Arcadi Volodos is a neat, compact man. It’s not that he’s small: it’s that his posture is of complete economy and all non-essential movement is suppressed. That economy of means results in extraordinary precision in the way he plays the piano. His legato is the texture of the finest silk. When he plays broken chords, the notes are spaced out to uncanny evenness. In a Schubertian left hand rumble, every one of those low notes is clearly distinguishable, but without any consequent loss of flow of the whole. And a Volodos pianissimo is an extraordinary thing, weighted so delicately that even in the large space of the Barbican Hall, the individual notes float across the room as if carried on a breath of wind blown by some backstage sprite.

Arcadi Volodos © Marco Borggreve | Sony Classical
Arcadi Volodos
© Marco Borggreve | Sony Classical

Truly, I am awestruck by the man’s precision, control and technical excellence. But in last night’s concert, I was less convinced about the purpose to which it was put. In one of many changes to the programme originally advertised, Volodos chose Schubert’s Piano Sonata in E major, D.157: the first sonata that Schubert wrote. It’s an interesting piece, full of exploration of the pianistic textures which would become familiar to us in the composer’s later works, but it comes nowhere near plumbing the emotional depths that those works reach. It did, however, provide plenty of occasion for us to admire the pianist’s skill: beautiful weighting of a cantabile, perfect control of the thickness of texture, crystal clarity of each right hand note.

The last movement of the D.157 is either lost or was never written: in the place where it might have been, Volodos chose the Six moments musicaux, D.780, composed by a far more mature man. These show more variety of rhythm and weight, with the occasional dance rhythm or heavily weighted phrase, but by and large, the mood settled into a sort of benevolent torpor, with side orders of nostalgia and melancholy. This was piano playing to soothe a troubled soul, not to excite it.

With a second half programme of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, one might have expected things to heat up after all that gentility. But anyone with those expectations will have been disappointed: Volodos’ Rachmaninov is as elegant and poised as his Schubert. The distinction, immediately apparent in the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.3 no. 2 which opened the second half, is in the way Rachmaninov fills the harmonic space. In Volodos’ hands, this wasn’t a wall of sound: rather, you could wonder at the clarity with which the harmonies came across to the ear. It was the pianist’s dynamic control and precision timing that provided this transparency, most remarkable in the rippling arpeggios of the Prelude in B minor, Op.32 no. 10.

Where Rachmaninov fills the harmonic space, Scriabin bends it out of any recognisable shape before doing the same. In the series of six short pieces played by Volodos, the harmonies never failed to take the ear in unexpected directions, from impish scampering to some harder discords and even the occasional blue note (written well before the glory days of jazz). Volodos allowed his sound to become thicker in these works and the tension to rise, but only in the closing Vers la flamme was there real fire.

A generous set of encores left the audience delighted by the pianism on display: the judges would have awarded 6.0 for technical merit. As to artistic impression: personally, I prefer my Romantic music with rather less control and rather more expressive intensity.

***11