On the basis of Yevgeny Sudbin's already extensive discography, the Russian pianist's Terrace Theater recital on Saturday afternoon was an important event. It was his first appearance in Washington, the latest such debut by a promising young artist sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society. Other critics who have admired Sudbin's recordings have been disappointed by his live performances, a sentiment experienced at times during this recital, too. Sudbin's technical command is ferocious and single-minded, leading him at times to make what sound like rash decisions in tempo choice, recalling a Martha Argerich-like tempestuousness, which is not to say that Sudbin is the next Martha Argerich.
Sudbin danced through most of the challenges of Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, his right hand sparkling aquatically in Ondine (links are to YouTube videos) and giving a satisfying melodic arch to the melodic line floating above and within the non-stop figuration. His impatience -- felt in his no-nonsense manner on the stage, too, cutting short applause to move on to the next piece, taking the stage after intermission before the audience was seated -- caused him to gloss over many details. The clanging bell in a somber but rushed Le Gibet vanished in some places, and a manic, neurotic Scarbo missed much of the movement's impish jocosity. Even at daring speeds, Sudbin dropped few notes, but one is left with the impression that he may be too good for his own good, although he will certainly continue to be a performer to follow as he matures.
With the impetuous opening to the recital, Haydn's B minor sonata (Hob. XVI:32), it was clear that this was not going to be retiring Haydn. Digging into the Rococo ornamentation and the bass line, Sudbin made no pretense of pretending the Steinway was a fortepiano. He did use the instrument's soft side, looping out whorls of feathery funs, especially in the graceful but somewhat languorous Menuet, and sometimes went heavy on the sustaining pedal. A wild Presto gave the last movement's repeated note theme an obsessive quality. The C major sonata (Hob. XVI:50) was less striking, at least partially because it is heard more frequently, but the foamy embellishments of the first movement (.MP3 file), the dreamy flights of fancy in the second (.MP3 file), and the rat-a-tat joking of the third (.MP3 file) sustained the work. Both performances point toward what will be an exciting Haydn disc, which is reportedly in the works.
Least satisfying were four mazurkas on either side of intermission -- two from Scriabin's op. 3 and two from Chopin's op. 33 -- the Scriabin pleasing more than the Chopin. The latter's B minor mazurka (op. 33, no. 4) had little sense of loneliness, coming off more as moody and restless. It was better to have some pieces from the Scriabin disc instead of the Medtner Fairy Tales originally on the program, but one cannot help but wish that Sudbin had kept the set of three Scarlatti sonatas, replaced by the Haydn B minor sonata, and jettisoned the Haydn C major sonata. The encores satisfied that wish to a degree, with an F minor Scarlatti sonata, K. 467, which had some of the reflective space missing from the Chopin. A second encore was a barnstorming arrangement, by Sudbin himself, of Rachmaninov's song Spring Torrents (op. 14, no. 11). When his technique is fully exercised, as it was here, the temptation to push ahead is tempered. Perhaps Liszt and Rachmaninov are the right repertory for him at this stage.
Anne Midgette, Yevgeny Sudbin Brings Dark, Rich Tones to Kennedy Center (Washington Post, January 26)
Lawrence A. Johnson, Pianist Sudbin shows power, not always poetry (South Florida Classical Review, January 22)
The next recitals sponsored by WPAS will feature violinist Nicola Benedetti (February 3, 7:30 pm) and pianist Simone Dinnerstein (February 7, 2 pm), both in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.