Alexei Volodin at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Piano Sonata in E flat, Op.31/3
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique)
Tchaikovsky, arr. Mikhail Pletnev
Concert Suite from The Nutcracker
Three Movements from Petrushka

Alexei Volodin (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 13 June, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Alexei Volodin. ©Photo@ndreaThis was the Alexei Volodin’s debut recital in the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series, and I can’t wait to hear him again. Although his programme included two extravagant displays of Russian-style tyro virtuosity, Volodin’s exceptional playing goes easy on flamboyance. There are elements of it, of course – how could there not be in ‘Shrovetide Fair’ from Petrushka? – but it’s very much at the service of the music, and there were aspects of the way Volodin addressed piano and music that evoked shades of Sviatoslav Richter’s focus and connection.

Volodin’s programme was a canny balancing act between gratification kept on hold in the Beethoven, and then delivered big-time in the Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. Even by Beethoven’s standards, the Opus 31/3 Sonata is one of his most wily creations, teasing our expectations with sophisticated humour. Volodin kept Beethoven’s garrulous Q&A narrative of the first movement on a gentle boil with infectious ease, staying airborne with impeccably voiced textures and peppered with tiny, piquant exaggerations that kept the ear gagging for more of Volodin’s seductive, catchy directness. The scherzo was just as impressive, with the left-hand semiquavers rippling away with insouciant athleticism, and the same secure ease infused the genial finale. It wasn’t just Volodin’s tactful attention to the music’s detail and pleasure in its form that were such a delight; he also illuminated the work’s rich originality with his lightly-worn musicianship.

There was the same deceptive directness yielding a complex range of response in the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata – an element of effortful push in the Introduction that leaked into the tight, nervy Allegro, its histrionic potential kept in check by discreetly graded climaxes and a deftly handled turn back into the exposition repeat that said it all about the elegance of his playing. In almost the only really slow music in the recital, Volodin revealed a Zen-like stillness in the Adagio, a sense of being romantically marooned. The opening of the finale confirmed the precision with which Volodin realigned his approach to the needs of the music. This was distinguished Beethoven playing, given with disarming candour and, as required, a subtle wit.

Mikhail Pletnev’s Nutcracker arrangements celebrate and enlarge Tchaikovsky’s music in a similar way, but reversing the process, to Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. There is a Lisztian glamour to Pletnev’s piano-writing that Volodin released with some incredible bravura, but performed with no less inspired economy of means. In the ‘Intermezzo’, the big tune flashed through the middle of seething textures, sparks flew in the ‘Trépak’, and the ‘Chinese Dance’ achieved a gnomic expressionism Mussorgsky would have been proud of. In the ‘Pas de deux’, Volodin seized Tchaikovsky’s transfiguration of a descending scale, made into a keyboard apotheosis by Pletnev, with playing of incandescent virtuosity and earth-trembling passion.

Another keenly attuned readjustment of attack suited the hard light and percussive heft of the three Petrushka pieces, in which Volodin caught everything Stravinsky could throw at him, the ballet’s cast of puppets brought into magical life with spectacular, powerfully characterised precision, the music performed with volcanic, muscular energy. There was a generous imagination at work here, displayed further in four encores – Rachmaninov’s Prelude Opus 32/12, Chopin’s Waltz Opus 64/2, Kapustin’s Concert Etude and Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor. The Waltz was a particular pleasure: the more distracted the music, so Volodin’s brilliant deconstruction became clearer.

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