Yevgeny Sudbin, piano, VSO/Ryan McAdams, Works by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Ravel, Orpheum, March 21, 2015.

Yevgeny Sudbin remains as one of most distinguished young pianists of the current generation. Although he moved from St. Petersburg to Berlin at age ten, and then to London at seventeen, graduating from the Royal Academy of Music, he remains a clear representative of a Russian tradition of particularly imaginative and technically-astute pianists that includes such legendary artists as Andrei Gavrilov, Grigory Sokolov and, of course, Sviatoslav Richter.  All of his dozen BIS recordings – from Scarlatti to Medtner -- have received the highest praise, as have his most recent Beethoven collaborations with fellow BIS compatriot, Osmo Vänskä.  Sudbin has previously made some splendid appearances in Vancouver and this time he returned to play the ever-popular Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 – not my first choice, but the concert was a sellout.  The VSO was directed by another in the stream of young conductors on display this year, American Ryan McAdams, a Julliard graduate in 2006, who has recently begun to make a name for himself.

I have always admired Sudbin’s pristine keyboard control.  He has steel in his fingers for sure and can explode out with Horowitz-like bravura when needed, but what lies behind this is his sheer keyboard quickness and subtle touch.  I can think of few pianists who can change dynamics and projection so fluently; for example, moving from a legato line to staccato and back again, all in a single phrase.  When at peak form, the pianist’s little twists, turns and accents can really be an interpretative gold mine, unearthing an endless array of subtle detail and sentiment.

Sudbin’s Tchaikovsky days are perhaps now slightly in the past (his recording was 2007), and while I could still see the outlines of a fine reading, the reality was that this performance was variable and less than fully committed.  The pianist’s opening movement exhibited a commanding style, and there were many of the glistening and illuminatingly-inflected long lines present as well.  But there was also an unsettled quality.  There were a number of technical glitches early on, and phrases seemed to be pushed forward all the time, leaving no room for repose.  While one could easily appreciate some of Sudbin’s unconventional turns of phrase as well as his moments of sheer pianistic finesse, much of the movement tended to be hurtled around in bravura style.  This did have the virtue of a seeming spontaneity but, frankly, I have rarely witnessed so much rubato.  The best one can say is that we were introduced to an unusually rhapsodic view of this movement, physically powerful and exciting at points, but emotionally somewhat diffuse. 

The Andantino brought more reflection and more composure: moments of genuine beauty and elegance flowed out of Sudbin’s little flicks of a phrase and subtly contoured lines.  I enjoyed this. Nonetheless, the finale again set out at a terrific pace, and though I often wondered how fingers could move that quickly, the pianist did seem overly-impatient and less than fully engaged.  For all the crowd-pleasing brilliance that came forth, my overall feeling was that Sudbin has perhaps played the Tchaikovsky one time too many.  The orchestral contribution was conscientious but ended up as mainly dutiful, young Ryan McAdams clearly having his hands full just keeping up with the pianist’s gyrations.  

As observed in the concerto and in Mussorgsky’s Introduction to Khovantchina that opened the concert, Ryan McAdams can get a nice full sound out of the orchestra but tends towards a fairly smooth, and relatively safe, interpretative profile.  At this point, I would not say that he fully responds to the sharpness or directness of Russian expression.  In the Mussorgsky, I thought the opening hushed string tremolo was neither intense nor soft enough, and the wonderful cantabile theme that follows was a bit too glossy and generic.  The absence of sharply-etched contours was even more of a liability in Stravinsky’s Symphony in the Movements, where an attempt to generate additional warmth and breadth simply slowed the work down and compromised its line.  All the execution needed to be tighter and more characterized -- in the pointed rhythms, and certainly in the winds and brass.  Nevertheless, the conductor was more at home in the sensual and radiant textures of Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espanole, and here he found considerable colour, a better sense of phrase, and more purposive strength overall.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015

The concert experience