A CELEBRATION OF THE PIANO

Yevgeny Sudbin, piano; Works by Haydn, Chopin, Liszt and Ravel, Chan Centre, April 28, 2011

  Photo Credit:  Mark Harrison

Photo Credit: Mark Harrison

Already praised by the British press as potentially one of the greatest pianists of this century, any concert by 31 year old Yevgeny Sudbin has to be an eagerly anticipated event.  This is now the third time that the pianist has appeared for the Vancouver Recital Society.

When a pianist has so much tonal control and command and such aristocratic poise and elegance, comparisons with the great masters of the past is inevitable.  Certainly there are moments where the magnetism and fire of Horowitz can be re-lived (as some commentators have noted) but in general it is more subtle characteristics that make this pianist so special.  Among these is Sudbin’s extraordinary flexibility of phrase.  He can move from an initially smooth, liquid phrase, break this with an exquisitely-turned trill, follow with strongly-pointed staccato expression, then move back to legato again -- all within a few seconds.  This allows him to respond very precisely and indeed individualistically to momentary changes even within a phrase, and to offer us a truly personal musical ‘journey’.  One always finds flicks of phrase and angular punctuations that reveal the music anew.

In two of the shorter pieces, Liszt’s Harmonies du Soir and Chopin’s Ballade No. 4, and in the Rachmaninoff Prelude, played as an encore, one found an almost perfect fusion of intimate expression with structural illumination; riveting and powerful in concentration and detail, and so beautifully-judged.   The sparks set off at the beginning of the Rachmaninoff certainly did take us back to the uninhibited greatness of Horowitz and others.

Of the longer works, I have minor qualifications.  From the beautifully-arched and varied right hand articulation that Sudbin brought to the opening movement of Haydn’s B-minor Sonata to his strongly executed contrasts in its presto finale, there could be no doubt as to the stature and individuality of this playing.  But possibly too sophisticated and intellectual at points; for all the interesting detail, I sometimes wanted a simpler and more direct expression.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is of course the tour de force that all young pianists aim to conquer.  Technically, Sudbin’s performance was chiseled splendour; so cleanly and confidently articulated with an unerring line of development.  The technical hurdles of the last movement were taken with consummate ease.  But I think this was a beautifully efficient performance rather than a particularly idiomatic one.  Perhaps I am old fashioned in suggesting that this work must be played with a French accent, but I have always felt that there was a unique delicacy, languor, and sensuality very close to the core of this work.  For all Sudbin’s control at its soft beginning, the first movement, Ondine, seemed to be set too much in the light of day; there is a delicate shimmer with sultry half-tones that other pianist have found.   Le gibet was wonderfully sculpted but, in a way, was too objective and moved on too quickly; its slow tread was not sustained with full sentient weight and atmosphere.

But, enough said: Yevgeny Sudbin is a truly special pianist and we can only eagerly await his next visit.  In the meantime, we can savour all his stunningly-acclaimed CD’s on the BIS label: Haydn (SACD-1788), Beethoven (-1758), Scriabin (-1568) and the Tchaikovsky/ Medtner Concertos (-1728 and -1588).

© Geoffrey Newman 2011