Arcadi Volodos in Vienna
You can keep your Lang Langs, your Yuja Wangs, your Evgeny Kissins…I’d swap their collective virtuosity for one evening of Arcadi Volodos’s consummate pianism. To my mind, he has produced nothing finer on disc than this live recital, captured in Vienna last spring.
When Sony first signed Volodos they must have thought they were getting another great virtuoso-in-the-making. People were quick to point out the parallels with Horowitz in the astonishing feats on Volodos’s first disc more than a decade ago, and who could forget his cheeky take on Mozart’s “Rondo alla turca”? It’s striking that Sony has hung on to him despite his reluctance to play the fame game (though they do of course now have Lang Lang to provide the column inches).
But with this latest release we’re once again reminded that Volodos is a one-off. He has Sokolov’s genius for making even the unpianistic pianistic, yet without his occasional eccentricities. He has the steel, combined with the velvety sound, and the sense of a companionable relationship with his instrument of Gilels. Yet there’s fire aplenty too – witness his Dante Sonata, complete with the odd Volodosian touch (you’ll recall from earlier discs that he likes to make pieces his own). No one quite achieves the incandescence of Ogdon in this work, as can be seen as well as heard in a terrifying vision of the work on an EMI DVD. But the sense that technically Volodos is in complete command, and that the piano is not in pain – even at the most extreme moments – is extraordinarily compelling. And through all the handfuls of notes he never loses sight of the work’s form, the imperious left-hand theme that sweeps through the chorale-like texture done with complete assurance.
You couldn’t be in Vienna without presenting a waltz or two, and here we get Ravel’s skewed take on it (though less skewed than his post-war vision, La valse). Volodos is less perfumed than some – Thibaudet and Bavouzet in their different ways spring to mind – but there’s a wonderful warmth to his sound as well as a sensitivity to the pieces’ inner workings that delights. He attains the balance between lyricism and a pungent neo-classicism every bit as effectively as Casadesus in his classic reading.
Right from the start, this is an uncompromisingly programmed recital, Volodos plunging his audience into the strange hinterland of Scriabin. Whether in the insistent lopsided gait of the Danse languide or the deep-toned Prelude No 16 from Op 11, more sensuous than Pletnev’s sharply characterised realisation, he is spellbinding. And in the Seventh Sonata Volodos is still more incense-laden and edgier than Marc-André Hamelin’s beautifully etched reading, the sonorous bells building to a cataclysmic climax.
Waldszenen is perhaps the finest jewel here, with Volodos bringing his story-telling genius to every piece. Its outwardly unassuming nature is deceptive, as the many great pianists who’ve been drawn to it have shown. But Volodos is absolutely up there with the best of them, Richter and Pires included. Just sample the rapt wonder he brings to “Einsame blumen” or the combination of eeriness and an almost Bachian purity of No 4, “Verrufene Stelle”. His leave-taking, too, in No 9 couldn’t be more poignantly done, without a trace of heart-on-sleeve emoting, which makes the wistfulness all the more eloquent.
The encores are supreme, from Volodos’s Bach/Vivaldi Sicilienne, which is informed by a restrained beauty worthy of Gilels, a Tchaikovsky song rendered glorious even without voice yet its piano roulades never taking the limelight, and, finally, a telling return to Scriabin. The engineers have done wonders, in spite of the live conditions, and I’d be surprised if I heard finer piano playing this year.