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Stoic, Stunning Pianist Volodos Lives Up to Billing


LA JOLLA — He doesn't look especially comfortable, let alone glamorous, in his formal clothes. He has a stocky build. He walks stoically on stage. He shakes his head in seeming annoyance as he adjusts the piano bench. Then he sits quietly to ready his concentration, and shakes his head some more.

Could this really be the next big thing in the piano world? Could this pianist, whose pained expressions at the keyboard might suit a plumber working under the sink with a frozen pipe, really be the next Horowitz, as his promoters and some advance reviews would have us believe?

Yes, in fact, Arcadi Volodos, the 26-year-old pianist from St. Petersburg, most certainly could be.

Volodos began his program at Sherwood Auditorium on Saturday night, his first recital on the West Coast, with Scriabin--two obscure miniatures followed, without break, by the Sonata No. 10. His fingers glided across the keyboard, light, fleet, sure, poetic. His sound in the Sonata, with its heaving harmonic language, its orgiastic sound world of trills and sensuous contrapuntal lacery, even in this dry hall, was stunning. Artur Rubinstein once compared Scriabin's own playing to spiders skittering over the keys, and Volodos is the first pianist I've ever heard live or on recording actually produce that effect.

Volodos has ideas about programming that make some observers nervous, since, thus far, he avoids the serious standard solo masterpieces--those of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, et al.--and concentrates on odd byways of the repertory. His first CD on Sony came out a year ago, and it is a program of virtuosic transcriptions. His program here, which he will repeat at his Carnegie Hall recital next month and which Sony will record live and rush into release, was eccentric to modern sensibilities, although this kind of tasting menu of many small tidbits is traditionally popular in Russia.

The Scriabin was followed by six short Rachmaninoff pieces, including three Etudes-Tableaux. Then a small nocturne by Glinka as introduction to Volodos' own show-stopping series of variations on a theme from Glinka's opera, "Ruslan und Ludmilla."

After intermission, Volodos continued his obsession with out-of-the-way miniatures, turning to Schumann's "Bunte Blatter," the composer's collection of 20 unrelated small pieces and sketches he called "Multicolored Leaves." Occasionally one or two will show up on a program, usually in the encore slot, although, again, they are more popular in Russia (Sviatoslav Richter played them) than anywhere else. Finally, Volodos closed with Liszt, the "Consolation" No. 6 and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15.

Volodos' manner remained matter-of-fact all evening. Within the composer groupings, he usually blurred the pieces together. He acknowledged applause dutifully and never smiled. Yet that only made what he was producing at the keyboard seem even more remarkable. The technique, with surely the fastest octaves in the galaxy, is truly unbelievable. La Jolla has a large scientific community, and I overheard, at intermission, two men discussing the biophysics of neural synapses in the brain controlling the muscles; from a neurological perspective, they were amazed with what they were witnessing.

From a musical one, so was I. A great pianist will make whatever music his fingers touch interesting and alive, and Volodos passes that test. After this performance, I will never, for instance, think of the Schumann pieces as unimportant again. He revealed in each a characteristic quality of the composer's peculiar and multifaceted psychology--seducing with melody here, tricking us with underhanded syncopations there.

Volodos, it also turned out, proved a canny, highly theatrical programmer. He kept the fireworks in reserve for the end of each half. But if he began his pianistic excursion spider-like, he ended it as an octopus at the keyboard, with Liszt's Rhapsody sounding like organized thunder produced by several powerful arms. The encores were two--Volodos' own flamboyant variations on Mendelssohn's Wedding March followed by a tiny, early Scriabin prelude, thus leaving us just where we had begun.

Volodos' recital, which opened a new piano series of the La Jolla Chamber Music Society, is part of a national tour (which also takes him to Berkeley next month). He has, however, no dates in Los Angeles.

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