Arcady Volodos beguiles Warsaw with Schubert and Schumann - Sunday April 7th 2024

Arcady Volodos (photo Marcin Borggreve)

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Piano Sonata in A minor D 845 

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

From the opening seconds of touching the keys the divine legato, velvet distinction and perfection of tone and touch was instantly clear from Volodos hand. Like all the greatest pianists, his unique voice wings effortlessly above what is inappropriately called 'technique' plunging us deep into the beating heart of the music.

Listening to Volodos in Schubert, I was put in mind of a letter the composer wrote to his parents in 1825 (the year of the composition of this Première grande Sonate) concerning his own playing:

' upper Austria ... I played [the variations from my new two hand sonata. Op.42] myself, and apparently not without an angel over my shoulder, because a few people assured me that under my hands the keys became like voices. If this is true I am really pleased, because I cannot stand this damnable thumping that even quite advanced pianists indulge in. It [leases neither the ear or the spirit.'

So much for the oft examined, proposed and neglected 'masculine' side of Schubert. Albert Stadler (a fellow admiring student of Schubert's at the Imperial Seminary) confirmed that Schubert had 'a beautiful touch, a quiet hand - nice clear playing, full of soul and expression. He belonged to the old school of good pianists, where the fingers did not attack the poor keys like birds of prey.' Remarks that should be more closely observed by pianists in the present day.

At the time of this composition in 1825, Schubert had regained, or at least appeared to have regained his health. His friends noticed he was still rather shy and not particularly socially outgoing. From his charming apartment in the Rossau district of Vienna he looked across green fields. Later he travelled a great deal on musical tours, an essential aspect of this geographical and spiritual wanderer.

Schubert in this sonata presented us with a unique composition which to my mind is not at all in 'competition' or emulation with Beethoven. The imaginative fantasy, the 'freedom and originality' of the sonata 'can probably only be compared with the greatest and freest of Beethoven sonatas.'  There is certainly common ground with Beethoven in the sonata but for me Schubert is pursuing an utterly unique spiritual path.

Volodos presented the profound, mysterious, haunting opening pianissimo motif as a type of existential question. The expressive implications of this motif calls to mind the words of the song Totengräbers Heimwehe - 'Abandoned by all, common only to death. I wait at the brink, staring longingly into the grave.' 

However, there is a resurgence of life after this lugubrious reflection followed repeatedly by this subtle reminder of the darkness that lies ahead. Volodos seemed to me to understand the pernicious, hovering, musical depth of the opening movement perfectly. The sonata is one of Schubert's significant works associated with death.

With Volodos, a master of colour, the variations within the second movement Andante poco moto were lyrically executed, reminding me of the unaffected charm and poetry of Hummel. The Scherzo was full of exuberant energy. Again the Trio Un poco più lento in contrast gave rise to reflections of a hungry reality waiting in the wings. The final Rondo was once again full of Hummelian delight and civilization. The Hungarian folk elements were abundantly clear. Volodos did full justice to the expressive aspects of the sonata

Schubert did not regard the piano as a virtuoso display instrument but rather a vehicle of gratifying intimacy. I found the Volodos's interpretative reading of the sonata, accompanied by his superb command of colours, ravishing timbre, tone and touch completely convincing in a deeper vision of Schubert so rarely encountered.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Davidsbündlertänze op. 6

Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck (1819-1896)

After the interval he performed that remarkable masterpiece the Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David), Op. 6 (1837). This set of 18 pieces is one of the great works of Western Romantic piano literature. The Davidsbündler (League of David) was a music society founded by Schumann in his literary musings. The League itself was inspired by real or imagined literary societies such as those created by E.T.A Hoffmann. The major theme was based on a mazurka by Clara Wieck and was inspired by his love of her and hope for their union ('many wedding thoughts') which permeates all his works of this period. Her presence is rather subliminal throughout the whole cycle.

Literature and music had a symbiotic relationship for Schumann and was a source of the unique qualities of his genius. He was famous at this time as a perceptive music critic, even beyond his reputation and knowledge of him as a composer. He considered music criticism and extra-musical criticism to be an art form. In this work it is clear Schumann was gaining in musical self-confidence as a composer with his increasing attraction to the public. The masks of Carnaval are stripped away and the poet's face here revealed.

The pieces are not really dances but musical 'dialogues' concerning contemporary music that take place between Florestan (rasch - quick or hasty) and Eusebius (innig - intimate). Schumann created these characters to represent the active and passive aspects of his personality. The enigmatic description of No.9 reads 'Here Florestan stopped, and his lips trembled sorrowfully.' I cannot analyze here each of the eighteen movements of the work, although I would dearly love to do this. 

Save to say, Volodos gave us a muscular, energetic, electrical portrait of Florestan. However, I felt the other side of the human coin, the cantabile that depicts the gentle lyricism of Eusibius was not tender and poetic enough to romantically move my heart. The feeling of creative spontaneity I have felt with this pianist in other live performances and his sublime recent recordings of the Brahms Intermezzi, was notably absent on this occasion. I yearned for more of the poetic, mercurial, impetuous, whimsical and lyrical aspects of Schumann's nature. He did not always preserve the unity of this cycle that allowed us to experience ‘music as landscape’ (Charles Rosen).

Ferenc Liszt (1811-1886)

XIII Hungarian Rhapsody in A minor S. 244 (arranged by Arcadi Volodos) 

Liszt in his Weimar study

Virtuosity on the piano is today, as opposed to that of the early to late nineteenth century, is rarely regarded with the same reverence and awe as it used to be. It is common now among the massively talented young. Considered as a remarkable end in itself, true virtuosity on the mechanical piano is a physical achievement somewhere beyond, or at least in symbiosis with, the realms of interpretation and philosophical speculation. In the past, 'virtuosity' as properly defined is an extraordinary digital expression, appreciated by spectacular display, a physical 'miracle' to be applauded.  

This particular Rhapsody by Liszt is not so often performed as originally written but the dazzling technique and bravura of Volodos's 'creative admiration' of his own arrangement was certainly in the musical spirit of nineteenth-century composers of salon music. In this opulent and theatrical work he made me think fondly of Vladimir Horowitz. No other pianist I know today can have such an intensely electrical and galvanizing effect in such works as Volodos. At times I breathlessly felt him exceeding the limits of physical performance! Magnificent 'technical' and Lisztian musical command... 


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