Now that Arcadi Volodos is restricting his appearances to some 50 concerts a season, London can count itself fortunate to have heard the great Russian pianist in recital three times in as many years. His latest programme at the Barbican Hall focused on two composers especially close to his heart.

Arcadi Volodos © Véronique Jourdain Artists Management
Arcadi Volodos
© Véronique Jourdain Artists Management
To start with BrahmsTheme and Variations in D minor is a considerable challenge to any audience. Clara Schumann had asked the composer to transcribe the slow movement of his String Sextet no. 1 in B flat major and this arrangement then became a birthday offering to her. Initially, this is Brahms at his fiercest but also least accessible, with relatively dense textures. Red meat in abundance, so to speak. By the time we reached the fourth of the six variations, however, with its floating melodies in the right hand and rippling harmonies in the left, there was a bewitching lightness of touch from Volodos, like a gentle breeze caressing the cheeks. Such mercurial shifts in mood with softly tapering dynamics were to become compelling features of this recital as a whole.

There is something of a disconnect between expectations and reality in the titles of the Eight Piano Pieces Op.76, four of which are capriccios (the other four being intermezzos) and only one of which is in a major key. The opening Capriccio in F sharp minor had rolling octaves delivered in imperious fashion, with just a few concessions to the name in the bursts of energy from the right hand. Not much playfulness here and nothing like the giocoso of the scherzo in the Fourth Symphony, but this is high table Brahms which even a master pianist cannot tweak towards the hint of a smile. There were hardly any shortcomings here from Volodos, who found an impressive range of colour in the varying moods of the remaining pieces. I particularly liked the almost Russian-like inflection in the B minor Capriccio which reminded me of Balakirev’s Toccata in C sharp minor, with bear-like growls in the right hand and the left hand dancing spiritedly through the open landscape. Volodos was alive to the agitated murmurings and unsettling quality of the B flat major Intermezzo, stoked up the emotional temperature in thrilling cascades of notes in the C sharp minor Capriccio and, in the concluding C major Capriccio, moved from a moment of inner stasis to a sudden eruption with fistfuls of hammered notes hurtling towards a dramatic end.

In the last few weeks of his incredibly short life, Schubert wrote some of his greatest masterpieces, including the String Quintet in C major and his final three piano sonatas, which to some extent inhabit the world of the wanderer in Winterreise. Volodos played the Piano Sonata in B flat major with absolute technical control and without any sense of mawkishness or sweetened sentiment, dissecting Schubert’s textures with clinical precision. In doing so he revealed in a quite mesmerising way why this work comes so very close to expressing the human condition in all its fragility, existential doubt and ineffable sadness. Those ominous trills in the bass line signalled at the very beginning the way in which the left hand would remain firmly in control throughout, dictating the pace at which the musical argument would move forward, reining in the left hand’s attempted flights of fancy into ethereal regions and alerting the listener through stabbing rhythms to the vicissitudes on the road ahead. Schubert is the master of transitions: where the sky is apparently occluded, quite suddenly shafts of sunlight will break through and heighten the senses, only for semi-darkness to return. Volodos captured these quicksilver shifts in mood, tone and atmosphere most winningly.

The slow movement began like a voice from the hereafter, with breathtakingly hushed half-tones. As listeners we were privy to an inner dialogue, in which all the cadences of speech gave expression to the quest for greater certainty. Here it is that Schubert gives us the strongest intimations of our own mortality. With magically rapt playing and dynamics stretched almost to the point of inaudibility, Volodos took his listeners to the edge of the abyss and gazed with them into that great void that lies beyond our comprehension. The Scherzo had a gossamer lightness to it, but always with a touch of menace in the left hand, as darkness crept up on the tripping rhythms in the right hand. It was the stabbing left hand again, like ice-splinters to the heart, which set up the strongest of contrasts in the finale before the presto climax ended in a whirlwind of sound.

The four encores that followed could not have been better choreographed: a Schubert minuet provided a perfect transition between the sonata and pieces by Mompou, Lecuona (Malageña delivered with scorching prestidigitation) and Brahms.