Tuesday, 22 May 2012

WNO Tristan; Volodos at the RFH

Here's a link to my review of Welsh National Opera's largely excellent Tristan revival, which opened on Saturday (and if any, like the commenter on the piece, find it difficult to infer who was conducting, it was Lothar Koenigs). Ann Petersen has recently performed Isolde with Marek Janowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, the recording of which promises to be something quite special -- particularly since what I've heard of  Janowski's swift Parsifal so far is so promising (the review's forthcoming in OPERA). In the meantime, this little clip of Marietta's Lied gives an idea of how unusually lyrical an Isolde Petersen made.

Coming back to London, I was very much looking forward to Arcadi Volodos's Royal Festival Hall recital this evening. The programme -- Schubert's remarkable D.784 Sonata, Brahms's Op. 117 Intermezzi and Liszt's B-minor Sonata -- was intriguing, if a little diffuse in focus. And I'd been enormously impressed with Volodos's performance of the Liszt in Dresden just over a year ago. However, while the work on that occasion seemed to be driven forward by an inexorable force that seemed to impose on it some irresistible logic, here Volodos seemed interpretatively at sea. 

The technique, unsurprisingly, was dazzling and the apparent ease with which he negotiated the work's technical challenges was often breathtaking. However, such facility seemed to bring with it interpretative issues. I've made a similar point when referring to his Brahms second Piano Concerto earlier in the year, wondering whether or not technical hurdles necessitate certain interpretative choices when effort is required to negotiate them; here, certainly, there was a sense that the facility had left something of a void which Volodos struggled to fill . Bass octaves, therefore, thundered arbitrarily away, passage work was dispatched with special twinkly brilliance in a beguiling pianissimo, voicing was exquisitely measured; but none of it communicated any greater purpose to me. Perhaps most telling was the unnatural and unconvincing rubato that marred the sonata's more improvisatory passages. Dazzling? yes, in its way. Compelling? no. 

The Schubert and Brahms in the first half were more effective, but for all their considerable beauties -- and Volodos can coax sounds out of a Steinway that few can match for sheer melting beauty -- still rather blank interpretatively speaking. And here the programming didn't help, either, for these two works added up to rather a lot of dreamy romanticism, or at least did so in Volodos's interpretations.

Despite some pretty shabby behaviour from the audience -- an alarm going off half way through the Liszt, someone yelling a 'bravo' at the close before Volodos had relaxed and raised his hands from the keyboard -- the pianist provided a generous clutch of encores, finishing with the same strange, wonderful Schubert Minuet D. 600 he'd played after the Brahms concerto. It was preceded by the shameless showiness of his own transcription of Ernesto Lecuona's 'Malegueña', as below.

I remember when Volodos first arrived on the scene with his stunning disc of virtuoso transcriptions -- his version of the Mozart's Rondo 'alla turca' seemed to revive the much-maligned genre. Then, there was a certain doubt as to the depth of his musicianship beneath the spectacular surface. Now, with this recital some 15 years later, that spectacular surface once again obscured what might -- and, I believe, does -- lie below.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. So, what "purpose" were you expecting from the voicing, please? If you must criticise upon such a staggeringly vague and ill-defined premise, why don't you divulge to us what "purpose" ought have been served (assuming that you weren't just spouting the pretentiously vapid pseudo-intellectual bilge, that we come to expect from concert reviewers).

    The traditional "purpose" of voicing is to avoid sounding like a monotonously programmed (and thoroughly anti-musical) MIDI file. Perhaps you would have preferred that- seeing as you have all but declared yourself incapable of grasping what "purpose" might be served by acts of "exquisitely measured" voicing? The purpose happens to be called music, traditionally speaking. If you happened not to like the specific interpretative decisions, it does not therefore follow that there was no sense of purpose to them. Was the "exquisite measuring" was an exquisitely measured accident- seeing as you are so sure it not born out of having a purpose in mind? You see no evident paradox in your language?

    At least it's honest when someone just says "I didn't like it", rather than rattling off a few hundred words of vaguery.

  3. Andrew. Thanks for your comment. I've made a very minor revision to the sentence you refer to, not to revise my judgement but to make it clearer that it is 'my' judgement. As you say, I'm in no position to judge whether or not Volodos actually had a purpose in mind; I am sure a pianist of his immense skill definitely will have done. It was just not clear to me what the purpose of some of Volodos's interpretative decisions was supposed to be. I'm well aware of what the purpose of voicing is, but shouldn't it be part of a wider interpretative strategy, rather than simply serving to relieve monotony?

    I stand by my own reaction, however, and assert that it's important, still, to be able to express that reaction in terms that try to rationalise and explain it -- beyond 'I didn't like it' -- which, after all, is what criticism is all about.

  4. Hugo
    Thanks for your review. I was at the concert last night too and I agree with pretty much everything you say. In particular, I was a bit taken aback by what I thought was unconvincing rubato in parts of the Liszt.

  5. Forgot to say - do you know what the second encore was? It sounded Russian but I couldn't put my finger on what it was.

  6. So, alluding to the absence of a "greater purpose" is supposed to display something more rational than to say "I didn't like it"? Sounds rather more like the kind of expression I'd expect from a religious cult leader (shortly before he starts passing the guns out to his flock) than from an intellectual- especially when no attempt is made at objectification of what that purpose might be. Such language merely provides a self-congratulatory allusion to the belief of having special insights from which to be critical with authority. However, when the language fails to divulge anything even faintly resembling an accountable basis for criticism, it is merely a dressed-up version of "I didn't like it"- not a rational foundation for authoritative criticism.

    The purpose of employing "exquisite measuring" of voicing is to avoid throwing around randomly voiced chords (hence the baffling self-contradiction in your having spoken of his supposed absence of purpose in mind) and to make the piano sound interesting, as opposed to monontonously percussive. Is that not an adequate musical purpose to measure voicing exquisitely? Anyway, I'm glad that you now acknowledge that Volodos voices his chords with a purpose. But are you going to divulge this "greater purpose" that YOU hoped to be served- or were you just casually throwing language around without "greater purpose"?

  7. I think Andrew is getting his knickers in a twist about "voicing" here. The point surely is that whilst Volodos played beautifully and each chord and phrase was exquisitely measured, it did not seem to contribute to the structure. Each and every piece in the recital suffered from a lack of overarching structural vision.

    I must also agree with yours and Steve's comment - my companions both felt that the rubato was within the bounds of good taste - I did not and it marred the sonata for me.

    As for the young lady who's alarm wen off at the wrong moment - to coin a phrase, she should be taken out and shot... in front of her family.

  8. The thing about structure is that it's staggeringly subjective. The Brendels of the world might have you believe that it's all about keeping things tightly restricted, but is it? Liszt invented thematic TRANSFORMATION- not thematic monotony. Who decided that the only acceptable approach is to focus on keeping things samey- rather than to focus on highlighting the emotional differentiation of progressive variations on the initial material?

  9. I like to feel with music that the piece has an inevitable climax - even something like the Liszt which is a quiet note (followed by a bellowed "Bravo").

    However your point is entirely taken - so far everyone I know who has an opinion on the concert have split 50-50 on it (sample of 6).