Arthur Rubinstein once described Brahms late period piano pieces as chamber music for a solo pianist. In the stunning hands of Arcadi Volodos, one might extend the analogy to include a highly responsive chamber orchestra collaborating with a world-class lieder singer. What gorgeously burnished and variegated sonorities Volodos elicits from the concert grand! More importantly, the deep musicality informing every touch of rubato and each shift in color or voicing is such that Volodos’ generally broad tempos never, but never drag.
In Op. 76, No. 1’s imitative writing gains intensity through timbral variety more than mere changes in volume, while the once-ubiquitous No. 2 acquires novel dimension with the tenor voice to the fore. At Volodos’ deliberate pace, No. 3’s high register music box-like writing gains infinite nuance, plus a sadder exterior than you’d expect. Notice, too, No. 4’s hypnotic legato and the sense of air in repeated notes that often sound too pushed for comfort.
Op. 117’s three Intermezzos similarly showcase the rarified heights to which Volodos’ poetic instincts can operate without losing tension. My only half-quibble concerns Op. 117 No. 1’s central minor key episode, where the slow basic tempo threatens to dissipate the rhythmic definition of Brahms’ hemiolas, despite Volodos’ extraordinary concentration and sustaining power. Here I prefer Emanuel Ax’s more conventional pacing and directness.
Op. 118, however, abounds with revelations. Strategic breath pauses and unusual accents minimize No. 1’s square and Teutonic nature, while No. 2’s phrase shapes seem vocally oriented, notably concerning the extra wiggle room in wide interval leaps. Note, too, Volodos’ pinpointed articulation of No. 3’s middle voices (no perfunctory accompaniment here), and the unusual conversational quality between the hands that he brings to No. 4’s triplet patterns. The tickling allure of No. 5’s rapid figurations and trills and the mesmerizing tonal variety of No. 6’s fragile lines alone attest to how Volodos has quietly raised the expressive bar for prospective interpreters of these works.
Yes, there was room for Op. 76’s remaining four pieces, and it would have been logical to include them, at least from a marketing standpoint. But why nitpick when the overall level of artistry is so high? Volodos does not record so often as a pianist of his stature should; yet with each release he further enhances his legacy and enriches our spirits.