BRAHMS: Pieces for Piano, Op. 76: Nos 1-4; 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117; Six Pieces, OP. 118 – Arkadi Volodos, piano – Sony 88875130192, 54:10 (5/19/17) ***:
In an all-Brahms program of limited duration but passionate intensity, Volodos will win admirers and possibly alienate purists.
This release of Brahms piano music (2015-2017) by Russian pianist Arkadi Volodos (b. 1972) will generate a degree of controversy that I am not likely to resolve. First, the brevity of the disc does not bode well, since I cannot fathom why producer Friedmann Engelbrecht did not insist Volodos complete the Op. 76 cycle, even perhaps adding the two Op. 79 Rhapsodies or the Op. 4 Scherzo. Doubtless, Volodos remains a colorist of distinction and sensitivity, and he has a natural sympathy for these abbreviated, intensely concentrated expressions of the late Brahms sensibility of stoic loneliness and passionate resignation.
The question whether Brahms “purists” will respond favorably to Volodos’ over-ripe Steinway and his application of pedal will linger as a matter of taste. My own first impulse was to compare Volodos to Romanian Radu Lupu, whom I find to be more delicately chaste. The Glenn Gould approach entirely derives from Schoenberg, looking backward at Brahms as a precursor to the kinds of atonal and polytonal experiments of the Second Viennese School, along with occasional explorations from late Liszt. My own upbringing came from Rubinstein, Gieseking, Backhaus, and Schwalb, each of whom balanced a romantic sensibility with a capacity for understatement.
Still, the fact of Volodos’ luscious tone speaks for itself, resonant top and bass voices, with a singing thumb line and interior color. The Op. 76 f-sharp minor Capriccio sails and sighs, followed by the b minor Capriccio whose appoggiaturas Rubinstein had instilled in my treasury for wan, Brahms humor and canny agogics. The Op. 76, No. 3 Intermezzo in A-flat introduces a water-motif, a pre-Debussy sense of autumnal sentiments. Even more agitation suffuses the
B-flat Major Intermezzo, with its subtle key changes and chromatic bass line. Volodos imparts to this intimate moment a sterling patina, which some listeners will embrace as definitive.
The Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 (1892-93), those “songs to my sorrows,” have maintained a special place in my own catalogue of Brahms since my earliest exposure to the first two from Artur Rubinstein and the third from Eugene Istomin. The Op. 117, No. 1 lullaby slows down considerably under Volodos’ care for its e-flat minor middle section and for the etched polyphony in the last pages. The b-flat minor literally defined “rainy-day, bachelor music” in Brahms. Volodos imposes on its late pages a feeling of tragic inexorability. The last of the set, the c-sharp minor, intimates at the bleak, post Kurt Weill European scene, often spiritually bleak. The sense of Poe’s “tolling bells” infiltrates the drooping figures, which themselves bathe in protracted Viennese twilight.
The sheer volume of the Op. 118, No. 1, Intermezzo in a minor, its opening surge, will win or lose admirers of this music. Over-done or a dramatic realization of a minor sonata-movement? Has Volodos slowed the A Major Intermezzo to a hesitant, mannered nocturne or released its most intimate possibilities? Given the superior piano sound – courtesy of Engineers Wolfgang Schiefermair and Tom Russbueldt – doesn’t Volodos’ g minor Ballade resonate even more forcefully than Walter Gieseking’s classic account? Volodos’ legato and rolled chords in the middle section may well equal what Wilhelm Kempff accomplished in this music. After the two complementary, alternately dramatic and lyric, works in f minor (Intermezzo) and F Major (Romanze), Volods turns to the ambitious Intermezzo in e-flat minor, Op. 118, No. 6, which Witold Malcuzynski liked to program as a separate piece. This tonally ambiguous work – it avoids solid cadences – derives its uneasy poise from diminished chords that often center around G-flat. Frankly, I rather admire the aura of mystery that Volodos imparts to this emotionally volatile work, which takes its initial, lugubrious motif and traces its progress through harmonies Debussy would admire. The martial element eventually erupts into a Chopin-like ballade whose “symphonic” grandeur becomes as passionate anything in this composer’s keyboard oeuvre – only to dissolve into its nostalgic, diffused version of itself.