Piano recitals in large venues like the Royal Festival Hall can be problematic. How do you capture such a large audience’s attention, and allow for the extremes and subtleties of dynamic and texture that this programme’s repertoire required? The answer? Well, Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos knew what to do to – this was a performance full of passion, individuality and extremes. These were not necessarily performances I would want to listen to regularly on disc, but then that’s not the point. This was live performance at its best – at times eccentric yet totally captivating and always uplifting.

Arcadi Volodos © Veronique Jourdain Artists Management
Arcadi Volodos
© Veronique Jourdain Artists Management

The opener was the supposedly incomplete Sonata in C major D279, partnered with the incomplete Allegretto in C D346, which research on the manuscript paper has in fact demonstrated to be the intended final movement for the Sonata. This is not vintage Schubert, but it presented a good opportunity for Volodos to set out his store, and demonstrate his approach of highlighting rhythmic interest, as well as pushing the extremes of dynamics. He headlined the song-like melody in the Mozartian slow movement, and enjoyed the slightly unsettling offbeats in the Minuet’s Trio section, before simply having fun with the Alla turca-esque rondo of the Allegretto. There was nothing too startling here, but it was a fresh start to the programme.

The real business began with the Brahms set of Six Piano Pieces, Op.118. Like its other three companion sets, these hail from the wonderful late bloom of Brahms’ output, and they are far more than simple miniatures. Here, Volodos’ emphasis on bringing out the singing melodies came into its own, particularly in the second Intermezzo, and in the beautifully lyrical Romance. However, occasionally this was at the expense of definition in the lower harmonies, which were at times a little muddied. Volodos also showed a tendency for extremes in tempi, slowing almost a halt in places in the second Intermezzo, yet taking the third Intermezzo at a rapid pace (definitely more than un poco agitato), unfortunately obscuring the definition of the complex cross-rhythms here. Yet he closed the set with a mystical, heartfelt and yet somehow disturbing interpretation of the final Intermezzo.

After the interval, it was an all-Schumann affair, beginning with Kinderszenen, once again a set that belies its superficial simplicity, and again, Volodos’ performance was certainly individual. From an unwritten emphasis of the offbeat in the left hand of “Hasche-Mann”, to the introduction of an accelerando instead of the written subito Schneller in “Fürchtenmachen”, there were some quirks here that will have upset the purists. Yet this was more than counterbalanced by his ability to produce an exquisite, soft tone and some almost dangerously quiet playing, notable at the end of “Träumerei”. As in Brahms’ third Intermezzo, his attack in “Ritter vom Steckenpferd” slightly obscured the actual rhythm, but his soft, almost blurred tone in “Kind im Einschlummern” would have melted the stoniest of hearts.

Of Schumann’s great Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, which ended Volodos’ programme, the composer himself said that the first movement was “the most passionate thing I have ever composed”, and described it as a lament, begun during the separation from his beloved Clara brought about by her father, Friedrich Wieck. However, another motivation for this work was as a fundraiser for a Beethoven monument in Bonn. Although this idea was not carried out, the inspiration of Beethoven is clear in Schumann’s use of a theme from An die ferne Geliebte, employing this, along with Schumann’s ubiquitous Clara motto, to evoke a passionate sense of longing for his beloved. After this emotional outpouring in the first movement, the Fantasie’s triumphal second movement again nods to Beethoven in the choice of key – E flat major, Beethoven’s heroic key. With another hint at Beethovian inspiration, Schumann ends the work with a slow movement, which contains some of his most heartfelt and profound utterings. Volodos was now in his element, and the passion and delicacy he brought to his performance here was spellbinding, the audience now totally captivated. The passion and intimacy of the first and last movements, contrasted with the ebullient virtuosity of the middle movement, played perfectly (literally) into Volodos’ hands. With the closing pianissimo chords, he held the audience in silence before allowing the well-deserved applause.

A standing ovation was rewarded with four encores. The filigree “Vogel als Prophet” from Schumann’s Waldszenen, Op.82, a Mompou miniature, followed by a barnstorming De Falla transcription, and finishing with some soft-toned, unashamedly open-hearted Bach.