He began with Brahms. You could have been forgiven for expecting this composer-transcription, of the second movement from the Sextet in B flat Op.18, as being the first casualty to the improviser/virtuoso tradition with which some insist on pigeonholing Volodos. Save for the small detail of tempo turning an Andante into a funeral procession albeit with reverential, religious proportions - this performance was remarkably faithful to the posthumously published score. Maintaining the same tempo throughout and building on the innate and underlying intensity of the harmony, there was plenty of veneration. The climax occurred in the third variation with full chords in the right hand played with great expression. The procession moved inexorably, the two variations in D major ethereally played with delicate pianissimos.
Schumanns Kreisleriana is expansive music, and a real test of a pianists credentials. In these eight pieces, Volodos at his best could be poetic and lyrical the Fourth or the atmospheric intimacy of the very slow and sustained Sixth. Volodos portrayed a vivacious and mischievous abandonment in the final piece, with very quiet but utterly controlled playing that proceeded to another world in much the same way as the eponymous character of E.T.A Hoffmanns novel. To diminish this sublime playing, Volodos, at less than his best, could be a mere note-spinner. The opening movement was too quick, even for a supreme technician, to execute the melody from the arpeggiated right-hand triplets. Whether Schumann, when he marked No.7 Sehr rasch, intended it to be as quick as Volodos played it, can be questioned. Conversely, the agitated third piece sounded ponderous with bass obscuring the lively triplets. The second piece started off very well with a well-judged tempo, albeit with a certain freedom of dynamics, but there was no contrast between the two ensuing Intermezzi: both were just loud and quick; the light mischief of 5 descended into a morass of heavy, loud notes.
The pick of Volodoss recital was Schuberts first, and unfinished, sonata, by turns vibrant and tender, humorous and pathetic. A bright tone and a positive swagger marked out the quick first movement with ascending arpeggios that sparkled and a descending octave scale that shimmered. What dismal loneliness pervaded the Andante. In particular, the movements second section was a revelation: legato chords in the right hand against staccato octaves producing extreme pathos. Phrasing and dynamics were superbly atmospheric.
Aside from some aberrations in the Schumann, Volodoss technical command is so all-embracing that you are rarely aware of it: it is held in reserve, especially true in the three Schubert/Liszt song transcriptions. Whether he was playing a shimmering left-hand tremolo in Der Muller und der Bach with its exquisitely phrased and softly, practically whispered melody, or the stormy Aufenthalt pulsating with repeated notes and dextrous leaps, the music spoke first. Volodos reserved his most dramatic performance for Der Doppleganger evoking a monumental fortissimo out of the left-hand tremolo without suffering the ignominious rattle that lesser mortals experience and fail to control through having the sustaining pedal open for long periods.
Both Liszt and Volodos had the last word. Liszts A minor Hungarian Rhapsody was a grand-slam finale the mind-boggling number of notes in the final Presto assai played with consummate ease and artistry.
- The next Harrods recital is given by Joanna MacGregor on Saturday, 15 December, at 5pm in the Queen Elizabeth Hall Street Music
- Box Office: 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk
- Volodos returns to the RFH on 22 January to play Prokofievs Second Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Yevgeny Svetlanov (programme also includes Rachmaninovs Second Symphony)