Here at the Salzburg Festival, there are regular, recurring pianists: Maurizio Pollini, Grigory Sokolov, Arcadi Volodos, others. Last night, it was the turn of Volodos, who played a recital in the House for Mozart. His program included no Mozart, however: it consisted of late Brahms and late Schubert.

“Late Schubert”? Is it possible to say such a thing about a man who lived but thirty-one years? I think so, yes. That short life had an arc nonetheless.

Some years ago, I asked the composer Michael Hersch whether he had a favorite composer, or favorite music—gun-to-the-head kind of thing. He answered, “For me, late Schubert piano music is where it’s at.” A fine choice.

(Hersch went on to say, “The thing about music is, you can go for years without listening to a given composer, and then suddenly have a need to hear him. The music is lying dormant, waiting for you. You can activate it anytime, simply by engaging with it.”)

For the last many years, Arcadi Volodos has favored sublime music in his programs. When he started out, he was a stunning virtuoso, playing stunning virtuosic pieces. He was a poet, too—but he included both the poetic and the virtuosic in his programs. Some of us would like to hear both from him today—but he has made a firm (permanent?) choice.

Last night, his program comprised the six pieces of Brahms’s Op. 118 and Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959. The pianist came out in the standard black Mao shirt and sat on a chair—not a bench—with a back (as Radu Lupu does). Concerning the Brahms, I will offer a few generalities.

Volodos made a warm, masculine sound. He also sang on his keyboard. Occasionally, he pressed into a note, wiggling his finger, almost in the manner of a violinist. Alicia de Larrocha did this a lot in her later years.

He showed himself to be an expert pedaler—critical in these Brahms pieces. He got many shades, many colors out of the piano, able to reflect the composer’s moods. The pianist’s rubato (license with time) was superbly judged. His playing was often legato, seamless, yes: but he also knows when to give the music some crunch, or detachment. He also knows when to apply force, even aggression. We saw this—heard this—in the G-minor ballade.

Op. 118 ends with the Intermezzo in E-flat minor, a strange piece. It is mystical, nearly visionary, as Scriabin would be. Volodos played this spellbindingly.

There was no intermission. Volodos went straight on to the Schubert. I have fished out what I wrote about his Salzburg recital in 2016:

After intermission, Volodos played one work, a late Schubert sonata, as is his wont. This one was the Sonata in AD. 959. I found myself slightly resentful: How many times does a recital-goer have to hear this work? Can we give it a rest maybe? As we should give the even more exposed B-flat a rest?

Any resentment melted away shortly after Volodos started playing.

You do not need to be told that Volodos played this sonata very, very well last night. To my taste, the Andantino was slightly disjointed, losing some of its flow, or coherence. But Volodos unquestionably knows how to commune with Schubert, and I think Schubert would have approved—and often marveled—all through the sonata.

The last movement—that allegretto rondo—was a bit of a surprise. As a rule, it is relaxed, gemütlich, simple, folky. Volodos gave it strength, tension, and power. He emphasized the stormy elements of the music. The rondo was unusually big and grand. Immediately after, a man shouted out, “Bravo!” I thought this was appropriate. Volodos had elicited such a response. Played otherwise, the rondo can leave an audience in quiet, smiling appreciation for a while.

Volodos went on to play his usual slate of encores—the encores we have grown used to hearing from him, over the last ten or fifteen years: some Mompou, the Schubert minuet, some more Brahms, the Bach-Vivaldi Sicilienne, the brief Scriabin prelude. All were wonderful, of course, but, sitting there, I thought, “Would it kill him to play a Moszkowski étude, as of old? Would it kill him to play his famous arrangement of Mozart’s Turkish rondo?” Yes, it would kill him, apparently—and his career is in his own, miraculous hands.

Question: Is Volodos the best pianist in the world? No, there is no best—but there are a few who are tied. We can certainly say that Volodos is unsurpassed. And that we are lucky to experience him as he practices his craft and art.

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