Concert Review: Yevgeny Sudbin – 16 Jan 2020, Victoria Concert Hall

SCARLATTI – Four Keyboard Sonatas
TCHAIKOVSKY ARR. SUDBIN – Overture, Romeo and Juliet
TCHAIKOVSKY – Two Nocturnes
SCRIABIN – Nocturne for the Left Hand in D-flat major Op. 9 No. 2
RAVEL – Gaspard de la Nuit

Review by Victor Gan

Piano Recital by Yevgeny Sudbin

Yevgeny Sudbin’s marvelous Scriabin recordings, perhaps among my favourites since Sofronitsky’s, primed me to attend this Jan 16 recital. He is no stranger to Singapore, having performed here since 2006 and recorded Rachmaninov with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on BIS.

Here, he bookended his native composers Tchaikovsky and Scriabin with Scarlatti and Ravel. I found myself wondering if the repertoire was planned around themes of constraint: the central pieces were his transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet, compressing lush orchestral textures into 88 keys, and Scriabin’s Nocturne for the left hand, leaving his Sudbin’s audience-facing right hand prominently idle.

Listening to his Tchaikovsky transcription evoked a palimpsest of aural, dramatic, visual and kinetic associations, from Disney and movie uses of the famous lover’s theme, to martial stage choreography, to the startlingly effective bass ostinato timpani rolls at the end. Sudbin’s phenomenal technique made light of the timbral demands of recreating an orchestra, aided by the sympathetic projection of the Steinway by the renovated Victoria Concert Hall.

The piano imitating an orchestra, itself imitating a stage play: such layering is further complicated by its re-use in cinematic scores, cartoons, and incidental music for dance. I could almost synaesthetically see the swordplay on stage, and the balcony swooning, and the deathbed stillness. Subdin’s musicality particularly excelled at the transitions between dramatic episodes, avoiding abrupt juxtapositions that call attention to technique, but smoothly and inevitably bringing the audience from one emotion to another. As a fellow pianophile commented, not perhaps something that rewards repeated listening, but certainly wonderfully arresting in live performance.

The Scriabin, by contrast, seemed a little lacklustre, perhaps with his ease in overcoming the fiendish technical feats required. The Nocturne itself hardly has the scope of the sonatas he recorded on BIS to portray all the reverie, madness and delicacy you might want. The Scarlatti sonatas reiterated in my mind the theme of constraint, being bounded by their Baroque style, and making me always wonder how they would have sounded on more historically appropriate keyboards instruments. Sudbin, in the usual Russian manner, did not stint on the Steinway’s expressive capabilities. However, his musicianship elegantly explored the agogics of the notes inégales, midway between overwhelming with pianistic personality, as with Sokolov, Pogorelich or Horowitz, and the more self-effacing lyricism of Robert Casadesus or Marcelle Meyer in their recorded selections from the 555 sonatas.

Similarly with the Ravel: as much as I like the aforementioned French pianists in Gaspard de la nuit, I enjoy listening to approaches that etch Ravel’s interpretation of Aloysius Bertrand’s prose-poems a little more vividly, whether Anton Batagov’s modernist take, or Gieseking’s pre-war Columbia Gaspard, hauntingly pellucid through the poor recording. I remained arrested in Sudbin’s vision throughout, no mean feat for such familiar music, noticing again his performative conviction in communicating the logic of the musical development, rather than depending on colouristic interest.

Somehow, he managed to manifest a whole different pianistic palette from his Tchaikovsky transcription, equally broad but in a distinct affective register ranging from the shimmering opening of Ondine to the jagged chromaticisms of Scarbo. In conversation after the concert, Sudbin mentioned the Ravel was more a feature of his student repertoire, perhaps suggesting that the pyrotechnics of Scarbo were more suitable for a young firebrand. I found balance of contrasts between Ondine, Le Gibet and Scarbo perfectly poised, bringing to mind elements from earlier in the recital, from the gentle Tchakovsky Nocturnes, to the showmanship of the Scriabin, and the lushness of Romeo and Juliet.

Unfortunately, the hall was criminally underfilled, and despite enthusiastic applause, he played a single encore — Scarlatti Sonata in F Minor K466, which Subdin said stood out to him out of the fewer slow sonatas, mentioning Horowitz’s recording as well. Even if it does suffer from being overplayed, the meditatively elegiac sonata was a satisfying end to a carefully thought out programme. Altenburg Arts, started by Lionel Choi and in its first full season of operation, is to be commended for producing this recital, having presented Argerich in Shanghai last year, and putting on Kun Woo Paik in Schumann next month — repertoire new to his recordings and much anticipated. The reprise of pianists from his period of heading the Singapore International Piano Festival is more than welcome by this reviewer. 

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