28
Liszt – Ballade No.2 in B minor, S 171
Scriabin – Études in F-sharp minor, Op.8 No.2; in B-flat minor, Op.8 No.11; Préludes in E-flat minor, Op.11 No.14; in B major, Op.16 No.1; in E-flat minor, Op.16 No.4; in B major, Op.22 No.3; in B-flat minor, Op.31 No.1; Deux Poèmes, Op.63; En rêvant, Op.71 No.2; Flammes sombres, Op.73 No.2; Piano Sonata No.10, Op.70; Vers la flamme, Op.72

Opportunities are rare to hear the music of Federico Mompou, and from a pianist of the stature of Arcadi Volodos rarer still. My friend and colleague Erik Levi, who also wrote the excellent English-language programme essay for this recital, described Mompou to me as ‘Webern meets Satie’: a good and intriguing starting point. In this selection of twelve pieces from the twenty-eight that make up Musica callada (1959-67), the aphoristic Schoenberg also came to mind, though Mompou’s writing (and Volodos’s performance) tended to suggest brevity rather than aphorism. Melting tone, more forthright as and when necessary, and startling clarity and conviction were key to this performance, each piece seemingly haunted by what had gone before, whilst remaining very much its own utterance. A sense of song, of breath and of breathing too, informed even the more ‘external’ sounds: bells tolling, for instance. All seemed fresh, even provocatively so, every gesture counting. Melodic or not, with Debussy and Liszt often present and occasional appearances by Poulenc in old-French mode, this music will surely have won a good few new converts.

For me, the only real disappointment on the programme was Liszt’s Second Ballade. It began promisingly, Volodos’s colouristic wizardry transferred to a larger stage and scale. Some harmonies sounded strangely familiar; others entirely new. It was, to be sure, a balladic utterance, but where for me it increasingly fell short was in formal command. Volodos clearly has a strong affinity to what we might, with due Romanticism, call the Lisztian soul, but quite why things were happening when they were, what connected them with what had gone and what followed, remained elusive. The audience, though, went wild.

In Volodos’s wide-ranging, almost chronological selection from Scriabin’s piano music, he seemed absolutely at home, assembling and vividly communicating a programme that felt like a vast symphonic poem of its own, developing in technique and harmonic language, yet again strangely consequent on what had gone before. That was true of individual pieces too, from the two Études of 1894-5 onwards, the latter, in B-flat minor, sounding like the perfect lovechild of Chopin and Tchaikovsky. Time was bent, yet direction was ever-clear, indeed clearer. Subtlety and detail were second to none, likewise tumult when it came (as often it did). As time passed, and Scriabin’s musical personality darkened and deepened, a sense of proximity to, perhaps even influence from, composers such as Debussy and Schoenberg heightened, Klingsor’s magic garden and its implications very much in the background, though perhaps that says as much about me as the composer (or pianist). This was extraordinarily eloquent and committed advocacy, and in pieces such as the Tenth Piano Sonata, with a formal command beyond question. We were taken not only vers la flamme, but through and beyond it.

Mark Berry

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