Yevgeny Sudbin’s recital was an intriguing example of the building of a mixed programme, bookended by elusive Russian late Romantics, and with Tchaikovsky salon pieces, Scarlatti sonatas and a supreme Liszt masterpiece in between. On paper it looked slightly random, but it worked. We began with Scriabin’s Vers la flamme, in which the “flame” is that “ocean of fire” which purges the universe and then renews our existence. Sudbin wrote his own programme note which began: “Oh, how easy it is to become possessed by Scriabin… Once one is bitten and the venom, in the form of his sound world, enters the body and soul, the effects become all-encompassing, even life-threatening!” Certainly Vers la flamme is the work of a man possessed, and drives inexorably onwards in a continuous ascending line, to which Sudbin brought a purgatory fire of his own with the sequence of tremolos flickering with a burning intensity. As that programme note suggests, his identification with the composer is remarkable.

Yevgeny Sudbin © Peter Rigaud
Yevgeny Sudbin
© Peter Rigaud

After that opening blaze, there followed a spell in calmer waters. Tchaikovsky makes relatively few appearances in piano recital programmes, except perhaps those given by Russian pianists. But his great asset, sheer charm, was heard in each piece of this group. Especially beguiling was the early Nocturne in F major, written in Nice, at a time when Tchaikovsky also wrote: “Old age has come, when nothing pleases me any more” (the composer was thirty-one). That melancholy informs the melody of his nocturne, and Sudbin’s phrasing respected its simplicity and directness. With the Barcarolle from The Seasons we were on more familiar ground, but Sudbin made it sound fresh and not all hackneyed. His response to these short numbers was on just the right scale, expressive but with no more rubato than they can bear.

Of Liszt’s formidable set of twelve Transcendental Studies, one of the highlights is no.11, Harmonies du Soir, which is quite often played on its own. Those sumptuous “evening harmonies” and bell sounds are harbingers of Debussy, and the piece is partly a study in pedalling. There was plenty of impressionistic subtlety in Sudbin’s account, which also set the rafters ringing in the louder passages, the harsh clangour of the Steinway’s upper range an intrusion upon the essentially crepuscular mood. In fact, that treble hardness above forte was slighlty troubling at other moments too – Liszt often needs poise as well as power. But overall this truly transcendental playing made a stirring curtain to the first half, and it was rapturously received.

To open the second half Sudbin dipped into the baroque treasure chest of Domenico Scarlatti’s five hundred and fifty-five sonatas and pulled out five sparkling gems, alternating the lyrical and the lively ones to delightful effect. In this music he (rightly) made no apology in his playing for using a concert grand piano but used the colours at his disposal. His reputation as a Scarlatti player, based mainly on his recordings, was here more than justified in live performance.

Nikolai Medtner’s position in the repertory is still that of an artist valued more by cognoscenti than concertgoers. Calling two major collections Forgotten Melodies tempted fate perhaps, for he has been called “Rachmaninov without the memorable melodies”. Though, according to Sudbin’s notes, Medtner is called that only “by certain Music-Neanderthals”. For in the right hands Medtner’s major pieces will always make an impact. His Piano Sonata no. 11 in C minor "Sonata Tragica", is one such work. Its single movement has a theme in common with the Canzona Matinata, which precedes it in the Forgotten Melodies collection and which Medtner wanted always to be played ahead of the sonata. Sudbin has recorded them together in that sequence. Here, though, the Sonata Tragica stood alone, perhaps because it was shrewdly chosen as the final item to balance the recital’s opening Scriabin work, since like Vers la flamme – itself intended initially to be a “Sonata no. 11” – it is a single movement with a trajectory of rising tension, ending in a devastating coda. This made for an incendiary climax that had the Wigmore Hall audience cheering loudly. Or did they fear being labelled Neanderthals if they gave Medtner a lukewarm reception? There was small chance of that, with such a committed and compelling performance from a brilliant musician.

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