Sudbin closes UW piano series Wednesday

By R.M. Campbell

Yevgeny Sudin made his Seattle debut at Meany Hall two years ago. I wasn’t there but by all accounts the concert was a huge success. The Russian pianist returned Wednesday night, offering Haydn, Shostakovich, Chopin, Liszt and Ravel. It was a glorious way to end the 2010-2011 President’s Piano Series.

Although he was born in Russia — St. Petersburg — in 1980 and received his early training there, he has not been a resident since he was 10. At first, he lived in Berlin, then London since 1997, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Music. His teachers include all sorts of exalted names like Murray Perahia, Claude Frank, Leon Fleisher and Stephen Hough. Traces of their influence can be heard in his playing today.

Sudbin enjoys a formidable technique. That is an understatement. He can seemingly do anything he chooses with confidence and panache. One connoisseur Wednesday made the astute observation that he has control over everything. He considers the score, working on the details then the whole — seamless and coherent. He knows what he wants. The result is astonishing, amazing really. Unlike many of his Russian colleagues, Sudbin is not flamboyant. He is a virtuoso of the first order, but that said his bravura never seems to say, “Look at me.” Rather, it demonstrates ownership. He possesses a big tone which he can modulate at will and knows how to play softly when the need arises. His double fortes never seem forced. Sudbin likes fast tempos, and undoubtedly there were those who would object. I didn’t. They could be thrilling.

One of the most interesting things about Sudbin is that his playing is majestic, aristocratic, authoritative, not only in the way he shapes individual phrases but paragraphs of music. He makes little attempt to be seductive. He is serious, he is intelligent, he has taste, he is clear-headed. No cheating or fudging when the going gets tough. There is steel in his playing, but also silk and poetry. To some he might seem a little remote, but that remoteness acts as a guardian of his musicianship.

How often does Haydn begin a program? How little do we hear Haydn? Not often enough, and then it doesn’t seem quite right: too modern and harsh or too 18th century and a little precious. With Sudbin, there was clarity above all. I could have used a little lyricism, a little less muscle, but Sudbin wanted to ensure there was no misunderstanding: Haydn is serious business, not merely a warm-up for more important things to come. The beauty of tone to be heard in the Chopin and Ravel was not so present. I don’t think Sudbin hears Haydn that way. It seems, perhaps to him, that the tenderness found in the next century would appear sentimental in Haydn. But how beautifully he laid everything out.

I’m glad he played some Shostakovich — the four preludes from the Opus. 34. They are part of a much larger work, a set of 24 preludes. One often assumes that Russians will play Shostakovich better than non-Russians. I won’t argue the point, but Sudbin captured the aggressiveness of the composer, hints of the bittersweet and all sorts of undercurrents.

Sudbin’s reading of two Chopin ballades — Nos. 3 and 4, in A-flat and F Minor — were a revelation of sophistication and expressive breadth. They had amplitude, punch, pockets of serenity and dramatic force. They were a kind of a grand voyage, at once powerful and full of anticipation, with weight and power in all the right places. Every pianist plays Chopin but not as persuasively as Sudbin. The Transcendental Etude, “Harmonies du soir,” of Liszt was another demonstration of Sudbin’s range and technical resources.

Ravel ended the evening with a work of mystery and brilliance — “Gaspard de la nuit.” Steven Lowe, in his customary illuminating program notes, calls the work “fiendishly difficult.” And it is not only because of extraordinary displays of passagework at high speed, but also issues of tonal balance, accurate rhythmic patterns and delicacy. Sudbin swept though these with command and fierce intensity.

The house rewarded him with loud applause.

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