Thursday, May 12, 2011

Young Artist with a Voice

It is sometimes wonderful to attend a musical event with no knowledge or expectation of the artist performing. Such was the case for me on Thursday, April 28th, 2011, when pianist Yevgeny Sudbin played a solo recital in Vancouver. One can then respond to the music making without any prior exposure to, or bias towards, the artist.

Mr. Sudbin opened his recital with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor, Hob XVI: 32. His playing of the opening movement, as well as the subsequent Menuet, is beautiful and spacious, with impeccable timing of Haydn’s many pregnant pauses. The final presto movement was obsessive and relentless, with just the right degree of pathos. The young pianist drew a gorgeous tone from the instrument, which blended in perfectly with the beautiful acoustics of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

The recital continued with four of Dimitri Shostakovich’s from the composer’s Op. 34 Preludes. In composing this set of preludes, Shostakovich followed the same key sequence as Chopin in his Op. 28 Preludes. Sudbin realized these four miniature masterpieces to perfection, highlighting for us the beauty, the black humour as well as the irony in this music.

Mr. Sudbin’s playing of Chopin’s Ballades Nos. 3 and 4 reminded me that even among some of the greatest pianists of any time, there are only a handful who can really play Chopin convincingly. To be sure, the young artist’s playing was extremely polished and musical, but he seemed to me to be wandering from one very beautiful episode to another very beautiful episode. Chopin, especially in the larger scale works, requires an artist who could give the music a structural integrity, where one musical idea serves as the seed for the next.

After the intermission, the pianist continued with Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 11 in D-flat Major, the “Harmonies du Soir”, followed without interruption by Maurice Ravel’s equally transcendental Gaspard de la nuit. Perhaps Mr. Sudbin wanted to show the evolution, or relationship, of the harmonic language from Liszt to Ravel. The pianist’s incredibly beautiful tone certainly served him well in the Harmonies du Soir.

Sudbin gave a simply ravishing account of Ondine, the first movement of Gaspard de la nuit. He played Ondine with a very French sound, with the largest imaginable palette of sound colour. The second movement, Le gibet, is probably the trickiest movement to interpret. I believe that this movement should be played with an absolutely strict tempo, and I felt that Mr. Sudbin perhaps tried to make the music move along just a touch too much. The pianist has an incredible facility, and this is apparent in Scarbo, the final movement. But this incredible facility at the instrument seemed to have taken something away from the frightening, hallucinatory aspects of this music. To my ears, his playing of Scarbo sounded too much like his playing in Ondine. I believe that his quest for a beautiful sound took something away from the edge, the frightening intensity that this music calls for.

After an enthusiastic ovation from the capacity audience, Mr. Sudbin gave us two encores, an ardent reading of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Major, and a stormy, exciting account of the same composer’s G Minor Prelude.

This is obviously a very talented young pianist, an artist who has something to say. Mr. Sudbin is booked to play with the Vancouver Symphony next season, in Mozart’s 24th Piano Concerto. If this performance is any indication of what this young man has to offer, Vancouver audience should have a treat in store for them next year.

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