Yulianna Avdeeva dazzles Istanbul

TurkeyTurkey  Bach, Chopin, Ravel, Prokofiev: Yulianna Avdeeva (piano), Istanbul Recitals at ‘The Seed’, Istanbul 16.2.12 (AM)

Bach:  Overture in the French Style, BWV 831
Chopin: Barcarolle in F sharp minor, Op. 60
Ravel:  Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899); Sonatine for Piano in F-minor (1903-1905)
: Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 14

When I conducted a small interview with the 2010 International Chopin Competition winner Yulianna Avdeeva last week, one question I specifically asked her was whether she was concerned at all that she could be labeled as a ‘Chopin player’ first and foremost (after all, next to her Chopin trophy lies the Krystian Zimmerman Special Prize for the best performance of a Chopin Sonata, not to mention her victory in the Arthur Rubinstein in Memoriam competition). Her straightforward answer was that although Chopin’s music would certainly continue to be essential to her career, her musical interests covered a far wider spectrum, and that she was fascinated by how one musical epoch influenced the next. Her carefully selected program bore witness to this fascination: the chronologically flowing sequence of the evening was devised to reflect ‘the role of melody in music’ across different eras. From that perspective, her choices for the evening could not have been better.

The French Overture may very well be the most melodic long-form keyboard music Bach (arguably the best melodist in the history of music) ever composed. The music, throughout its eight movements, jumps from one great melody to the next, not spending much time on harmonizing or pedantry. Stressing the foreground over the background is quite uncommon in Bach’s keyboard music, but here it is done for the purpose of connecting to the intended audience for this work: the middle-class, who were primarily interested in hearing melodies rather than harmonies and structures. Ms. Avdeeva played the majestic Overture regally, in a bright and jolting tone with nominal ornamentation accentuating the often opposing lines of melody evenly. The restlessness of the music was well reflected (not only here, but throughout the suite). During the Courante and the two Gavotte dances her left hand played restive against her more flowing right hand, giving us an overall noble and truly satisfying performance. The sudden sharp staccatos of her Gigue gave way to a superb Echo, which she took at an appropriately fast and harried tempo. This unusual addition to the dance suite form, which traditionally ends with a Gigue, is aimed at thrilling the audience. Some pianists tend to take this movement at a slow march pace which, while sounding refined, fails the buildup of the Gigue and its potential to deliver an explosive finale. Yulianna Avdeeva’s choice of tempo and temperament is much more effective.

Next up was one of Chopin’s greatest works, the Barcarolle, which contains some of the composer’s most beautiful melodies. Ms. Avdeeva’s reliance on both the sustain and the soft pedals was minimal, allowing her to paint  a rippling but clear water effect in the left hand figuration. She masterfully built up a constrained passion when going for the climaxes, took us back to the spectral main theme gracefully and finished with a thumping coda. The thump took us straight to the second Scherzo in b-flat minor. The pianist made an austere but ominous entrance with the opening chords and she carried her transparent tone in the uncharacteristically long scherzo melody. Her trio started soft and slow, but soon enough, she brought back the somber air in the question-answer episodes of the section. Her playing got more and more agitated, as if she were a lover becoming infuriated by being asked the same question over and over. The fiery ending of the section gave way to an equally distressed restatement of the scherzo and a frantic coda.

Ms. Avdeeva’s continued search for melodies in different periods continued in Ravel’s ‘Pavane pour une infante défunte’ –a work the composer tried to disown years later despite the adoration it gathered. She played the gorgeous main melody as sweet as can be, preserving a healthy balance between a regular beat and impressionistic nebulousness during the course of the music. The final reincarnation of the opening melody in the right hand against complicated arpeggios in the left were particularly well executed. Ravel’s wonderful Sonatine was next, with the pianist showcasing the first movement’s beautiful shadings in the background while putting the melody on top. She kept the minuet simple and refined. The technical difficulties of the third ‘animé’ movement were overcome without much difficulty. Yulianna Avdeeva switched between the movement’s polyrhythms without losing her strong grasp in the left hand arpeggios.

As triumphant as the evening has been thus far, the best was still yet to come, as Ms. Avdeeva shone even more in the Prokofiev Sonata. This second sonata has always been a little problematic for me, and to tell the truth, I gave up on it some years ago when even Richter’s performance(s) failed to take me beyond its persistent, blatant sarcasm. Ms. Avdeeva shed a different light on the sonata, though, as she played the first movement jovially, keeping on the glossy side of the road and thus avoiding Prokofiev’s biting irony, which tends to end up being a joke on itself. The ensuing Scherzo was rhythmic and forward-driven. Her Andante was dark, but her phrasing was sensual, recalling some of Medtner’s elegiac atmosphere. The final Vivace had much forward momentum, aided by a supple bass. The jazzy elements of the music were given their due by careful pedaling that emphasized the syncopated rhythm. The rapid coda brought her sizzling performance to a brilliant conclusion. My hearty applause at the end of the piece was meant not only for her great performance – I was also grateful for the motivation to give this piece another chance.

There were yet more fireworks to come, though, as Ms. Avdeeva came back on stage for an encore: the Gigue from Bach’s Keyboard Partita No.1 BWV825. The exceptional Bach that we heard from her at the beginning of the evening was reprised once again as the pianist played a swift, all staccato rendition with dazzling finger work. All in all: a spellbinding evening, a first-rate program and a very talented, effusive young pianist.

Alain Matalon