March 8, 2009

Grand Arches

Arcadi Volodos in the Philharmonie


Alexander Scriabin
Prélude b-flat minor, op. 37 no. 1
Prélude b-flat minor, op. 11 no. 16
Dance languide, op. 51 no. 4
Guirlandes, op. 73 no. 1
Sonata No. 7, op. 64 ("White Mass")

Maurice Ravel
Valses nobles et sentimentales

Robert Schumann
Waldszenen op. 82

Franz Liszt
"Après une lecture de Dante" (Fantasia quasi Sonata)


Arcadi Volodos - Piano

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Grand Arches

Arcadi Volodos in the Philharmonie

by Nancy Chapple / Photos: sonyclassical (Volodos), Jens Paape (Delicate Arch)

Arcadi Volodos
Photo: sonyclassical

When I was studying piano in New York a quarter of a century ago, a master teacher told me that great pianists could be divided into aces of structure and wizards of sound. Looking to enhance my awareness of the instrument's tactile possibilities and to add new colors to my sound, he sent me to recordings by the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels. Since then I've entertained the idea that the Russian school of piano playing evinces an unrivalled mastery of nuance in pianistic tone, but is perhaps less concerned with works' structure.

Possessed of a very convincing original voice, Arcadi Volodos has embarked on a major playing career in the traditional style. To a two-thirds full hall of enthusiastic listeners, he presented four major works of the 19th and 20th centuries. What united his interpretations was the hugely long interpretative arch that held each of the works together from the first to the last note.

The program itself deployed an unusual dramaturgy. The evening started quietly; the first half contained two works from 1911, the second two from 1849, leading us chronologically backwards. He began with small, pensive preludes, drawing us into Scriabin's inscrutable—sometimes wispy, sometimes thundering—sound world. The Seventh Sonata is highly complex, formally difficult to grasp as a listener: how many mood changes, how many high points will there be? It was clear that Volodos always knew where he was in the larger structure, that he cherished the work's unique palette of tone colors.

Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales shone. The sound was crystal clear, the whole work in a danceable ¾—never self-indulgent in tempi, the voices always discernible. A special quality of the work is the interconnections among the eight waltzes: given the work's notation, we progress from one waltz to the next attacca, a motif tying consecutive waltzes together. Elements of most of the previous waltzes shimmer briefly in the last one, in the same key as they originally appeared. This aspect was ideally suited to Volodos's long arches across entire works.

On such an evening, otherwise conforming to the usual expectations of piano recitals over many, many decades (except perhaps that the soloist was not wearing a tuxedo), it is unusual to move back in time. The usual progression would be from the known, the safe to the more daring. By playing Schumann and Liszt in the second half after exposing us to moods of the early 20th century, Volodos showed us why the earlier composers' works were trailblazing. His Forest Scenes, op. 82 were anything but easy listening, despite several passages in a jolly 6/8 meter typical of hunting. This was a performance too spooky, too unsettling to be grouped with Schumann's more harmless Album for the Young.

And Liszt's Après une lecture de Dante, a hugely difficult work replete with octaves and fff high points (that nearly broke my back when I attempted to learn it)? Overwhelmingly impressive, all of a piece, mesmerizing. Never a shadow of a doubt about the work's main idea—the tension between the tritone expressing desperation and a perfect fifth representing the ultimate triumph over this tension. All the smaller phrases were clearly in service of the larger idea—no sidetracking, no showing off—everything served the work.

The audience—including many presumably Berlin-based Russians—were beside themselves with joy. Until Arcadi Volodos had played four encores for us, his performing evening was not over.