Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"Fingers of steel and a heart of gold"

By all accounts, pianist Yevgeny Sudbin cuts an unassuming figure. He is  definitely not in the mold of the dominating Russian pianists (and personalities) who have come before him. Though he is cautious of praise, Sudbin has been hailed by critics as an artist who has the potential to be one of the greatest pianists of the 21st century. Other critics have described the young pianist as having “fingers of steel and a heart of gold.”

Sudbin’s considerable talents may have been lost to the classical music world and the public had his parents not indulged their son’s desire to play the piano. In a 2005 interview with the Daily Telegraph he recalled how he ultimately ended up playing piano.

"Both of my parents are pianists and I grew up hearing them practicing. I really wanted to play. When I was about four or five I was sitting improvising and my mother noticed that I had perfect pitch. She took me to a music teacher and I made rapid progress. I auditioned for the specialist music school in St. Petersburg and was accepted, and from there things went quickly.”

Sudbin participated in his first international competition by the time he was ten, but quickly found himself adapting to new surroundings after his parents fled the Soviet Union for Berlin in 1990.

Fortunately, not even the confines of a refugee shelter could keep the Sudbin from playing the piano. Word spread about the young prodigy and through the generosity of strangers, a piano, albeit a piano in poor condition, appeared for the young artist to use.

Yevgeny Sudbin’s first album, a collection of Scarlatti keyboard sonatas gives indication as to his view of the piano repertoire and why critics have been so want to shower him with praise. “With Scarlatti you could end up just playing the notes” he recounted in an interview with Piano. “I started off being very experimental, but my teacher thought it was over the top.”

In the eyes of critics, Sudbin’s willingness to take chances with the music, in a way challenging the music itself, has imbued his performances with a freshness and spontaneity that some might say is lacking among today’s crop of pianists.

The freshness in his playing, especially as captured on his disk of Tchaikovsky”s and Medtner’s first piano concerto and his recording of the Rachmaninoff second sonata (the two albums I own), are immediately likable. His playing has a distinct improvised feel. Some may prefer a more sterile approach, but I prefer being surprised and even astonished. While other recordings are only good for a listen or two, both albums are regularly in rotation on my iPod.

The Rachmaninoff is nothing short of dynamic. For the recording, Sudbin uses Vladamir Horowitz’s recording of the second sonata. Listening to this fine album and hearing his imaginative account, I get the feeling he is doing more than just playing the notes of the piece but is actively reassessing and even rediscovering the music on the fly.

Sudbin doesn’t stop with the music, the pianist has developed a knack for compiling his own booklet notes. This work he says “brings me closer to the music and I have a chance to study his music away from the keyboard.”
Tomorrow evening, Seattle will get to hear why much of the classical music world has taken such a liking to Yevgeny Sudbin.

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