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Alexei Volodin

26 March 2009 (Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium)

Alexei Volodin is a neat, compact man who approaches the piano with a striking diffidence, as if not to tax the audience's patience, and who scurries off afterward as if he were afraid of distracting attention from the music that he has just made. The making of music, however, he approaches unapologetically. Every note sounds strong enough to support a suspension bridge and capacious enough for the transmission of a very wide bandwidth. Like so many of today's most promising pianists, he plays with stunning clarity, but more than almost anyone else I can think of he can make a racket without reminding the listener that the piano is, technically, a percussion instrument.

At the Museum last Thursday night, Mr Volodin took time off from his tour with the London Symphony Orchestra to give a solo recital. His extremely well-chosen program consisted of four works that, for all the virtuosity required to play them, are more interesting than they are demanding. He began with Bach's Sixth Partita. Perhaps because it opened the program, the utility of Bach's writing, always rich in lessons for the performer, was rather more salient than it usually is. But grandeur was the prevailing note. There was no sense of beginning with an old classic; Mr Volodin's Bach is as contemporary as his Stravinsky. I might have wanted a slightly less sane Sarabande; this piece can be played as if to suggest that Bach had no idea what he was going to do from one bar to the next. But that is not Mr Volodin's way.

There followed Rachmaninoff's Variations on a Theme by Corelli. The theme in question is not by Corelli at all, but rather the subject of endless sets of variations by baroque composers, a tune known as "La Follia." Like the "Dies Irae" theme of the better-known Paganini Variations, La Follia is stark and elemental, presenting abundant tangents for Rachmaninoff's dense bravura. The variations are hugely knowing without being difficult to follow; they exhale an émigré mystique, redolent of dim salons and sharp memories. The pianist's gleaming execution reinforced my predisposition to capture Rachmaninoff's music in this vein, "New York Penthouse, Private Concert, Winter, 1938." (The Variations date from 1931.)

After the interval, we had the even more sophisticated collection of five pieces that Ravel gathered under the title, Miroirs. Two of these pieces are very well known in the orchestral guise in which Ravel later tricked them out, but Mr Volodin was just as intriguing in the other three, especially in "Oiseaux tristes" and "La vallée des cloches."

There was a moment in the final performance, Three Movements from Petrouchka, in which I saw before me Saul Steinberg's caricature of the virtuoso pianist, his fingers a forest of hooks driving at the keyboard, but the sound did not match this impression; the music never ran away with those fingers.

Encores are always a challenge for me, because I'm far more ignorant than I like to think. After preludes by Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, we were overtaken by hunger. Was that something from Gaspard de la Nuit that I heard on the stairs? (2 April 2009)

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