Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin’s Boston debut at Seully Hall Tuesday evening drew a horde of music lovers, piano students, and the like. No Rachmaninoff in physical stature, Sudbin is slender and the very opposite of oversized. He looks sharp as a tack and barely cracks a smile, and spoke with refinement in grand narratives.
After all was said and done at The Boston Conservatory Piano Masters series, it can be stated with some degree of confidence that Sudbin is somewhat of a conservative. Franz Joseph Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor, Hob. XVI: 32 materialized as classical architecture with a pronounced leanness and clear-cut symmetry. Tenderness, with but a touch of affect, in the falling six-note menuet motif (that constantly caused Mozart to come to mind) and boldness, with a good amount of reserve in the big middle minor section further showed Sudbin’s personal acumen for effective contrast.
Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles, op. 126 continued on with Sudbin’s personal stamp of Steinway sumptuousness, nothing ever remotely harsh would be forthcoming from his touch. In the third bagatelle, Sudbin sneaked in some low-key jolliness. He also went to this mood in the fourth bagatelle now playing it off against that growling side of Beethoven. In the last of these, No. 6 in E-flat Major: Presto, andante amabile e con moto, Sudbin’s more traditional bent verged on shifting rustic imagery framed by explosive short-lived passages beginning and ending this bagatelle. Drones and dances alternated, some developing, others simply continuing on. The ever-focused pianist, nearly sitting on top of the keys, created pastoral scenes; but with an urban slant.
The first real suggestion of Sudbin’s deeper interpretive values came with Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, op. 47 of Frédéric Chopin. Fluidity, reasonably expected in Chopin’s quasi-improvised style of piano composition, hardly happened. Romantic flair and those “velvet fingers” of the Polish-French keyboard master became undertones. Why not some perfume? Interestingly, the dancing second section (that also has a drone) of the Ballade was not all that different from the dancing in Beethoven’s sixth bagatelle.
All through his well-timed 75-minutes, Sudbin showed off awesome technical feats—his trills achieved a rare perfection. Speaking, though, trumped singing. The close of the Ballade somehow missed that sparkling brilliance that is expected to cap off the Chopin.
Perhaps due to Sudbin’s natural preference for communicating through exquisiteness of tone and crystal clear chronicling, Rachmaninov’s Prelude No. 12 in G-sharp Op. 32 and Prelude nNo. 5 in G Major, Op. 32, while satisfying on the surface, wanted more intrigue at the emotional level. Sudbin’s crisp and crunchy playing of the well-known Prelude No. 5 in G Minor, Op. 25 went a little too far by opening up to percussiveness not heard before.
Alexander Scriabin’s Mazurka No. 3 in E Minor, Op. 25 felt right, if not angular, under Sudbin’s personal routing. The mystic composer’s Sonata No. 9 in F Major, Op. 68 “Black Mass” had to be the gem of the evening. Russian on Russian, surge after surge, layer upon layers of textures, and the build-and-repose continuum were absolutely and ecstatically petrifying. Extraordinary clarity revealed both composer and performer in still more penetrating light.
Finishing up the “Black Mass” with its own concentration on the diabolus in musica, Yevgeny Sudbin blazed away with his own takeoff on the Liszt-Horowitz piano version of Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens. That now familiar devil in music was now everywhere. Coming where it did at the end of the program, this old war horse turned out to be overly long and loud, wearisome of both composition and performance.
His encore, Scriabin’s Étude Op. 2 No. 1 in C-sharp Minor brought calm and waning shadows of longing, which were especially refreshing following the earlier fierce Russian pieces along with the Danse Macabre.