Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff, 7 May 2017
Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)
Scriabin: Vers la flamme Op. 72.
Tchaikovsky: Nocturne in F Op. 10 No.1; The Seasons: June, Barcarolle; November, Troika.
Liszt: Harmonies du soir
Scarlatti: Sonatas K197, K455, G Minor, K9, K27.
Medtner: Sonata Tragica Op. 39.
Highly-accomplished musicians arrive with such frequency these days that the use of superlatives to describe them is commonplace when not fatuous or ill-informed, forcing listeners to refine their estimates even further, often by intuitive listening: where some musicians might be at the top of their game, the better ones appear to be treading new interpretative territory. The Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin is among those whom one is tempted to cream off from the legions of the illustrious. His playing of Scarlatti, for example, is a case in point, though it’s not so much a speculative journey as the clinching of an argument.
Domenico Scarlatti was working at a time when the development of musical instruments, particularly the keyboard, was proceeding apace. The fortepiano, invented around the turn of the 18th century (Scarlatti was born in 1685), was thus familiar to him, though when played today his music is heard on either the modern piano with its expressive ranges muted or the harpsichord. The latter is used presumably to reinforce the idea of the Baroque – and its peerless quartet of Scarlatti, Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi – as ancient. One of music’s great imponderables is whether or not composers writing for instruments which were to evolve into something aurally advanced would have appreciated the outcomes and embraced them. Scarlatti on modern copies of fortepiano makes him sound different, depending on the performer; Sudbin, playing him on the concert grand, makes him sound very different, almost Romantic, and that’s because the pianist recognises in the music latent sonic qualities. The argument he wins, for this reviewer at least, is that they are actually there, not that the pianist is imposing them from without.
The five single-movement sonatas Sudbin selected for this recital displayed all the qualities and contrasts he needed to convert the doubters to what is an elevation of the music. Maybe he is doing only what a Russian schooled in Russian pianism (at St Petersburg) is used to. Scarlatti’s keyboard music is a staple of that instruction, but where others, having exercised, might return it to its historical place, Sudbin takes it with him everywhere. It was the centrepiece of his programme, and a revelation, not least in his use of the pedals and his elegantly constructed figurations. Of the five sonatas played here, only the lively K9 in D minor was on his recording last year of 18 sonatas by the composer. He was at his most pensive in K197, scarcely establishing the moderately slow tempo one associates with its andante marking. But the dissimilarities of tempo and pervading tone were not as striking as they tend to be on a harpsichord, another example of using the Steinway to blur those distinctions.
A set of miniatures by Tchaikovsky bridged the gap between the Baroque part of the programme and the Romantic cataracts that characterised the rest of it, Sudbin taking care to ensure their charm was not corrupted by over-exertion. Each was taken from a complete work, the Nocturne in F from the Deux Morceaux Op 10 and the more interesting (because picturesque) ‘Barcarolle’ and ‘Troika’ from The Seasons. They came as respite after the opening Vers la flamme by Scriabin, an odd cove whose mind and music were gradually moving to concepts that were really extra-musical. This work typifies his late obsessiveness, its initial motif thunderously pursued with the aid of a dense harmonic vocabulary. The balance Sudbin established between the doom-laden apprehensiveness and the tendency towards the risible was its salvation.
In ‘Harmonies du soir’, from Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, and the concentrated Sonata Tragica by Medtner, Sudbin called on that Russian style already mentioned, though in his case it is more intense and sophisticated than capacious and gestural. Typical of Liszt, the sublime melodies of the piece are viewed through a forest of octave flurries, rolling chords, and crossed hands – a Liszt performance is always visual; not that Sudbin ever draws attention to the difficulties of technique or his mastery of them. Medtner’s themes are similarly embedded in thick textures, though as signposts Sudbin regarded them as less important than what they contributed to the work’s emotional turmoil. He is not a charismatic performer – whatever that means – but his attention to structure, potency and musical direction is outstanding. Now a German citizen living in London and in his late thirties, he is coming into his own as a great performer.
Header photo of Yevgeny Sudbin © Clive Barda