Much better on disc

Roustem Saitkoulov | Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Some say a pianist is only as good as his or her last recital. With some highly variable pianists, this harsh apothegm has a point. But it ignores the matter of basic qualities and ability. Even so, getting to know a new artist is an adventure, full of surprises and disappointments. Beware reviews that greet a musical Messiah.

Some say a pianist is only as good as his or her last recital. With some highly variable pianists, this harsh apothegm has a point. But it ignores the matter of basic qualities and ability. Even so, getting to know a new artist is an adventure, full of surprises and disappointments. Beware reviews that greet a musical Messiah.

The Russian pianist Roustem Saitkoulov has just released his debut disc on EMI Classics: studies by Chopin and four Rus-sians - Arensky, Scriabin, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Very impressive it is, too. But the programme of his London debut showed him in a different light. It was not a good idea to open with Beethoven's Opus 110 Sonata, much too deep a work to warm up with, and Saitkoulov seemed diffident, so that the first movement remained earthbound. The second was slightly insecure, short on explosive force, and only in the slow opening to the long final movement did he promise to penetrate the depths and ascend the heights. Yet though he brought telling contrasts of emphasis and flow to the first fugue, his sources of feeling ran dry afterwards, and the second half declined into bare note-spinning.

The other big work before the interval was Schumann's Etudes symphoniques, calling not only for massive reserves of strength and brilliance, but also for lyricism and a sharp sense of character. It's hard to play really quietly in the Wigmore Hall, but Saitkoulov didn't seem to try very hard, and by the third variation it he was clearly settling for a dynamic range between loud and not so loud.

He never really exerted himself expressively, though technically, every note was in place. I finally lost patience with him in the variation just before the finale, where the right hand weaves two voices, one echoing the other, above a richly murmuring accompaniment. He played it with so little feeling, it was hard to believe he actually liked the music.

After the interval came Scriabin's eight Etudes, Opus 42., the set including the one nicknamed "Mosquito", which Horowitz used to play like a demented musical box. Saitkoulov played them much better on disc than here, for they all seemed tame, lacking subtlety and, in case of the fifth, with no smouldering passion. Which suggests an odd lack of interest in stirring his listeners.

Stravinsky's four early Etudes survive his cool treatment better, because although in the romantic, virtuoso tradition, only the first draws on emotional warmth, while the second and fourth are about brilliant pattern-making. Finally, the brittle evocations of Three movements from Petrushka could hardly fail to make their effect, given Saitkoulov's athletic efficiency. On balance, disappointments far outweighed surprises.

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