Yulianna Avdeeva’s Exciting London Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Ravel, Schumann. Yulianna Avdeeva (piano) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. 5.2.2013 (RB)

Bach: Overture in the French Style in B minor BMV831
Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit
Schumann: Sonata in F sharp minor Op 11

Yulianna Avdeeva won first prize at the Chopin competition in 2010 and is the only female pianist to have done so since Martha Argerich won in 1965. She opted to play three very contrasting works for this recital, highlighting her formidable technique, versatility and intellectual rigour.

She opened with the Bach Overture in B minor, which was published in 1735 at the same time as the Italian Concerto and is somewhat unfairly overshadowed by that work. It was originally intended as Bach’s seventh Partita and it is a big work, clearly written for the two-manual harpsichord. Avdeeva approached the work with considerable intellectual rigour but at the same time conveyed the rich emotional resonance which seems to emerge so organically from this music. In the opening Overture, she showed an excellent understanding of baroque period conventions. The ornamentation was exquisitely executed, the contrapuntal lines remained admirably clear and the tone was perfectly weighted. The opening was regal and stately while the ensuing fugue had a dance-like quality, the sequences played with elegance and charm. The dynamic contrasts were particularly striking, effectively underscoring that the work had been written for two-manual harpsichord. The Courante had rhythmic inventiveness and was played in a probing and introspective way. The two Gavottes were light, elegant and crisply articulated with Avdeeva again bringing out the dance elements in the music. The wonderful Sarabande was taken at a stately flowing pace with Avdeeva subtly highlighting the dissonances. The virtuoso Gigue was floridly ornamented and played with verve while in the final echo Avdeeva used a range of sonorities and dynamic contrasts to bring the piece to a highly satisfying conclusion. This was superlative Bach playing which shows that Avdeeva has clearly made a very close study of this composer.

The Bach was followed by Ravel’s highly virtuosic Gaspard de la Nuit which is based on the three nightmarish fantasies of Aloysius Bertrand. I was struck once again by the clarity of Avdeeva’s playing and by the extraordinary control in this most technically demanding of scores. There was an impressive range of imaginative textures and sonorities in Ondine and some vivid characterisation of the scene. The shimmering right hand figuration at the opening could have been softer and I slightly missed the mocking quality at the end of the movement. In Le Gibet Avdeeva did a marvellous job in sustaining the melody which threads through the centre of the movement. There was a strong sense of anguish and despair running through the piece and some vivid tone painting with the tolling B flats and chords depicting a desolate landscape. Avdeeva played Scarbo with almost ridiculous ease: the technical problems seemed incidental and she was more interested in creating extraordinary musical effects and colours. She played the climaxes with real power and authority while the whirling pirouettes and malevolence of the character were brilliantly depicted.

The final piece of the evening was Schumann’s Sonata in F sharp minor which was published in 1835 and “dedicated to Clara by Florestan and Eusebius”. The impassioned nature of the music and sense of romantic ardour showed through in the introduction while the nervy, restless quality of the ensuing Allegro was nicely judged. Avdeeva’s playing was very polished and technically assured but the Allegro could perhaps have had more of the capricious and fanciful elements that are so intrinsic to Schumann’s music. The second movement is an aria and Avdeeva showed us in this performance a really cultivated poetic sensibility. The melody seemed to float in space and there was some wonderfully caressed phrasing. The opening of the scherzo was very taut and rhythmically incisive – as it should be – while in the intermezzo Avdeeva showed a greater sense of freedom and spontaneity, really responding to Schumann’s mercurial imagination. The virtuoso demands of the finale did not pose any problem to this pianist and she managed to create a strong sense of structural cohesion notwithstanding the changes of mood and tempo. There could perhaps have been greater sense of flexibility and more responsiveness to the fluctuating changes of mood. Overall, however, this was a very assured and impressive piece of playing.

Avdeeva played two encores: a Nocturne and a Mazurka by Chopin, both of which were played in a highly cultivated way. Ms Avdeeva is clearly a pianist to be reckoned with and I hope she will play in London again soon. I have one plea for her – can we have more recordings of these wonderful performances? (I could only find one recording by her – of Chopin’s piano music – on the internet.)

Robert Beattie