Arcadi Volodos. Photo: Marc Egido
Arcadi Volodos. Photo: Marc Egido © Marc Egido

The bear-like Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos knows how to hold an audience’s attention: by playing more and more quietly. Even between pieces, everyone seemed to be holding their breath. He began with a rarity, Brahms’s arrangement of the theme-and-variations slow movement of his String Sextet No. 1. From the grave opening theme onwards, Volodos sucked you into his own private world, one in which there was no place for hectoring, even at the loudest dynamics and in which pianissimo came in 100 flavours.

More Brahms followed: the Op. 76 Piano Pieces, which find the composer developing an inwardness that would become characteristic of his late style. Volodos’s creamy sound, combined with tremendous delicacy of phrasing, illuminated Brahms’s sometimes dense textures and his penchant for alto and tenor registers. The ending of the third piece was utterly radiant, contrasting with the grumbling passions of the opening number, while in the grim Second Capriccio Volodos made much of Brahms’s gruffly eccentric wit. His prodigious technique came in handy in the storm-tossed fifth piece, too, its tumultuous climaxes given due drama.

For the second half we got Schubert’s final B flat Sonata, written just months before his early death. Volodos’s opening was little more than a sighing aside, yet the way this vast edifice unfolded had an inevitability found only in the very greatest performances. This was the most humane of readings, a sort of wordless Winterreise, and Volodos’s singing tone and highly nuanced colour palette subtly underlined every harmonic shift.

His slow movement was rapt without overtly seeking to be beautiful, and he breathed Schubert’s long lines like a true singer. “With delicacy”, writes the composer over the crystalline scherzo; Volodos complied but there was firepower too. And then the pianist launched straight into the finale, unearthing lines that had long lain hidden, giving accentuation due weight without any metallic edge, culminating in a final shattering burst of energy.

The encores perfectly summed up Volodos’s remarkable range. A grave Schubert Minuet, D600, was followed by two of his own transcriptions, by turns rapt and effervescent — a Mompou song and Lecuona’s Malagueña. Finally, a return to Brahms, and a visionary account of the Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 6; a fitting end to a sublime evening.

barbican.org.uk

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