The fact that Schubert’s four D.899 piano pieces are called “Impromptus” can seem incongruous: after all, they are formally structured pieces which are carefully scored with great subtlety, and performing them has little to do with spur-of-the-moment improvisation. Still, they are less architectural constructions than many, seeming more to start with a theme and then take it for a walk to see where it goes, always being careful, after various highways and byways, to come back to the beginning.
In the case of Russian pianist Alexei Volodin, playing at this concert in the picturesque church of Rougemont, just across the cantonal border from German-speaking Gstaad, the highways and byways included demonstrating some formidable piano technique. The most impressive was his control of legato in no. 2 (in E flat), whose A section is a continuous flow of triplets up and down the piano: Volodin played them so fast and so smoothly that the individual notes were subsumed into a single rising and falling wave. Conversely, in no. 1 (in C minor), the main theme goes through a sequence of different variations, many of which include the theme played slowly in the right hand, while both left and right hands play accompanying lines or chords. Here, Volodin was at pains to make every note audible, giving the clearest possible sense of Schubert’s complex structure.
Volodin’s rendering of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata was no less virtuosic, with immaculate balance between different registers, perfectly smooth timing and crisp transitions in the first movement as Beethoven switches from Grave to “suddenly attacking” (as the score says) the Allegro di molto e con brio and back. It’s a piece I know very well, having heard it countless times, and I can honestly say that not a single note was anything other than perfectly in place.
Yet for all its technical excellence, this first half of the concert was slightly unsatisfying, because the emotion of the pieces didn’t come through as I might have hoped. I didn’t feel enough of the unquenchable joy of life that the Schubert Impromptus can express (remarkably so, in view of the composer’s dire situation at the time they were written), and I missed the violence of the mood swings in the first movement of the Pathétique. The cantabile section of the second movement may have been weighted to perfection, but somehow, I didn’t feel the song.
But all that changed when Volodin played his third piece, Michael Pletnev’s arrangement of a suite from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The technical requirements were undoubtedly just as stringent, but thoughts of technique were swept away as I was transported to a land where magical creatures and exotic guests dance for a prince and princess. Pletnev’s arrangement is remarkable for encapsulating the vividness of Tchaikovsky’s story-telling, making the orchestration seem unnecessary, and Volodin imbued the whole thing with immense charm.
The change in the audience’s response was palpable, and this seemed to spur Volodin to greater heights as he gave us a generous set of encores. First up was Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G sharp minor, in which we had all the fireworks that had been missing earlier in the evening - apparently, it’s the work that originally made Volodin’s name in the US. Next we had Chopin’s Waltz no. 7 in C sharp minor, which again brought to the fore Volodin’s ability to smooth out a ripple of individual notes into a single wave. Finally, we heard Chopin’s Polonaise no. 6 “Héroique”, in which pure joy and patriotism combine, which enraptured the audience.
It feels strange to review a concert whose encores outclass the main programme – but that’s the way it went. I came to the concert expecting great things of the Schubert and the Beethoven, yet it was the Tchaikovsky that really grabbed my attention, and the encores were quite superb. I’m glad that Volodin was so generous in giving us such substantial pieces as extras.