Konstantin Soukhovetski, Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture

The way Radio 3 foists the music of Percy Grainger on its listeners is a perennial mystery, given that its choice invariably focuses on his most irritatingly breezy mode.

But there’s no denying this flamboyant Australian was a one-off, with his gay flagellomania, rabid anti-Semitism, and pathological mother-fixation. As a collector of folk-music he was an ethnomusicologist avant la lettre; wandering from concert to concert with a knapsack on his back, he gave piano recitals which sent the critics into raptures. He was a student of the great Ferruccio Busoni, a friend of Grieg, and a champion of Debussy and Albeniz at a time when their music badly needed support.

Now he has a new champion of his own, in the form of the young Russian pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski, who, after huge acclaim in America, chose to open his London debut with a performance of Grainger’s ‘Ramble on the last love duet from “Der Rosenkavalier”’. This is by turns Debussian, Rachmaninovian, and pervasively Straussian, to a point where you’d say it was not Grainger at all; Soukhovetski played it with opulent grace, sincerity rather than schmaltz, and it emerged as a pianistic gem.

Then came Schumann’s Sonata No 1 Op 11, and with it the realisation that Soukhovetski is not just a pretty face – and writer of elegant programme notes - but a truly outstanding musician. What he did with this turbulent and uneven work won me over completely. Supremely accomplished technically, his playing was devoid of all affectation, and he brilliantly highlighted the wild-extravert/dreamy-introvert dualism underpinning it. The Aria’s marking – senza passione ma espressivo – was followed to the letter; he was persuasive throughout.

Soukhovetski’s coup de grace was a performance of Schubert’s Sonata in B flat D 960 which made this much-played valedictory work sound thrillingly new-minted. Giving the opening movement a slow, strong pulse and a big, warm sound, he let his vision take him where it would, and the result was revelatory, as was his handling of the sonata’s ambiguous close.

PS: This was the fifth recital in a row I’ve heard marred by twangs from the Wigmore Steinway’s damping mechanism - yet the Steinway shop is just across the road. Why don’t they get the goddam thing fixed?