Concert review: Russian master pianist Mikhail Rudy disappoints

The Sound of Colours was a joint collaboration between Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and the Hong Kong Arts Festival with well-known Russian pianist Mikhail Rudy in a recital of programme music, which is a genre of descriptive, story-telling pieces. Rudy's concerts in Hong Kong were accompanied by film and moving images, but it was a straightforward piano recital at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Hall here.

The first half was devoted to just one work, Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka arranged for piano solo, adapted by Rudy from the Russian composer's own version for four hands and Three Movements From Petrushka for two hands, a staple of piano competitions.

Those who have heard his splendid recording of this edition on EMI Classics or attended his performance at the 1996 Singapore International Piano Festival would have been alarmed by the stark diminution of his abilities. Stooped in posture and appearing distinctly frail, he barely held the half-hour work together.

True to the recital's title, he painted an almighty wash of sound in The Shrovetide Fair but much of this was achieved by over-pedalling and playing very fast. When it came to the familiar Russian Dance, his fingers were unable to keep up and there were missed notes aplenty.

To his credit, Rudy was still able conjure the lush "old world" atmosphere for this busy piece and his memory mostly held up, even when the final sequence of dances at the Shrovetide Fair was hurried and hashed. Instead of the big glissando ending of the Three Movements, the quiet ending with Petrushka's ghost shaking his fist at his nemesis saw Rudy regaining his composure for an eerily subdued close.

The second half of shorter pieces was better, but only just. Gluck's Melody from Orpheus in Giovanni Sgambati's famous transcription was distinguished by a singing tone over a lilting bass, and in the same key segued without a break into Mozart's Fantasy in D minor, where he took a somewhat epic view to this miniature masterpiece.

Appropriately stentorian were the opening chords of Liszt's transcription of Isolde's Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan And Isolde. Here Rudy found the right passionate sweep to depict opera's most poetic sexual meltdown. In contrast, he accorded the requisite lightness of touch to two of Debussy's Etudes even if not all the notes were there.

The recital proper closed with Ravel's highly effective piano version of his La Valse. Like Petrushka, its multitudes of notes proved too much of a struggle for a clearly beleaguered Rudy. The secret of a successful La Valse is to make it appear careening off track while maintaining total control. In this case, the careening part was taken too literally, neither by choice nor design. This was a punch drunk impression of the piece rather than an interpretation.

For many in the audience, the encore segment was the best part. With the worst behind him, a more relaxed Rudy made real music in Tchaikovsky's Barcarolle (June) from The Seasons, an excellent swaggering Montagues And Capulets from Prokofiev's Romeo And Juliet and Chopin's Nocturne in D flat major (Op.27 No.2), the last of which will remained a cherished memory of a once commanding artist in sad decline.