A dark thread ran through Yevgeny Sudbin’s recital at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, from the sombre B minor sonata by Haydn to Scriabin’s infamous “Black Mass” Sonata and Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre. Occasional glimpses of light and serenity were thankfully evident in the slow movements of Beethoven’s Opus 126 Bagatelles.

Yevgeny Sudbin © Clive Barda
Yevgeny Sudbin
© Clive Barda

The Haydn Sonata was dispatched by Sudbin with a cool terseness and not even the intimacy of the second movement Minuet could truly save this work from a darkly emphatic vehemence, most evident in the final movement, delivered with a restless and hectoring tone, and just a dash of wit at its close.

Beethoven’s late Bagatelles are like the final three piano sonatas in miniature for they inhabit the same “other world” as their longer counterparts. Lyrical, hymn-like melodies are interspersed with abrupt prestos and one has the sense of Beethoven drawing on the ideas and motifs of the final sonatas and condensing them into this “museum of trifles” (Lewis Lockwood). Far from “a cycle of trifles”, the composer’s own label for the works, they are miniature miracles. Sudbin demonstrated an appreciation of their artistry in the slow movements, in particular the third (Andante) where his delicacy of touch and softly-hued dynamic range really came to the fore. But the faster movements were rushed and the music lacked spaciouness.

Scriabin fared far better in the second half where Sudbin seemed more at home in the repertoire. If the Fifth Sonata was somewhat aloof with less attention paid to its sensuous, quirky harmonies and unsettling rhythms, the “Black Mass” was a study in pacing and emotional extremes. As if to further emphasise the work’s demonic impact, it was prefaced by a brief Mazurka which segued straight into the sonata. There were moments when Sudbin literally flung himself at the music, rising from the piano stool and falling back into the keyboard as if possessed. His command of the emotional sweep of the work, its haunting repeated motifs and frenzied intensity was entirely convincing. To then launch straight into his own transcription of Horowitz’s arrangement of the Danse macabre created the sense that Saint-Saens’ piece was in fact the second movement of the Scriabin sonata while also highlighting the connections, musical and emotional, between the two works.

The Saint-Saens' arrangement was delivered with a thunderous galloping virtuosity, perhaps a little too fast to enjoy all the details, but nonetheless it made for an impressive finale to an interesting concert.

Two encores followed. The first a melancholy étude by Scriabin, the second Chopin’s Ballade no. 3 in A flat major, transformed from intimate salon piece to a something rather more flamboyant and outspoken.

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