There is a series of piano concerts at St. John the Evangelist Church on Iffley Road which is being taken, possibly, slightly for granted. For if you read the résumés of the musicians, they are indeed ‘world class’; touring the great concert halls of the globe, and strangely, in the SJE Arts centre, buried in this late gothic revivalist church. The helpful staff usher us to seats which are fairly close, but not close enough to really get the full force of these pieces. For the pianist Alexei Volodin is giving the keyboard of his Steinway a hammering of Russian Modernist composers, and doing it well.
Having before now attended only a few classical concerts (I’m the right age to start; there is a reason why many venues give out seats for a fiver to anyone under 35 - a wholly unrepresented group in classical music venues) I find the acoustics in the church slightly dispersive, and echoey - but the lack of intimacy doesn’t detract from the fact that he really plays his Steinway extremely well.
Does Russian high culture leave you cold? I will continue the meteorological theme if you bear with me. As I told my 10-year-old sitting next to me, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov have got be the perfect antidote to an afternoon spent watching ‘Dog Academy’ on Netflix.
Volodin starts with a series of works by Medtner - whom I have to confess to not having heard of before this evening. The first movement, Op. 20-1 B-flat minor, leaves me feeling like I’m in St Petersburg in a snowstorm. Well, there was a flurry in Marston early this morning, so maybe I’m projecting my early-morning impressions. But there is a kind of downbeat dexterity and energy that we’re finding distinctly wintery. As we move through the works by Medtner, by the 4th or 5th, I realise he’s starting to reach summer, and then we get Prokofiev.
By this point, though, Volodin is starting to look drained - I keep wondering whether the Russians have a word for this, the type of emotional exhaustion exhibited or demanded by playing its famous composers. And it’s getting heavier. I’m losing the seasons and feel like I’ve just waded through a pile of pierozki and I’m waiting for the vodka chaser.
By the time we get to the last quarter - and 30 minutes or so of Rachmaninov - I reflect on what I’d heard earlier on Radio 4 about a retailer in Moscow buying the building that was formerly used as Stalin’s execution chamber - and using it to sell perfume! Rachmaninov's Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor, op.28 scales lows and moderate highs at phenomenal speed and dramatic intensity. Like Russia itself, these pieces are not easy to absorb but are certainly high relief from the mediocrity of our modern life.