Pianist Yevgeny Sudbin at the Kennedy Center

Russian-born pianist Yevgeny Sudbin's presentation was understated on Saturday.
Russian-born pianist Yevgeny Sudbin's presentation was understated on Saturday. (By Mark Harrison)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 2009

With the insouciance born of ability and success, Yevgeny Sudbin, looking not unlike a young Rahm Emanuel -- dark-ringed eyes in a thin and handsome face -- sat at the piano at the Terrace Theater on Saturday afternoon and produced some formidable music.

The sound he made was thick and dark and rich: Russian-school virtuosity, but without cloying heaviness. In the first movement of Haydn's Sonata in B Minor, which opened the program, it also had a springy elasticity that conveyed the spirit of the music, as if the sound were informed by the lighter twang of Haydn's fortepiano, like a shadow on the wall behind him.

The Russian-born Sudbin, 28, projects a wunderkind persona: able to fling out technical fireworks, offer insightful and intimate Scarlatti, write articulate program notes that give an insight into what he thinks about what he is playing (something too often absent from the classical-music equation). He has been garnering critical raves, particularly in England, where he now lives; and his string of recordings on the Bis label (Scarlatti, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff) have picked up a slew of accolades and awards.

Given all this facility, perhaps it should not surprise that there is a certain slickness to his presentation, even a world-weariness. At times, after the initial force of the newness of the sound had worn off, his playing might have been accompanied by a shrug: "This? It is just what I do."

What he did included fluent Haydn, clean and expert but somehow a little heavy in the slow movements, both in the B Minor and in the ensuing and better-known Sonata in C, as if the weight of all that precision were being felt. It also included two adroit Scriabin mazurkas from the Op. 3 set, mirrored by two Chopin mazurkas from Op. 33.

He is certainly not a showman. His presentation was so understated that he rushed from one piece to another, exiting to applause and immediately returning to plunge into the next work. There was little contact with the audience for the first part of the program. If his eloquent program notes had whetted anyone's appetite for the two scheduled "Fairy Tales" by Medtner, their replacement on the program with the Scriabin mazurkas passed without any acknowledgement on his part. This was an old-school recital, with a monastic focus on the music. But all of its earnestness grew heavy on the ear, despite the brilliance with which it was rendered.

The tide turned, for this listener, with Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit," which broke what was starting to feel like a flow of sameness with the sparkling shimmer of music associated with Ondine, the water sprite. This well-known virtuosic showpiece is a three-part tone poem based on actual poems by Aloysius Bertrand, and Sudbin found the poetry with a deft touch: the lurid sunset desert of the second movement, called "The Gallows," depicted graphically but not falling into the gothic; the bizarre dwarf Scarbo, in the third movement, gyrating in demonic acrobatics.

And as sometimes happens, the two encores showed a more personal side of the pianist, as well as a more pronounced sense of his range as an artist. Scarlatti's Sonata in F Minor, a little long but beautifully articulated, was immediately followed by the unbridled ferocious pianism of Rachmaninoff's song "Floods of Spring" in Sudbin's own arrangement. This last had the glad exuberance that had been a little absent from the body of the program; it brought the audience to its feet with a howl of approval.

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