When he made his debut in New York in 1991, the Russian-born pianist Arcadi Volodos was unknown in the United States. By the time he made his Carnegie Recital Hall debut in the autumn of 1998, the fame he achieved through successful concert tours and recordings was more than a pleasant surprise. Volodos was considered one of the most gifted young artists that vied to fill the void left by the legendary Vladimir Horowitz after his death in 1989. The album produced from the Carnegie Hall concert won Volodos the prestigious Gramophone award at London's Royal Festival Hall on October 18, 1999, as Best Instrumental Recording of the year. For someone who did not take piano seriously until he was 16, Volodos plays with the wizardry of one who was a child prodigy. In less than ten years he has earned a presence on stages the world over, stunning audiences with his virtuoso.
Arcadi Volodos was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1972. His parents were both singers, a direction in the music profession he intended to follow. Volodos also studied conducting. On the advice of his teacher he decided, at age 16, to give piano another try, having only played it early when he was not interested in it for career purposes. In an interview with German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, when he made his Munich debut in March of 1998, Volodos said that, "It is not too late at 16 [to learn piano]. In the end it depends on how you deal with the music. I have never practiced scales and I always got bad marks for technique." For the young artist who critics have crowned as the artist most likely to have filled the Horowitz tradition, Volodos seemed to have a gift for making music. He began his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, went on to the Moscow Conservatory to study with Galina Egiazarova, to Paris with Jacques Rouvier, and to Madrid for study with Dimitri Bashkirov at the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia.
The praise for Volodos has been filled with superlatives. In January of 1998, Stereo Review noted that, "Volodos seems to have a gift for preserving the intrinsic character of each individual piece-and its musical values.... He brings his own personality to the music while preserving the character Horowitz created for it.... It's all a great show, truly musical in every bar, very vividly recorded, and provided with valuable annotation." Tim Parry, writing for Gramophone in March of 1998, commented on Volodos' Classic CD: "Here is a disc of visceral excitement and unashamed virtuosity, blending refined poetry with an exploitation of colour and sonority, Volodos' magical control of pedaling and finger-weighting demonstrating a rare feel for melodic and inter-voicing. Few recent discs have served the art of transcription so well."
With all of the mention of Horowitz, Suddeutsche Zeitung also asked Volodos if he saw himself as the "inheritor of the virtuoso tradition in the style of Liszt and Horowitz." Volodos answered that, "Yes, this is often mentioned in the press. However, I do not regard myself as a virtuoso. I do find these pieces at all difficult. Many people think, only because there are really a lot of notes that the pieces have to be difficult. That is basically not the case. The only difficulty lies in the musical form-it is really about achieving the correct sound image. Once you have this, you just have to play it back. And this is good fun. The technical side should not be separated from the music-this is important. I was never really so interested in Horowitz as a pianist but rather as acomposer."
Volodos enjoys the improvisation that comes with performance. His career itself has been somewhat of an improvisation as well. He did not follow the usual agenda for a budding young pianist. He never entered a single competition. Luck came when he was staying at a friend's house in the south of France at the same time as a manager from Sony. He offered Volodos a contract on the spot, and they produced a CD very soon afterwards. That CD won Volodos the German Record Prize. Featured were transcriptions of works by Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Bach, Mozart, Bizet, Tchaikovsky and other composers, including some by Volodos himself. In addition to the German prize, the CD was also awarded Gramophone's Editor's Choice, Classic CD's Disc of the Year, and the French Choc du Monde de la Musique.
Volodos has performed all over the world with many of the most renowned orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Rotterdam (Netherlands) Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tonhalle Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Conductors with whom he has played include Vladimir Ashkenazy, Riccardo Chailly, Valery Gergiev, James Levine, Zubin Mehtaand Seiji Ozawa. Plans for 2000 included appearances with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Lawrence Foster, the Philadelphia Orchestra and David Zinman, the Philharmonia Orchestra led by Lorin Maazel, and the Orchestra di Santa Cecilia conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. Repeat performances at New York's Carnegie Hall, the Berlin Philharmonie and London's Royal Festival Hall were also scheduled.
Writing for Classic CD in April of 1998, the year Volodos was named Keyboard CD of the Year by that publication, Jeremy Nicholas described Volodos' playing as being full of "peerless articulation and enormous power that captivate; it's the beautiful, richly-rounded tone he produces throughout, with a range of colour and long-breathed phrasing, especially in the more reflective numbers, that proclaim him as a musician of the first rank."
Volodos does not see himself as fitting easily into an image his early praise garnered. He did not want to be seen as a virtuoso on the rise. Instead, his interests are broader than simply the romantic piano music for which he was getting so well known. "It really does not matter to me which image the journalists have worked out for me. I cannot then be labelled forever from this one record. I also play Bach and Schubert at concerts and this is not about virtuosity," he told Suddeutsche Zeitung in 1998. For Volodos, it is about creating the music anew every time he plays, with new intonations, new understandings. The key for him was "the listening, not the playing," Volodos said.'Taking everything into consideration, I believe that the singing, conducting and individual composing were the best means for my development. If you look at a piece you have to develop a sound image in your mind and then try to project this onto the keys. That's all."
What the future would bring for this pianist with such a flair was full of the promise of his genius. His transcriptions have been the object of awe, whether with Tchaikovsky or Brahms orothers. His allure captured by his own inventiveness was sure to take him to the stage for decades to come and to make the audience excited each and every time he did.
Volodos, Sony, 1997.
Live at Carnegie Hall, Sony, 1999.
Russian Music and Revolution, 1999.
The Triumph of the Piano, 2000.
New York Times, Jan. 4, 1998; Oct. 18, 1998; Oct. 23, 1998.
Suddeutsche Zeitung, March 20, 1998.
"Arcadi Volodos," Sony Classical, http://www.sonyclassical.com/artists/volodos/adhome.html (March 6, 2000).
Arcadi Volodos website, http://www.volodos.com (March 6, 2000).
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