Last Friday evening, Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos performed in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh as part of the Great Artists Series. Coming with great fanfare, hailed as a "genius of the piano," compared to Horowitz, Serkin and the like, perhaps expectations were too high. While there were some wonderfully sensitive playing, the performance as a whole was a mixed bag.
It must be said from the outset that Volodos has a spectacular technique which, unfortunately, is not always matched by his musicianship. To be sure, he does not rely merely on deft finger-work to carry the performance as do some great technicians; instead, he often exaggerates dynamics and stretches his tempos to the extreme to achieve his musical goal. What he lacks is subtlety.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana Op.16, a work full of subtlety and nuance. Volodos's elastic rubatos sometimes came to a near standstill, His fortes were crashing and his pianos barely audible even from the third row.
On the other hand, Johannes Brahms's piano transcription of the slow movement, Theme and Variations, from his Sextet, Op.18, a gift to Clara Schumann, fared quite well under Volodos's fingers. These variations never veer far from the original melody, thus limiting his tendency for musical over-emoting.
Volodos put in another fine performance of Franz Schubert's Piano Sonata in E, D.157. Written when he was 18, the Sonata is the composer's first surviving work in this form. Schubert left the Sonata unfinished, without a finale, but the surviving three movements do not have the musical depth and emotional content that keep the composer's other unfinished works-the Quartetsatz and the Symphony-standard concert fare. With so many wonderful Schubert sonatas, it is unfortunate that Volodos chose this one, an unsure, somewhat impersonal work, especially in the first movement. The third movement-which Schubert called a menuetto, but is a scherzo in all but name-was, however, Volodos's best performance of the evening, especially in the trio with its hushed, repeated chords. His obvious enjoyment of the music perhaps justified his inclusion of a minor work by a great master on the program.
Volodos's Romantic program ended with Franz Liszt. Liszt made many transcriptions of Schubert's Lieder, always staying close to the original score and using the piano to imitate the vocal sonorities. He considered the text of the songs such an essential component that he insisted it be printed above the music of his transcriptions. Of the three transcriptions on the program, the first two, Der Müller und der Bach and Aufenthalt, Volodos adhered closely to Liszt's dictum. Unfortunately he missed in the third, Der Doppelgänger, exaggerating the tempi and dynamics to the point where Schubert's Lied was nearly unrecognizable.
To end the program, Volodos pereformed Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.13 in a minor, according to the program, "edited by Arcadi Volodos." Without comparing Volodos's edition with the original score, it is difficult to determine the exact extent of the "edits," but they appeared substantial. The performance, however, was a piece of technical showmanship that out-Liszted Liszt.
After so much overheated romanticism, it was a pleasure to get a Bach encore, even if not Bach original: his highly ornamented transcription of the slow movement of Marcello's Oboe Concerto.
It is unfortunate that with such spectacular technical abilities, Volodos limited himself to a narrow Romantic repertoire. It would have been satisfying, as a contrast, to hear him perform music by some of the great 20th century piano masters like Bartók and Prokofiev.