What a capacious memory pianist Yevgeny Sudbin has. For his local debut at Boston Conservatory’s Piano Masters Series, he performed an ambitious, encyclopedic, and subtly rendered program of works by Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Saint-Saëns — and without glancing at a scrap of music. For those of us who have trouble remembering computer passwords, it was an awesome and humbling sight.
He arrived with considerable fanfare. The Russian-born 30-something virtuoso has been traversing the world’s great stages for some time, earning numerous accolades. A St. Petersburg native now living in London, Sudbin conveys an innate sense of refinement in his deportment and playing, a certain reserve and balance that has distinguished the musicians of that imperial city for centuries. He sits ramrod straight at the keyboard, going about his business without any distracting grimaces or swooning. He takes only the shortest of pauses between works. There are no superfluous gestures.
The program resembled one that Vladimir Horowitz might have put together: a baroque palate-cleanser (Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Hob. XVI), some Beethoven (Six Bagatelles, Op. 126), followed by Chopin (Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47), Rachmaninoff (three Preludes), and two devilish works for a fiery finale (Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, “Black Mass,” and Sudbin’s nifty arrangement of Saint-Saëns’s “Danse Macabre”). In a program note, Sudbin describes the Haydn sonata as the composer’s “most eccentric piece.” What surprises is the insistence of the motifs, the depth of development, seeming to prefigure Beethoven’s dramatic repetitions. This was a superbly fleet interpretation, pristine in clarity and force, with razor-sharp dynamic contrasts turning on a dime.
The Beethoven Bagatelles (“trifles”) built logically upon the Haydn, but with a vastly expanded emotional range, rapidly shifting moods, and more experimental harmonic language. Chopin’s familiar Ballade No. 3 closed the first half, impressive for its seductive story-telling, building from quiet rapture to explosive passion and back again, but always under control. The three Rachmaninoff preludes included two of his most famous: the melancholy G-sharp minor Prelude (Op. 32, No. 12), and the robust military G minor Prelude (marked “Alla Marcia”) from Op. 23, No. 5, assigned to generations of piano students.
Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9 requires not only immense technical prowess, but also a satanic frame of mind. For my taste, Sudbin’s interpretation needed more mystical abandon. But in his brilliant arrangement of Saint-Saëns’s orchestral work “Danse Macabre,” conflating versions by Liszt and Horowitz, Sudbin found the perfect mixture of heaven and hell.