Arcadi Volodos almost seems
to belong to the Golden Age of the piano virtuoso. His programme on
this occasion would certainly stretch all but the most leonine of keyboard
interpreters: he seems to positively thrive on vast swathes of semi-quavers
(or demi-semi-quavers, for that matter). In fact, this event was part
of a major tour: Volodos has already given this programme in Athens,
Lucerne and Bologna. In December he will repeat it in four German cities
(Bamberg, Berlin, Wiesbaden and Aachen). The sheer stamina of the man
Using a chair rather than the more
usual stool, Volodos breathes a quiet confidence as he approaches his
instrument: you just know, before he even sits down, that you are in
the safest of hands. Programming Brahmsí Theme and Variations in
D minor to begin with was a stroke of genius. This piece (the composerís
own transcription of the slow movement of his String Sextet No. 1 in
B flat, Op. 18) requires exactly the qualities Volodos imbued it with.
Here was playing of real integrity: the stately opening was richly toned
and dignified. Volodos used a wide variety of tone-colour to shape the
variations. He was not afraid to play drily (as in Variation 2). Only
in the passionate third variation could the left hand have been even
The sheer volatility of Schumannís
multi-persona makes Kreisleriana a real interpretative challenge
for any pianist and Volodos rose to this magnificently. Like Horowitz,
he shows a proclivity for highlighting inner voices, but unlike Horowitz,
Volodosí choices consistently make perfect sense, illuminating rather
than contradicting the musical surface. The opening of this piece is
one of the most perilous in the Romantic repertoire, but Volodos appears
to have been blessed with a steel-plated set of fingers. The most notable
aspect of this finely wrought interpretation was his refusal to gloss
over any of Schumannís sometimes startling textures, which meant that
some of the resultant sonorities came over as remarkably modern. None
of the multiple technical challenges were allowed to stand in the way
of this imposing, wonderfully shaded conception. The central ĎSehr langsamí
section acted as a perfect, still centre.
It was quite a shift, then, to have
Schubertís E major Piano Sonata, D157 after the interval. This (Schubertís
first sonata) is a torso, comprising only the first three movements
(ending with a Menuetto). Volodos scaled down his sound to fit this
lighter sound world and proved himself to be a player of not inconsiderable
subtlety. Within these new limits, he made the most of the initial dramatic
gestures. The tone of the Andante second movement was limpid, concentrated
and delicate to contrast with the more robust Menuetto.
Three Liszt transcriptions of Schubert
songs made the transition to the final barnstorming Hungarian Rhapsody:
Der Müller und der Bach (from Die schöne Müllerin);
Aufenthalt and Der Doppelgänger (both from Schwanengesang).
The simplicity of Der Müller und der Bach hid the mastery
behind the piece; Aufenthalt was dramatic, its middle section
an encyclopaedia of Lisztian pianistic devices. It was Der Doppelgänger
which impressed most, however. Here is desolation defined in music,
a short segment of unremitting, unsettling bleakness. Once again, Volodos
was uncompromising in his approach.
As if Lisztís Hungarian Rhapsodies
are not difficult enough, Volodos took matters even further to provide
a truly astonishing experience which effectively silenced criticism.
The demands of this arrangement are near superhuman. Volodos once more
pounced on any obstacle in his path, projecting great blocks of sound
one minute, sending out fluid flourishes the next. He was particularly
scintillating in the passages which concentrated in the higher registers,
but it seems almost unfair to single out any particular element. This
was great piano playing which left the audience scarcely able to believe
The encores were, predictably (if
one can use such a word in connection with this pianist) breathtaking:
a Feuille díalbum by Scriabin, the sparkling Moszkowski Etincelles
(memories of Horowitz again!) and finally Rachmaninovís Italian Polka,
arranged by Volodos himself.
Volodos is a many-sided player.
If he were to rely on technique alone, the attention may well have wandered.
As it was, I can hardly remember when two hours seemed to fly by so