Arcadi Volodos is a big man, and when he sits down to the piano, he produces a big sound. The extraordinary richness of timbre was obvious from the first notes of his opening piece, the A minor Intermezzo which begins Brahms’ set of 6 Klavierstücke, Op.118, and was maintained throughout the hour’s recital.

Arcadi Volodos © Miguel Bueno
Arcadi Volodos
© Miguel Bueno
Brahms’ pieces are thickly scored in any case, eschewing simple melody lines or bass pedal notes in favour of a series of blocked chords in one hand set against rippling figures in the other that contain the melody. Under Volodos’ fingers, with an emphasis on the round tones of the low register, the piano produced a thick, voluptuous sound but one with underlying force and urgency – an iron fist in a velvet glove.

The second Intermezzo, in A major, is a gentler piece. Volodos lifted his eyes high above the keyboard, with a faraway gaze. His phrasing was delicately weighted, although the underlying depth of sound remained. Volodos can certainly play softly also, the few single pianissimo notes executed with feathery lightness of touch. The opening of the ensuing Romance is rumbustious and was played with panache.

Volodos is adept at imparting fire and passion to Brahms’ music and gives romantic shape and colour to the individual phrases. I was less convinced in the more cantabile sections, and less convinced of his ability to give shape to each piece as a whole and to the entire cycle: I often found myself admiring the playing without really understanding where the piece was going. But the closing Intermezzo, in E flat minor, both started and ended beautifully: opening with a gentle series of high single notes leading into a rippling bass, and ending in an evanescent single broken chord.

The long opening movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat major, D.960 is notable for its contrasts. Much of the movement is a pleasant, flowing theme which might indicate its composer having not a care in the world, but this is interrupted by passages that are quite violent: behind the external Gemütlichkeit, darkness lurks. Much in the vein of the preceding Brahms, Volodos was at his best when playing the fiery sections, which he is able to infuse with the extremes of passion. He played a lovely cantabile section at the beginning with more delicacy than we had yet seen in the programme, although with less contrast than one might have expected: the passionate temperament was never far below the surface, with the growling low note ripples that succeed the cantabile played with real menace.

A highlight of the Schubert performance was the mournful opening to the second movement Andante, followed by a lovely rendering of the soft and slow passage that succeeds it, proving that Volodos is able to maintain a light touch when desired: although the richness and thickness of tone returned soon after as Schubert broadens the music. The movement’s close was remarkable, with a series of single gentle bell-like notes above lower register figures spelling continuing unease: with the week’s harp concerts in mind, I could imagine those notes being played as harmonics on the harp.

The Scherzo gave us the first moments of unalloyed good cheer for the evening – played rather more vivace than con delicatezza and providing genuine light relief. The light hearted mood appears to continue in the beginning of the final Allegro ma non troppo, but Sturm and Drang soon returns, allowing Volodos to thrill us once more with the intensity of his playing.

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