Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Volodos - Schubert, Brahms, and Liszt, 22 May 2012


Royal Festival Hall

Schubert – Sonata in A minor, D 784
Brahms – Three Intermezzi, op.117
Liszt – Sonata in B minor, S 178

Arcadi Volodos (piano)

Though I have long been aware of his reputation, this was the first time, whether on disc or in the concert hall, that I had heard Arcadi Volodos. I suspect that it will turn out also to be the last. There were peculiarities, which is arguably to put it mildly, to the first half, but I had assumed that Liszt would play more to Volodos’s strengths; as it turned out, I should have been better advised to have left at the interval.

The first movement of Schubert’s A minor sonata, D 784, added up to considerably less than the sum of its parts, even when the parts were often distinctly odd. There were fine moments, such as a beautifully quiet opening, though the sonority seemed more suited to Tchaikovsky than to Schubert. Moreover, Volodos showed himself alert to, or at least suggestive of, those weird foreshadowings of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. However, one often, for instance at the opening of the second group, had a sense of him holding back, afraid – doubtless not without reason – of unleashing his firepower upon a composer whose temperament might seem somewhat less than an ideal match. That said, there was certainly little holding back in the development section, which sounded, if hardly idiomatic, at least impressive. Volodos, from his outward appearance, was clearly committed to what he was doing, apparently lost in his own reveries. But as for what Schubert’s music might mean, let alone how it might add up… The slow movement had ultra-Romantic tone lavished upon it, and I can imagine that many would think it drawn out. Yet at least – and certainly by comparison with its predecessor – it had purpose and coherence. It sounded rather like a Liszt transcription of a Schubert song: not quite right, perhaps, but not so bad either. The finale had a surprisingly Brahmsian tone to its opening, not at all unfitting. Melodic oases were exquisitely voiced, moving in their way, though it was really too late by now.

The Brahms Intermezzi, op.117, received an individual reading by any standards, yet arguably provided the highlight of the evening. Each of the three pieces followed a similar trajectory: voicing as exquisite as that mentioned in the final movement of the Schubert sonata, with half-lighting – or perhaps rather less than half – wondrously evoked. I am not sure that I have ever heard the opening of the E-flat intermezzo so meltingly beautiful. Were the performances distended? Almost certainly, yet they intrigued rather than infuriated. Brahms sounded closer to Chopin, and in the central section of the third, to Liszt, than to Schoenberg; however, there was at the end a sense of loss, of aching longing, that stood not entirely unrelated to Brahms.

The Liszt B minor sonata opened with great promise, the piano sound apparently just right. Unfortunately, even that soon descended into bludgeoning, the delicate passages coming off much better. Why, however, I soon asked myself, all the agogic accents? Why the inserted pauses? Why was everything pulled around to no apparent purpose? This of all works, certainly the most extraordinary piano sonata in formal conception between Schubert and Boulez, requires a musician who will project both its overall structure and its motivic cohesion. Volodos turned the work into something resembling an over-extended operatic paraphrase. He did not deserve the minute or so when an audience member declined to answer the telephone, just as he had not deserved the barrage of coughing here and in the first half, but this was as uncomprehending a performance of Liszt’s towering masterpiece as I have ever heard. That many members of the audience could greet it with a standing ovation for me simply beggared belief. Whatever would they do, were they, to cite two recent outstanding performances on the South Bank, to hear Maurizio Pollini or Pierre-Laurent Aimard perform the work? Here, alas, there was not the slightest sense of an Idea. Most of the recapitulation was simply brutalised. Oddly, the first encore, Liszt’s En rêve sounded, if a little sugary, at least conceived of in a single breath. As for the other encores, I think I have said enough already.

17 comments:

Daniele said...

seriously - do you actually know ANYTHING about music, and specifically piano playing???

Alison said...

Well sorry Daniele I must say I think this is a great review which I completely agree with!

Alison said...

Excellent review - completely agree.

AR said...

I wholeheartedly disagree with your distorted and inaccurate account of the Volodo's performance of Liszt's astounding B minor Sonata. Like you I was also present at both Aimard's and Pollini's account of the sonata with the additional b minor sonata performances by Goerner and Hamelin at the Wigmore Hall this year (and unfortunately a Yuja Wang concert three weeks ago which I did leave after the first half). I would agree that the Volodo's account was indeed 'different' and maybe not to your 'taste'. Nevertheless it was a truly magnificent performance in both its musical insight and the manner in which Volodo's integrated and connected each motif into the overall structure. The recapitulation was not 'brutalised'- far from the truth. The recapitulation was negotiated with aplomb, carefully building to the climactic fortississimo before the andante sostenuto. You also failed to mention Volodo's beautifully rounded, full bodied, singing tone which reminded me of the great Gilels. The standing ovation at the end of the concert was justified and well deserved. To summarise- a truly memorable evening made possible by a truly astounding musician.

Stephen said...

Dear Mark

I heard Volodos in the series twice about 12/10 years ago and he has not altered his manner much! Very much a chap with his own take and you are spot on with his very over-sectionalised approach to the Liszt sonata. He has a ravashing tone, and fantastic control, but I think he milked it rather drastically. The first half was much better and I thought the Brahms was very good. For Liszt the recommendations you make to earlier recitals are right!

Zwölftöner said...

Thanks for this review. I heard him give the same programme at the Musikverein a few months ago and really tried to get something out of it, but think your verdict on his limitations is probably right. Agree entirely re. the Liszt; the Schubert was the other way around, with the last movement sounding like some ghastly Czerny exercise and first movement generally introspective with some evidence of thought, though far from a satisfying whole, as you say; the Intermezzi I thought very unevenly voiced actually, but as long as Lupu is still performing these pieces who can hope to come close?

HdR said...

I must say being at the concert last night that I'm astonished about this review. As very often in reviews, artists that have their own take on things are very much criticized for doing so as they don't fit in with the general standard and are therefore considered to be wrong, who are you to judge this? I'm going to a concert to be captivated. What Mr. Volodos did last night was captivating me from start to finish. He took me on an adventure, hearing things in these pieces that I have never heard before. I'm not taken on such an adventure when listening to Maurizio Pollini (at least not these days)...

HdR said...

Astonished about this review.
Mr. Volodos Captivated me and took me on an adventure that I will remember for a long time. But.. he does things sometimes differently than the standard and most reviewers don't like this. Nothing new there.

Paul said...

I was at the concert last night, and I agree with this review. Overall, I found the playing to contain extraordinary control and terrific virtuosity (his tone was gorgeous, and his pianissimos lovely) but the interpretations were very self-indulgent. The Brahms, in particular, struck me as absurdly pulled-about, to the point where the music lost its thread and nearly collapsed. Again, I was full of admiration for his control, but it wasn't used to satisfying musical ends.

The Schubert was a little safe - it could have done with more passion and greater dynamic contrasts, in my opinion. Though he did highlight elements of the work which Brendel misses.

The Liszt sonata I don't know terribly well, but my impression was of alternating technical virtuosity and further self-indulgent stretching. Of course, he was not helped by a badly-behaved audience.

Volodos's stage manner is interesting: he doesn't give much evidence of feeling warm towards the audience (which, given they wouldn't sit still, I cannot blame him for) arriving and departing with briskness. I found his habit of hanging onto the final chord long long after it has subsiding to be an annoying affectation, but then I wasn't rapt like he, and presumably much of the rest of the audience, was.

To summarise: he obviously appeals to some, but I found him musically satisfying only in parts, and generally self-indulgent.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, Paul (and the others who have commented). Ultimately, I tend to agree with Paul concerning the Brahms; if I erred here, I think it was on the side of generosity, but the performances there at least intrigued, whereas in most contexts, they would most likely only have perplexed.

Alas, AR gives no examples to support his generalisations. That doesn't mean that his judgement is invalidated, of course, but without some indication of how themes were 'integrated into the overall structure,' it is well-nigh impossible to agree or to disagreee. By the way, I did not fail to mention his tone; I did so at the very start of what I had to say about the Liszt. But if it is put to such perplexing ends, I am afraid that beautiful tone counts for nothing; if anything, it draws attention to other failings. Liszt of all composers, sadly, still needs rescuing from charges bandied around of empty virtuosity, and this sonata of all pieces needs unmistakeable communication of its form and that form's radicalism. (The closest example I can think of is Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony, but its advantage is that no one would accuse Schoenberg of empty virtuosity.) For me, and for a good many others, it would seem, Volodos failed in that act of communication; it was far from clear that he even attempted it.

As for HdR's comment, I am far from opposed to something 'different' being done, but it does not follow from that that every instance of 'difference' is as valid as every other. I should genuinely be interested to hear what you, or someone else, thought Volodos's Idea (whether Platonic or Schoenbergian!) was. It utterly eluded me.

Perhaps, in response to Daniele, it is the case that I know nothing about music and specifically about the piano. I should prefer to think otherwise, but that is really for others to judge.

Anonymous said...

How bizarre. I thought it was an outstanding recital, as did most of the audience.

To read a diametrically opposed review to this one, visit:

http://www.classicalsource.com/db_control/db_concert_review.php?id=10181

Mark Berry said...

I think that review speaks for itself only too well.

Natasha said...

Mark,
I merely note that from the reaction of the audience, the majority of them, including myself, would disagree with you. Perhaps they were responding to something that wasn't there. The other possibility is that you didn't hear what they were hearing. Either way, a controversial pianist, it seems!

Chang said...

I completely agree with this review. Ok we all already know that Volodos has incredible tone production and an astonishing technique as was evident in his execution of the coda of the Liszt sonata but it is undeniable that his interpretations are too self indulgent. It is as if he plays to hear himself play rather than imbue a personal interpretation to what the composer intended the piece to be. And to those who says he is criticised for being avantgarde rather than mainstream, I think they should realise that Volodos is not an avantgarde but rather a pianist whose excessive rubato and idiosyncrasies made his performance incoherent as a whole. Must say though the Brahms was the highlight of the evening...

Arcadi said...

According to which review you read my Schubert was brilliant, but it was also rubbish. My Brahms was Mr. Chang's highlight of the evening, but to the Times's reviewer, it was a damp squib. My Liszt was over-indulgent, says some critic, whilst a commentator from Classical source says it was perfect. I am so confused I just don't know what to do at my next concert anymore.

Anonymous said...

Arcadi is a genius! This concert was amazing in many ways and reminds me of Radu Lupu in his prime. The sound, arch of phrasing and overall attention to detail was astonishing. The Liszt had a structure unrivalled. I could trace the 1st note to the last with the climax of the triple fortissimo proving to be placed perfectly outdoing all the sub climactic moments. I could go on, but being an international concert pianist myself I am sick of reviews by people just like you. You can damage an artists reputation and gain followers in your hatred for musicians who have spent their entire lives giving music to others. Something that can not be said for you. Volodos is one of the greatest artists on the planet, and more importantly has something unique and original to say unlike the many performances of these works which are all the same. I like his strange touches, some work, some don't but I would never critise him for doing them. Horowitz formed a phenomenal following and it was for the excitement he gave the audiences. 'What will happen next, I have to hear more' is one of the reasons people still go to concerts. Cheer your views up!!!

Anonymous said...

I was at the concert and it was fantastic! All the pieces were wonderfully played but I am going to focus on one piece that stands out for me. Mr Arcadi Volodos kindly played as part of a number of encores the Malagueña Andaluza which he played with passion, brilliance, clarity, power, always in control….. it was perfect! 99% of the audience gave a standing ovation after this piece; 99% of the public recognised his genius interpretation and control of the instrument. Mr Volodos if you are reading this it was a great privilege to see you and please come again to London!
Pablo