AN INTERVIEW WITH ARCADI VOLODOS

The first time I heard of young Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos was via his 1997 Sony Classical CD (62691) which consisted primarily of transcriptions by Cziffra, Horowitz and Volodos himself, hair-raising virtuoso performances all -- especially for a pianist just at the beginning of his career. About that time a friend sent me a broadcast tape of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2 from the BBC with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly -- a phenomenal grand-scale rendition, and then another BBC tape, this time the Rachmaninoff Third with the Bournemouth SO under Jakov Kreizberg, a stunning performance, among the finest I've ever heard.  As an encore he played his own clever transcription of Mozart's "Turkish Rondo," a performance even more stunning than his Sony studio recording.  In February 1999 I attended a concert in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center where Volodos was soloist with the touring Royal Concertgebouw conducted by Riccardo Chailly in Rachmaninoff's Third. It was like watching lightning strike on command. For an encore this time he played the Liszt/Horowitz/Volodos arrangement of Mendelssohn's "Wedding March," another stunning display of keyboard finesse and power. In 1999 Sony  released Volodos' second recital CD (SK 60893), recorded live in Carnegie Hall in October 1998, with music of Liszt, Scriabin, Schumann and Rachmaninoff, revealing a master pianist at his best.  Reviewing a November 2000 Carnegie Hall recital, Anthony Tommasini wrote in the New York Times:

    "...his sound was velvety and plush. You could almost hear the voice of Rosina Lhevinne, the great Russian pedagogue, proclaiming from the the beyond, 'Now, that's what I call sound!'  By now talk must be spreading all over town about Mr. Volodos's knockout performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13. It would not seem possible to play the piano as fast as he did in the crazed dance that concludes the work...it was astonishing..."

When Volodos was scheduled to make his Baltimore debut with three performances of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 with the Baltimore Symphony in mid-March 2001, I contacted the BSO requesting an interview with Volodos for this website.  A few days later they replied in the affirmative "if it doesn't take more than 25 minutes." The BSO spokesperson warned of a potential problem: Volodos is fluent only in French and Russian and therefore I would have to supply an interpreter. This slight obstacle was easily surmounted, as my good friend Robert Rivkin speaks French and agreed to accompany me.

Rivkin and I attended the BSO rehearsal Wednesday afternoon. Guest conductor James DePriest and the orchestra had already rehearsed other  works on the program (the world premiere of George Tsontakis' October and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4), so all that remained was the Prokofiev Concerto No. 2. Volodos rehearsed without a score, and obviously knew the music inside and out; several times during the rehearsal when conductor or soloist requested a restart in the orchestral part, Volodos would play the starting point on the piano to make it easier for the orchestra to find where to begin. Things went so smoothly that the rehearsal ended ahead of schedule -- quite remarkable considering  the Prokofiev Second is one of the most difficult of all concertos.

 Arcadi Volodos at the keyboard is intense, virile, masterful, and confident, to wit, the typical supreme Russian virtuoso. Volodos the interviewee in his dressing room was pleasant, easy to talk with, soft-spoken, very much not the super-star either in attitude or demeanor. 

Rivkin and I attended the Thursday evening performance. The Prokofiev Second is new this season to Volodos's repertory. He had played it for the first time a few weeks earlier in Helsinki. His was an extraordinary interpretation, hair-raising in the two big cadenzas. Surprisingly and disappointingly, Volodos did not play an encore, even though he was recalled five times by the enthusiastic audience.  After the Friday performance he played his version of the Carmen Fantasy, and Saturday, his elaborated version of Rachmaninoff's Italian Polka. Critic Tim Smith, writing in the Baltimore Sun, observed,  "Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 provided Volodos with a fitting vehicle to display his uncanny technical élan, refined sense of tonal nuance, and rare musicality. Volodos refused to settle for display. He made each fierce assault on the keys mean something expressive and found in quieter interludes a nocturnal poetry. The long cadenzas in the concerto's outer movements were articulated with dazzling accuracy and emotional depth."

Volodos plays up to ninety concerts a season and apparently travels alone much of the time; I would have thought his manager would have a representative accompany him, but this seems not to be the case. How does he maintain his prodigious virtuosity? By practicing intensely, but not too much. In his student years he worked diligently at developing his extraordinary technique, and now tries to avoid overpracticing, usually devoting about two hours daily. He said he gives so many concerts that through them he is "practicing most of the time." Volodos, famous for spectacular Horowitzian virtuosity, describes that very virtuosity by saying it is "more in the head than in the fingers."

Volodos didn't start studying the piano seriously until he was 16 (he is now 30). Ten years later he was playing on major concert stages in recitals and as soloist with top orchestras of the world. His first professional orchestral appearance was a performance of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. His repertory with orchestra might seem rather limited, but he pointed out that he has been playing public concerts -- with a very full schedule -- only about four years. His current major repertory consists of Rachmaninoff's Second and Third concertos and Paganini Rhapsody, Tchaikovsky First and Beethoven Emperor. The Prokofiev Second, new this season, will be played many more times this year including three performances in late March with the Philadelphia Orchestra under David Zinman. Volodos plans to add at least one new concerto a season to his repertory. (He didn't mention what the next ones would be.)

It turned out Volodos's English was much better than we had expected, but I could understand why in an interview he would wish to have an interpreter to make sure his comments were precise. As Volodos was to be in the Baltimore area for five days I invited him to come to my home to hear recordings, and he accepted. He asked if he could bring a new friend, young pianist Inna Falíks, who is also from Russia. She is a student of Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory, with impressive credits to her budding career including a Town Hall recital. Inna speaks Russian natively and first met Volodos when she acted as interpreter for another interview, this one with author Steve Wigler who is writing a book about contemporary pianists.


Bob Rivkin, Inna Falíks, Arcadi Volodos and Bob Benson

Bob Rivkin picked them up in Baltimore late that Saturday morning and drove them to my home in the suburbs. Volodos was not particularly interested in hearing his own recordings, but wanted to hear some by great pianists of the past. He asked specifically for Alfred Cortot's 1923 recording of Scriabin's Etude in D# Minor, Op;. 8 No. 12, and his 1947 recording of Chopin's Prelude No. 25 in C# Minor, Op. 45. He's pleased with his Sony recording of Rachmaninoff's Third with James Levine and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded live in June 1999, and seemed to enjoy hearing it on my sound system (JM Labs Utopia speakers/Sunfire Theater Grand Processor II and Sunfire Stereo Power amplifier). Admittedly, it did sound rather spectacular.

I was delighted to find that Volodos has a keen sense of humor. At one point he found something rather amusing and mentioned "Jenkins." He meant Florence Foster Jenkins, the New York socialite dilettante singer whose hilarious private recordings were collectors' items on 78s, later issued on RCA LP and CD. Volodos, like all of us gathered there, exploded with laughter and even insisted on repeats of particularly horrible musical gaffes. (Mme Jenkins' performances are entertaining to say the least, perhaps as good a relaxant for the incredible pressures of a worldwide concert career as they are for the less intense pressures of us mere mortals.) We listened a great deal not only to FFJ recordings, but to similar items by other equally misguided singers.

After lunch Volodos casually said he wished I had a piano, as he would like to play for us. Unfortunately I missed out again on a private recital later that afternoon this one in Inna Falíks' Baltimore home. When Bob Rivkin drove them back into town, they invited him to come inside. Volodos then played a casual impromptu "concert" including some of his own music, jazz, ragtime, and several of his encore pieces, including the Bizet Carmen Fantasy with many variants -- he said he plays it somewhat differently each time. He seemed to have inexhaustible energy -- that night he was to play the final of the three performances of Prokofiev No. 2


His next Sony recording will be two Schubert sonatas and his own arrangement of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13. the one which, when played during Volodos' Carnegie Hall recital Oct. 18, 1998 elicited such wonderment from the New York critic.

Next time Volodos is in Baltimore I will have a piano in my home. It was a pleasure to meet this superb young artist who, although already a legendary figure in the music world, still seems to be very much grounded in reality.

R.E.B.