Ksenija Sidorova, accordion; Modern Compositions and Transcriptions for the Accordion: Playhouse, September 18, 2016. 

 Photo: SL Chai

Photo: SL Chai

It was an unusual idea for the Vancouver Recital Society to start its season with an accordion recital, but this wasn’t just any accordion recital. It featured London-trained, Latvian-born Ksenija Sidorova, who currently stands as the world’s ambassador for the instrument, and who has used all her charm, musical intelligence, and virtuoso technique to place the instrument into our hearts. And so she did here!

This recital really gave the feeling of a journey to a remote place, with all the musings of unfamiliar Slavic composers at hand and a rustic fire burning underneath it all. Impressively, Sidorova never let one forget the folk roots of the instrument, always finding the implicit passion and feeling therein and a natural bucolic élan in the rhythms. Yet she combines this with so much formal musical understanding and sheer technical wizardry that the results are absolutely captivating. When the accordion is supposed to sound like an organ, it sounds exactly like an organ, so aware is she of organ registration and articulation. When its sound suggests woodwinds, it sounds exactly like woodwinds, perfectly projected in tone and style. Her right hand control is fully equal to her left, and she makes very imaginative use of the instrument’s ‘stops’. Put all this together with her most fleet and feathery keyboard work and razor-sharp dynamic control, and one feels that one is witnessing a ‘phenomenon’ of sorts.

During her five days here, the young accordionist also took her talent and charm to various outreach concerts, one of which involved playing salsa numbers at a jazz bar. Her concert narration included many stories. One of the most interesting concerned an accordion recital in a Russian village that did not have a piano to accompany. Apparently, the great cellist Rostropovich happened to be around and was summoned to deputize. However, not long after the beginning of the concert, a large burly man from the village walked up to the stage and told the cellist to stop playing: the accordion was enough! Rostropovich later advocated the instrument as one that must be heard to fully appreciate the art of dynamics and texture.

The most familiar piece on this programme was one of Sidorova’s staples, Mozart’s playful Variations on ‘Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman’ (Twinkle, twinkle, little star).  From the puckish delivery of the opening theme, this was a festival of wit, delight and cohesive flow.  Sidorova unearthed and savoured many textures, and some of the legato ‘wind’ passages took me directly to the composer’s Serenade K. 361 -- something I would have never thought of!  The fugal passages were brought off with great enthusiasm.

After a colourful and rhythmically-varied Rachmaninoff Barcarolle, with some staggeringly-quick passage work, the next most familiar composer might be Alfred Schnittke. (It is not often we say that!)  His incidental music for the ballet Esquisse (1985) is nonetheless quite obscure, consisting mainly of satirical portraits of marching bureaucrats, topped off by a rollicking Polka. Being a master of rhythmic lift and nuance, Sidorova deliciously captured the irony and hollowness in these little marches. She marshalled splendid attack at points, and contrasted this with a piquant lightness elsewhere.  Very full of character, yet everything turned out so rounded and pleasant: an interesting alternative to a ‘string’ version would have much more bite and vastly less charm. 

 Photo: Gavin Evans

Photo: Gavin Evans

The modern Russian compositions for accordion might have been slight in content, but they left their mark.  Piotr Londonov’s brief competition piece Scherzo-Toccatta that opened the concert was a particularly fine study in motion and contrast. Semionov Viatcheslav’s Red Geulder-Rose gave scope for strong passion and melancholy and one can understand why its sentimental love theme became very popular in Russia. Sidorova’s traversals fully mined the variety in these pieces and what stood out, here and elsewhere, is just how well she can control and sustain different degrees of softness, and just how quickly she can execute contrasts in volume, texture, and rhythm.  

The above virtues were also put to work in Anatoly Kusyakov’s set of seven naturalistic ‘postcards’, based on the types of Northern scenes that intrigued composers like Sibelius earlier on.  The imagery takes the instrument from the quietest pianissimo to the most passionate expression, including passages that are slightly haunting and macabre. Even with some modernist touches, there is a uniquely Russian feel to these miniatures and Sidorova’s penetration of their evocative qualities and her sophistication in tonal shading were everywhere notable.  She finished with a fetching encore: Ernesto Lecuona's ‘Malagueña’.

At the end of the concert, I remarked to a patron that Ksenija Sidorova has all the rustic spirit of a villager combined with the craft and insight of a brilliant conductor -- and that pretty well sums up how she commands her ‘orchestra’. She has recently performed a thoroughly seductive and entrancing version of Carmen and recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon. Nonetheless, it does seem that we need more really substantial and enterprising original compositions for her instrument. Commissions please: how about a piece for accordion and ancient Chinese ‘sheng’? Wonderfully cross-cultural and enticingly rustic – and it would be a real battle!


© Geoffrey Newman 2016