English Suite in A minor, BWV807
Ballade in F, Op.38
4 Mazurkas, Op.7
Polonaise in A flat, Op.53
Piano Sonata No.8 in B flat, Op.84
Yulianna Avdeeva (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 15 September, 2016
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
When the Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva won the Chopin Competition in 2010 she was the first female pianist to do so for forty-five years – Martha Argerich took first prize in 1965. To give an idea of the calibre of playing, Avdeeva pipped Ingolf Wunder, Lukas Geniušias and Daniil Trifonov to the post.
This recital was her Wigmore Hall debut, and it was, as football commentators might express it, a game of two halves. There is no doubting her technical mastery nor the steely composure and ergonomic efficiency of her playing. Yet in J. S. Bach’s A-minor English Suite, she sounded torn between its dance styles and the lure to highlight particular effects. The ‘Prelude’ veered from a hectoring brilliance heightened by the bright Steinway sound towards extreme changes of registration and frequent recourse to a delicate pianissimo. You couldn’t fault the control needed to achieve such a variety of shade and tonal depth, but where she was going with it was less clear. About halfway through, her focus tightened. Some minimalist pedalling added to the muted melancholy of the ‘Sarabande’, and the elegant agréments in the repeats gave an inkling of spontaneity, while the ‘Bourrées’ and ‘Gigue’ that followed had a rhythmic spark and a subtly accented evenness in the best Bach style.
It was odd that the focus became hazy again in the Chopin group, pieces that represent the composer at his most improvisatory, withdrawn and exuberant. In the Ballade she marked out its contrasts magnificently but glossed over the transformations of the all-pervasive lilting rhythm. There was, though, no lack of angularity and attack, channelled through some vertiginous speeds. She could have allowed herself more freedom in the Opus 7 Mazurkas – in the first she stayed stubbornly loyal to a particular shaping of a phrase, and there is much more heaviness in the opening of the third. She seemed entirely at home with the scale of the A-flat Polonaise, in a scorching performance that made the most of the middle section’s relentless ostinato.
There is an unflappable, slightly ironic quality to Avdeeva’s stage presence, which added to the elusiveness of the first half of her programme. That changed in her thoroughly engaged account of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.8, which caught the first movement’s fragmented volatility perfectly, and the dazzling Finale powered ahead with Soviet-style, desperate glitter. When she is in the spirit of the music Avdeeva is a formidable artist, which her encore, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Meditation’ (from Opus 72), relaxed and completely in the spirit of the music, only reaffirmed.