Yulianna Avdeeva at Queen Elizabeth Hall – Bach, Ravel & Schumann

Overture in the French Style in B minor, BWV831
Gaspard de la nuit
Piano Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.11

Yulianna Avdeeva (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 February, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Yulianna Avdeeva. Photograph: en.chopin.nifc.plIn November 2010 the Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva arrived at this venue as the newly crowned Winner of the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition. Then she devoted her recital entirely to the composer whose Prize she had been awarded; allowing that others thought differently, my comments at the time noted that her playing was “forced, dynamics and accents exaggerated, the phrasing literal, monotony setting in during fortissimos … serious in its intent, earnest even, sometimes seeking but not always finding, but lacking a deep-seated relationship with the music.” Two years on, in her return to the International Piano Series, it proved so again, if to a much lesser extent, in two Chopin encores – a Nocturne seductive and surging, and a Mazurka proud if clinical; yet both suggested that Chopin remains not yet quite the love of Avdeeva’s life and that she is still getting to know his ways.

Such feelings were thrown into relief by the quite outstanding first half of Bach and Ravel followed by orderly Schumann. His expansive, musically- and emotionally-complex F sharp minor Piano Sonata was given a rather severe reading in the outer movements, crisply played and lucidly sounded, and burgeoning with ardour in the slow introduction but then rather too Classical, too rational for a composer of such mood-swings and flights of fancy; and this Sonata carries a dedication to wife Clara not from Robert but from his twin opposes Florestan and Eusebius. Although Avdeeva usefully repeated the exposition and was wonderfully sensitive in the reflective passages, the first movement, despite her commitment, emerged as tight, so too the discursive, elongated finale, occasionally melting to starry-night wonderment but lacking flexibility. If the coda was hard-won it seemed more to do with battling a demanding work rather than having peered deeply into it. The short middle movements were admirable, a tenderly turned ‘Aria’, then a perky scherzo in which Avdeeva relished Schumann’s harmonic twists.

But then with her miraculous Bach and Ravel, Avdeeva had set herself quite a task, Herculean really, in the notorious-to-bring-off Schumann. In Johann Sebastian’s Overture in the French Style – a partita in design if not in name – Avdeeva combined rich expression with notable poise, clarity and (subtle) dynamism. The result was a joyous traversal of this large-scale eight-movement work, its opening and elaborate ‘Ouverture’ nearly as long as the remaining movements put together. Avdeeva enjoyed the intricacy of the dances, making them speak, ornaments integrated and with superb trills, and she searched the ‘Sarabande’, becoming more rapt the longer the movement went on. Over 33 eventful minutes Avdeeva made this music seem special, amazingly sophisticated and spiritual yet with an off-the-scale street cred. Just as marvellous was Gaspard de la nuit, delicately wavy in ‘Ondine’ and glittering with possibilities to a passionate climax; ‘Le gibet’ hypnotic in its tolling and its emptiness; and ‘Scarbo’ surreptitious and sinister, detonations saved for only when really needed, and thus gaining in impact, and with a remarkable passage that suggested Scarbo had become submerged in deep unfathomable waters, out of which the final climax seemed to reach for the sun before the malevolent creature that Scarbo is disappeared as if with a wave of a magician’s wand. An astonishing performance, and throughout the evening Avdeeva conjured a beautiful sound from the piano, never harsh in the treble and avoiding a plummy bass.

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