It is always exciting to meet one’s heroes in person. As a boy, I had been blown away by the legendary technique of Alexei Volodin, the Russian giant of the keyboard. The pianist who could rattle off Godowsky’s notorious arrangements of Chopin’s Études as Volodin has done on CD (doing the seemingly impossible) was always going to fascinate me. It was in great anticipation, therefore, that I attended last night’s concert, where Volodin was playing one of the most challenging piano concerti in the repertoire, BrahmsPiano Concerto no.2 in B flat major with the NSO under the baton of James Feddeck.

Alexei Volodin © Marco Borggreve
Alexei Volodin
© Marco Borggreve
While it was his astounding technique that had captivated my boyish imagination, two different aspects really impressed me in Volodin’s playing last night: his tonal colouring and his original conception of this most demanding work. Sitting almost fully back on a chair instead of a piano stool, Volodin produced a wonderfully sonorous sound from the piano in his opening dialogue with the horns. Throughout the concerto, he consistently showed his huge range and versatility of Brahmsian tonal colours: from the powerful chordal attack of the impassioned cadenza in the first movement to the ethereal stillness in the pianissimo section of the same movement; from the mercurial octaves of the light-hearted final movement to the intense singing tone of the Andante third movement. It might have something to do with the relative youth of both conductor and pianist, but all the movements were on the fast side of the tempo indications. Given its titanic length, this meant that the sweep and trajectory of the music was always clearly in mind and though I would have preferred the cello solo at the beginning and the end of the third movement to have lingered more languidly over its exquisite melody, this meant that there was terrific sense of urgency and passion in the seething muscular chords of the second movement.

In the stormier sections of the first movement too, the F minor staccato section, Volodin had us on the edge of our seats with this formidable tempo. The orchestra responded in like manner to Feddeck’s passionate conducting with energetic counterpoint in the strings and a sense of urgency in the orchestra’s pleading dialogue with the piano. The sense of irony in the fourth movement Allegretto grazioso was well highlighted by both Volodin and Feddeck: the latter producing exaggerated crescendos from the orchestra in the mock Hungarian dance while the former with an unusual but effective staccato accompaniment. The technical challenges of this concerto abound, but the rapid scale in thirds in the last movement or the flashes of contrary motion arpeggios in the first, were, unsurprisingly, child’s play for Volodin.

The choice of Hindemith’s Symphony: Mathis der Maler and Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier Suite in the second half illustrated two completely different styles of works from 20th century Germany, the former written before the Second World War while the latter pre WW1. Given that the Brahms performance was the climax of the concert, it would have been fitting to have started the concert with Hindemith and Strauss to avoid a distinct anti-climatic feeling to the second half.

In Hindemith’s Symphony, each movement depicts one of the central images of Grünewald’s triptych Isenheim Altarpiece. The opening movement, “Concert of Angels”, the heavenly choir are serenading the Virgin and Child with soaring violins while the powerful outbursts on the brass represent the divine majesty. The celestial nature was marred by intonation problems in the upper registers of the violin section and at times among the woodwind. Overall, neither Feddeck nor the NSO engaged with the intensity of this movement. The muted violins that started the second movement “The Entombment” was more successful in capturing the sombre, doleful atmosphere which pervades this music and this was continued in the desolate flute melody. It was in the visceral “Temptations of St Anthony” that the orchestra got to grips with this music. Here the stabbing strings, the sharp crescendos, the shocking ff outbursts from the brass propelled the music forward to its disturbing climax, the temptations never ceding but building in intensity till relief is found in the hallowed plainchant Lauda Sion Salvatorem admidst triumphant brass.

Feddeck seemed much more at home conducting Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier Suite, swivelling on his toes with excitement, as he drew out an intense yearning among the string section and using a daringly dramatic rubato in the waltz section. Credit goes to the leader of the orchestra, Elaine Clark for a heartfelt violin solo. As in Brahms, Feddeck proved himself rather adept at bringing out the farcical element in the final waltz and the NSO responded in like manner bringing the concert to a rousing finish.