Oleg Volkov took third prize last year in the University of Maryland's Kapell Piano Competition, and a substantial segment of the audience thought he should have taken first. Supporters of this opinion turned out in force Tuesday night at George Mason University when Volkov (now a visiting professor at Maryland) gave a brief, free recital of Haydn and Rachmaninoff. The music he produced tended to reinforce their opinion.
It is, of course, largely a question of taste. Volkov, like so many products of the Moscow Conservatory, is a virtuoso in the old-fashioned style, notable for touches of flamboyance and for the speed, accuracy and precision of his playing.
In four Rachmaninoff preludes and his Sonata No. 2, Volkov's piano stormed and whispered; there were flashes of musical lightning and murmurs like a 70-degree breeze drifting across a February landscape. There was a crystalline purity of tone, a superb clarity of definition in harmonies and counterpoint, an evenness of voicing and (when appropriate) a lightness of touch and a pure dexterity that could leave an audience breathless. Virtuosity reached its highest point in the first and third encores, "The Flight of the Bumblebee" and Liszt's "Gnomenreigen," tossed off with frenzied elegance.
But the best work of the evening was the second encore, Schumann's "Trauemerei," played with a gentleness and warmth enhanced by the fine acoustics of the GMU Center for the Arts, a sensitivity and flexibility of phrasing that approached the expressiveness of a human voice. This number was worth the long drive from downtown Washington.