Russian pianist offers winning game plan

Arcadi Volodos brings clarity, assuredness to his performance

Music Review

January 28, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

While the rest of the planet feverishly followed the Super Bowl, a sizable crowd sat riveted to the performance of another kind of champion, whose touchdowns involved fingers alighting on piano keys in varying degrees of force and whose technical assurance thoroughly dominated the field. The action unfolded Sunday night at Shriver Hall, where Arcadi Volodos was the most valuable player.

The Russian pianist, barely into his 30s, first served notice of uncommon virtuosity back in the early 1990s. He continues to produce extraordinary sparks at the keyboard, the kind that easily suggest Vladimir Horowitz. Like that past master, Volodos favors spontaneity and risk-taking; his playing never comes across as calculated. The combination of brain and bravura in his pianism guarantees an unusually rewarding experience.

On the first half of this recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series, two Russian composers dominated - Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. The former's music, largely untethered by conventional harmony and structural concepts, requires unusual clarity and sensitivity from a performer, attributes Volodos provided in abundance. The logic beneath the notes in the brief, aptly named Enigme (Enigma) and the alternately thorny and transcendental White Mass Sonata emerged in telling detail.

Throughout a substantial sampling of Rachmaninoff's solo piano works, Volodos never met a challenge he couldn't conquer effortlessly. He was especially impressive in the rich sonorities of the more outgoing items, such as the Oriental Sketch and Humoresque, generating waves of vividly colored sound.

Sometimes, as in the hauntingly poetic B minor Prelude, Op. 32, No. 10, the pianist seemed to hold something back. There was beauty, to be sure, in the playing, but not as much heart as I had hoped; I was impressed, not moved.

That was my reaction later in the evening when he turned to Liszt's Petrarch Sonnet No. 123 and outlined the melody line with a rather hard edge initially. The music didn't quite sing.

Volodos did magical things with his airy articulation in Schubert's A-flat Major Sonata, D. 557. The Mozartean elegance of the opening movement would have been more keenly felt taken at a slower speed - but enough of the reservations. When it came to Liszt's pyrotechnic transcription of Saint-Saens' Danse macabre, there wasn't a thing missing. This was spectacularly clean, atmospheric playing that reaffirmed Liszt's ability to condense an entire orchestra down to 88 keys of a single piano - and this pianist's ability to make the most of it.

Volodos likes to do his own transcriptions, too, and they're terrific. Here, he offered a witty, deliciously splashy arrangement of Rachmaninoff's Polka italienne (originally a piano duet) that might have even brought a smile to the notoriously poker-faced composer himself.

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