When 28-year-old Yevgeny Sudbin takes the stage at the Royal Albert Hall tonight, there will be more than the usual frisson with a budding virtuoso. He may be elusive, but the acclaim that has greeted his recordings of Scarlatti, Rachmaninov and Scriabine has been deafening. Disc of the year, "aristocratic poise", "fingers of steel, heart of gold" – with all of which one can only agree. His playing of Scarlatti's delicately calibrated sonatas combines the facility of Horowitz with a blindingly fresh realisation of each piece's unique sound-world, while his Rachmaninov presents a condign majesty.
It's no surprise that he should have come up the hard way, with a rigorous Russian grounding, but it's more of a shock to discover that when he was 10 – and labelled "little Chopin" by his classmates – he seriously doubted whether he would ever play again. This was because his family had moved from St Petersburg to Berlin: in the immigrants' hostel where they were settled there wasn't a piano. Fate took a hand: "Somebody from the Berlin conservatory heard a pianist was living there and sent us an old upright," he says, "and after a few months of practising I won the German Federal Competition." Though he now professes to disapprove of competitions, he went on winning them, and at 16 beat a path to the Purcell School, where he studied under Christopher Elton, the eminent piano professor, for the next nine years. And Elton, he says, "let my personality come through".
Tonight Sudbin will be letting Rachmaninov's personality come through, having leapt at the chance to play his First Piano Concerto in preference to the more popular ones that followed. "It's a very youthful piece, but a genuinely great work." How will Sudbin's performance compare with the composer's own performance? "His own recordings are interesting, but I don't follow them slavishly. With this music you have to find your own way. Nobody else's way should be the Bible."
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