Monday, 24 November 2014

Review: Volodos Plays Liszt - 2006 (SONY)

Stupendous virtuosity at service of the music: a rarity among pianists

There are, basically, three major reasons for every piano lover and Lisztian to acquire this disc as soon as possible. In order of their importance, these are:

1. Arcadi Volodos himself.
2. The program itself.
3. The sound quality.

Arcadi Volodos is indeed a rarity: a pianist who can toss off the most demanding pieces without the slightest shortness of breath, but who is by no means devoid of musicianship and musical intelligence. It is true that his very unusual interpretations may occasionally sound wilful and whimsical, but I will take that rather than some kind of misguided caution. It is also true that his passion and virtuosity does sometimes lead him astray: inebriated by his amazingly agile fingers he forgets the music for a moment. Only twice does it happen on this CD, for a few seconds towards the end of Vallee d'Obermann and the 13th Hungarian rhapsody. Despite all that, Arcadi Volodos is one of the very few contemporary pianists I can listen to – more than once – with pleasure and profit.

In addition to a very imaginative and passionate musical personality, Arcadi also has one of the most devastating left hands I have ever heard on record. Indeed, at one place in Vallee d'Obermann he obviously emulates Horowitz and his legendary live recording from Carnegie Hall (1968). There is nothing wrong with that if one does it as well as Volodos; it is a tribute to his integrity that he copies – here and virtually everywhere else – only the sound of Horowitz, but not in the least his interpretation. (Given the choice, I’ll go with Volodya anytime, but would be sorry to part with Arcadi.) There are those people – very foolish ones – who love sneering at virtuosity. But they do have a point! More often than not, the great virtuosos have twenty fingers but only half brain and no heart at all. Not so Arcadi. In addition to his thirty fingers (and hands of steel, apparently) he does have both a heart and a brain, though neither is probably very big – which, indeed, is all for the better.

One caveat, however. Occasionally – most notably in the Vallée – Arcadi sounds so overwhelmingly different than anybody else that I wonder if he doesn’t silently modify the text a little. Since I am no musician, I cannot tell this with certainty. But I should like to send Arcadi a piece of friendly warning. Surely Liszt would have been the first man to approve creative changes in his compositions made by a perceptive performer – he did that himself numerous times – but one must make such changes with great caution. It is only too easy to slip into changes for changes’ sake, or even worse: for virtuosity’s sake. So far Arcadi is devoid of such meretricious nonsense. I hope this will remain so.

The program on the CD is wonderfully chosen and it runs for nearly 80 minutes – which is simply beautiful as I am always exasperated by discs with only 40-50 minutes of music on them. With the obvious exception of the Hungarian rhapsody, all other pieces here are Liszt’s original compositions; no operatic paraphrases, no transcriptions of music by other composers. As a matter of fact, the Rhapsody is so Lisztian in its treatment of the thematic material, whatever its origin, that it may well pass for Liszt’s original composition too, if slightly marred by Volodos’ flashy ending (editing?).

What’s more, the program illustrates one the most endearing qualities of Liszt: his simply unbelievable versatility and how it changed through the years of his long life (nearly 75 years). Most of the pieces – Vallée d'Obermann, Il penseroso, Sposalizio, Funérailles, the Prelude after Bach’s theme and the 13th rhapsody – were composed by the middle-aged Liszt during his so called Weimar years (1848-1861), though some of them were sketched or even had early versions composed quite a bit earlier. All these pieces are perhaps a bit too much on the gloomy and introverted side, but they do also illustrate Liszt’s more extrovert (the Rhapsody), lyrical (Vallée) or serene (Sposalizio) side.

Surveying the program further, one can literally see how Liszt’s style changed out of all recognition. La prédication aux oiseaux (Legende No. 1) was composed during the 1860s and a certain additional restraint is already apparent, perhaps augmented by the religious nature of the piece and Liszt’s taking the four minor orders and becoming an “Abbe” at the time. All of the rest – En Reve, La lugubre gondola No. 2 and Bagatelle sans tonalité – are from Liszt’s last years when his music became extremely experimental, looking forward to many innovations that were long thought, wrongly, to belong to the next century. As John Ogdon himself has argued, such transformation in the late years of a composer is without precedent in the musical history – Beethoven included.

Though at first glance such a program may look like a tough one to listen through, actually the pieces hang together marvellously. It is funny how quickly these almost 80 minutes pass once you press the PLAY button and the haunting theme of Vallée fills the room. It’s only fair to Volodos to add that he plays all pieces as differently as they were composed, imposing no false common denominators. Above all – except the two minor occasions mentioned above – he never tries to impress with virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. This highly commendable attitude is not often associated with pianists (or conductors, for that matter) who play Liszt; to say nothing of the appalling consequences which it sometimes leads to, namely dead slow tempi and total absence of virtuosity in the vain hope that it might make up for the lack of artistry. I wish, however, Volodos would consider complete recordings of the first two books of Annees de Pelerinage; there are altogether three pieces in the present collection but, finely chosen as the program is, they do fit better in their original cycles.

Last and least, but still important, is the sound. For my part, I have seldom heard piano sonority recorded so vividly, with such depth and simply staggering dynamic range. The above-mentioned left-hand thunder – this is no metaphor! – in Vallée d'Obermann is something that has to be heard to be believed. So is Volodos’ tremendous dynamic range in the First Legende – just note what he does right after the bird song is over. I have never ever heard such astonishingly powerful rendition of that passage before; Ciccolini, Howard, Demidenko or Kempff, even taken together, are no match. Yes, Volodos’ left hand is truly devastating! So is his right one, and it is simply great that both are fantastically recorded. I would never agree that a CD may possibly give you anything even remotely like a live concert. But this particular CD certainly does come close.

All in all, an outstanding disc in every aspect: artistic or technical, compositional or performing. Piano buffs and Lisztians alike should not miss it. In so personal a matter, there is always a danger to be disappointed, no matter how many positive reviews there are, but I venture to suggest that the chances for disappointment here are smaller than usual. I only hope Volodos will record more Liszt in the future, with the same recording engineer, but also with the same – and so rare – combination of breathtaking virtuosity and melting poetry.

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