It is rare to be at a concert where one is utterly captivated from the first note until the very last has faded to silence, but such was the effect of Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin on a packed Wigmore Hall at his lunchtime recital of works by Scarlatti, Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin and Saint-Saëns.

Yevgeny Sudbin © Clive Barda
Yevgeny Sudbin
© Clive Barda

Sudbin combines flawless technique with a diverse range of pianistic colours and shading, exquisite delicacy of touch, where required, and tasteful, thoughtful use of the pedal. He is a modest presence on stage, both physically and metaphorically. Despite the extreme virtuosity of some of the repertoire, at no time did Sudbin’s own ego or personality obscure the music. This was intense and thoughtful piano playing of the first order.

From the opening notes of the first Scarlatti Sonata in G minor, Sudbin’s subtlety of touch was obvious. The notes sang, a plaintive falling melody, elegantly expressed and gracefully decorated, with echoes further down the register. At times, it was as if Sudbin was barely caressing the keys, and that the keys themselves were made of some fragile material. Not so in the second sonata, a sparkling stream of consciousness, its Spanish flavours (strummed chords and earthy dissonances) delivered with clarity, wit and drama. The final of the triptych was another lesson in studied elegance combined with fleet passagework, the final notes sounding almost as an afterthought.

Chopin admired Scarlatti’s sonatas so much that he made his pupils study them. The title “Ballade” suggests a story, though in Chopin’s hands the account is entirely musical. Sudbin allowed the narrative thread of the main theme’s lilting rhythm, redolent of the chimes of a carriage clock, to run through the entire piece, while creating the sense of improvisation as the music swelled to its rapturous climaxes. A particularly fine touch was his highlighting of some of the bass melodies, often overlooked or underplayed by other pianists.

Another narrative altogether runs through Liszt’s dramatic Funérailles. Influenced by Chopin, and subtitled “October 1849”, the work comes from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, and was conceived as an elegy to the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 by the Habsburgs. Full of muffled funeral bells, striking fanfares and clanging harmonies, the work is monumental. The lyrical middle section offered scope to enjoy more of Sudbin’s superb cantabile playing, while the overall effect was dark and thrilling, the work’s power and pathos palpable throughout.

Scriabin’s Sonata no. 5 begins with another rousing thunderclap deep in the lower registers, but while the Liszt is serious and gloomy, this work is sensuous, and declamatory. Sudbin scampered through it, artfully bringing together all the seemingly disparate elements and abrupt contrasts, from toccata-like scurryings to passages of swooning lyricism. The final flourish was delivered with a cool wit and humour.

The perennially popular Danse Macabre is transformed into a work of full-blown virtuosic absurdity in a transcription by Liszt, further augmented with extra handfuls of notes – as if any more were needed! – by the great Russian pianist Horowitz. Sudbin made light of the vertiginous perils of the work, proving yet again that thunderous double octaves hold no fear for him.

A calming salve after the extravagance of the Saint-Saëns, the first encore was Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G, Op. 32 no. 5, played with a singing serenity. The second, recalling the dizzy heights of Liszt and Saint-Saëns, was Godowsky’s transcription of Chopin’s Minute Waltz, a crazy fantasy, and a thrilling conclusion to a lunchtime feast of music.

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