Arcadi Volodos in Rome From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

Arcadi Volodos in Rome from the sublime to the ridiculous

Programme in Rome
From the sublime to the ridiculous
Arcadi Volodos at St Cecilia in Rome
A pityfully empty hall for one of the most sublime piano recitals I have ever heard.
Liszt played without a break and conceived as a whole with wondrous sounds that I never knew could exist.

A small but enthusiastic audience in the vast S.Cecilia Hall on Monday night for one of the world’s greatest pianists
The great pianists like Kempff,Arrau or Lupu spent a lifetime trying to find the secret of true legato without any percussive or disjointed phrasing and now we have a man who from the first note to the last can totally convince us that the piano can truly sing,murmur,whisper or roar.

Volodos playing to an unusually quiet audience mesmerised by the sheer beauty of his playing
From the opening Sonetto del Petrarca 123 where he seemed to barely touch the keys sometimes even approaching them with a loving caress from above.Like a sculptor looking and retouching a masterpiece with the eyes (in this case ears) of a true master craftsman.
Such was his mastery of the pedal allied to a touch of true gold that we were transported like magic to the relm of the leggendary Gilels .
That is not to say that in the passionate climaxes there was not an overwhelming sonority of sumptuous rich sound.
The barely suggested opening sounds of ‘La Lugubre Gondola’ a strange premonition of the death of Wagner in 1883 that was written in the last days of Liszt’s life in 1885.
The first version was inspired by a funeral procession on the Grand Canal in Venice in 1882 whilst Liszt was a guest of his son in law Wagner at Palazzo Vendramin.It was a piece that haunted Liszt in the last four years of his life and he elaborated on it in various forms.
The first version was printed the year of his death in 1886 and the second found in manuscript after his death.
They are known as ‘La Lugubre Gondola 1’ and ‘La Lugubre Gondola 2’. At last this strange work made perfect sense in this magician’s hands.
We could almost feel the ebb and flow of the water as the gondola with the coffin slid silently along the murky misty waters of the Canal Grande.A passionate climax too played with real depth of feeling and rare dedication was quite breathtaking.Such was his musicianship and sense of balance were at last able to appreciate this last masterpiece of Liszt that looks so much to the future atonal world that was on the distant horizon!
Inspired by such a performance it is interesting to note the evolution of this quite visionary late work :(Composed for solo piano, 1882, as Die Trauer-Gondel 1st version, S.199a/1)Published 2002 by Rugginenti as La lugubre gondolaRevised 1882–83, as La lugubre gondola 2nd version, S.200/1)Published 1886 by Fritsch (Leipzig) as La lugubre gondola I2nd version arranged for violin and piano, 1882–83 S.134bis)Published 1974 byEditio Musica Budapest (Budapest)1st version further revised 1885, as La lugubre gondola 3rd version, S.200/2)Published 1886 by Fritsch (Leipzig) as La lugubre gondola II3rd version arranged for cello and piano, 1885 S.134)Published 1974 by Editio Musica Budapest(Budapest))
This led without a break into ‘Saint Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds.’
We could almost see the birds fluttering around the piano such was his total immersion in this magic world of Liszt.
Saint Francis’s sermon was played with such subtle shading and inflection we could almost imagine the words that were being spoken with such loving eloquence.
Volodos made the music speak in a way that drew the audience in to him with his unique totally dedicated sound world.

Volodos thanking his adoring public
This in turn led to the tumultuous swirling of the waves in the opening of the Ballade in B minor S. 171.
It was written in 1853 and is a programmatic one movement tone poem designed to provide both the variety and unity of a sonata or symphony.
He drew his program from Gottfried August Bùrger’s ‘Lenore,’a once widely read Gothic horror ballade Punctuated with the grisly refrain “The dead ride quickly! Are you afraid,” the poem tells of Lenore’s wild hundred-mile midnight ride with the zombie of her recently slain soldier-fiancé, toward a cemetery where their nuptials are solemnized amid a riotous gathering of skeletons and spectres. The ballade is based largely on two themes: a broad opening melody underpinned by menacing rumbles and a luminous ensuing chordal meditation.

Volodos contemplating his magic keyboard
The contrast was quite astonishing in Volodos’s hands.His great sense of balance allowed the melodic line to shine out over the deep rumbling base.The luminosity and change of colour of the chordal meditation was quite astonishing.
The march-like triplet-rhythms unleashed a flood of virtuosity of such sumptuous sound that was truly breathtaking.Never empty virtuosity but always swirling sounds that created a superlative vision of the story that he was telling.
Eventually, Liszt transforms the opening melody into a major-key cantabile of sublime beauty.In the middle register of the piano it was a moment to cherish indeed and led to ever more grandiose exultations with a volume of sound that was never hard but astonishingly full and of quite aristocratic grandeur.
Just as one might like to think of the virtuoso Liszt taking the salons by storm seducing his aristocratic audience with the variety and beauty of sounds that he could conjure from the piano.
A true orchestra that could whisper as it could seduce or roar like a lion.
It is no coincidence that Liszt was known as the ‘Lion of the Keyboard.’
The luminosity of the final contemplative close created one of those magic moments in the concert hall when hundreds of people are united in a comunal sharing of a great and moving experience.
As Gilels himself said the difference between live and recorded performances is the same difference between fresh and canned food!It is the very reason that people still flock to the concert halls.
After the interval which I spent jotting down my thoughts on the extraordinary experience that we had enjoyed, we were taken into the world of Schumann.
Here too were the same magic sounds and incredible luminosity of the world of Liszt.
Already in the March ,the eleventh of the fourteen pieces under the title of Bunte Blatter (Coloured Leaves)op 99,there were such magical almost music box sounds where Volodos’s hands seemed to be dusting the keys such was his extreme sensibility of touch.
(It was in this respect somewhat reminicent of Rosalyn Tureck who would insist on the lid of the keyboard being closed right up until the last minute so no particles of dust could interfere with her extreme sensibility to touch).
This was followed by the Abendmusik op.99.n.12 which in turn led without a break to the sublime opening of the Humoreske op 20.
A series of ‘phantasieren’ like Kreisleriana op 16. A series of episodes from deeply felt song like sequences contrasting with humourous quixotic episodes of great rhythmic energy.
These episodes create a form that has an overall shape that binds them together in a quite magical way.
Volodos of course was an absolute master of making each episode speak in a quite unique way.Even the more virtuosistic were given a sheen and shape where individual notes were always incorporated into the whole overall form.
It was after the six encores that Volodos so generously offered to a public totally drawn into this magic world that I realised I was not any more so enthusiastic.
Great admiration and astonishment at his complete control of sound and superb sense of architectural shape goes without saying.
The first encore ‘Traumerei ‘from ‘Kinderscenen’ of Schumann op 15 began to give me clue to why I was now not so enthusiastic as after the first part of the programme.
It was followed by the ‘Prophet Bird” from Waldscenen op 82 again by Schumann.
The 3rd of Schubert’s Moment Musicaux was played in such a delicate and delicious way only Curzon has come anywhere near this pianistically musical perfection.
In turn by great demand they were followed by Mompou:Paisajes 11;El Lago;Schubert Minuet in C sharp minor D.600 with Trio in E major D.610 and Schumann.
All in Eusebius mode though!
I remember hearing Volodos some years ago for the first time in this very hall and being astonished by the refined old world virtuosity of his encores that really took one’s breath away and was so similar to the historic recordings of pianists like Godowsky,Rosenthal,Lhevine or Rachmaninoff of the so called Golden Era of Piano playing .On that occasion the phrase that had greeted Horowitz on his arrival in Paris sprang to mind:”The greatest pianist alive or dead!”As Rubinstein’s nose was put out of joint he was reassured by his Parisian audience that Horowitz may be astonishing but there was only one Rubinstein who was unique!I even queued up outside the artists entrance with Connie Channon Douglass to meet this fantastic unknown artist.
Even in Schumann there are the contrasts between Eusebius and Floristan.
The two sides to Schumann’s complex character.
A public recital too must have a certain element of showmanship.
Both Horowitz and Rubinstein have shown us that in their very different ways.
Tonight we heard undoubtedly the Berlin Philharmonic with the Philadelphia orchestras …the greatest band imaginable ……..but it needs a Karajan,Ormandy or Kleiber at its helm to provide contrast and variety.
Tonight we were treated to sounds that I have never imagined possible on the piano but without the contrast of uglyness it can become after two hours or more,dare I say it , boring!!!!
I would much rather be bored and submerged with beauty than being blown out of my seat by young russian virtuosi from the Gnessin wonder school as we were the other day in this very hall.
But I remember a Volodos and a Radu Lupu who were not totally absorbed just with their introverted private confessions but were ready to shout and show us their teeth as well.
Horowitz could bewitch us as Volodos but there was always a brittle edge to contrast with the sublime romantic colours of which he too was unique master .
It is a few years now that Volodos dedicates his recitals quite rightly to the great works of the piano repertoire of Beethoven,Schumann,Brahms,Liszt and even Scriabin but should it be to the complete exclusion of those minor ‘lollypops’ of which he is the unique heir today?

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