Arcadi Volodos, Royal Festival Hall - review: A keyboard poet beyond compare

The Russian pianist brought freshness to old favourites during a surprising evening

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Twenty years ago the Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos was the flashiest kid on the block, but since then he’s been on an inward journey, deepening his interpretations with an ever more refined understanding of what the piano can do. His latest Southbank recital has made one thing clear: among keyboard poets, he is now beyond compare.

As he unpacked his box of tricks, everything came as a surprise. In the hands of any other pianist the early Schubert sonata he began with would have seemed – with its callow spikiness - a provocation, but Volodos made it an interplay of voices singing so sweetly that one forgot the piano was a percussion instrument.

Brahms’s Six Piano Pieces Opus 118 were so freshly imagined as to be scarcely recognisable, and Schumann’s Kinderszenen were given such generous space to breathe that they too became a terra incognita; Schumann’s hurtling Opus 17 Fantasie, which causes most pianists to tie themselves in knots, came across as oblique but uncomplicated lyricism.

The first encore – Schumann’s ‘Prophet Bird’ – bewitched us; the second – a Mompou miniature – introduced a disarming gravity; the third (De Falla on speed) took us to the circus, and the fourth (a Bach arrangement) left us with the sublime. The final ovation was received with a Buddha-like smile.