Thursday, 30 March 2017

Yulianna Avdeeva Astounds at St John's Smith Square

I last saw Yulianna Avdeeva in September at the Wigmore Hall but in truth, I spied her mere weeks ago, amongst Elton’s muses in the Radical Eye exhibit at the Tate Modern. I cannot remember the photographer’s name, but its subject was a young woman arching away from the camera, with the supplest neck and quiet humour. Avdeeva herself has one of those tempestuous auras, replete with a gamine countenance and such expressive eyes. Her very presence exudes a radiance that is almost otherworldly; and, luckily for us all, this inwards glow translates ardently to her music.

Avdeeva is an artist who can inspire the most violent reactions from my person. The combination of her soft deftness an immense academic understanding of the keyboard’s possibilities make me lose my mind entirely. The 2010 International Chopin Competition birthed three immensely successful medallists who have all gone on to forge notable careers. In fact, I have had the wondrous luck of hearing all three perform in the past four months. It is odd to call the winner of (arguably) the most prestigious piano competition in the world a maverick character. Yet this is a label that has plagued Avdeeva since the prize, the award of which was accompanied by considerable controversy. But there is a candour in Avdeeva’s playing and a modern ferocity that turns my head more than any other. The virtuoso and curious charisma of Daniil Trifonov is now applauded worldwide and Ingolf Wunder constantly astounds with brazen technique. Avdeeva, however, is arguably the most rewarding to behold and when she connects with the stool, the possibilities are endless.

The first half of the programme was entirely devoted to Beethoven, with his Sonatas 26-27 curiously inverted in order. The 26th, the Piano Sonata in E Flat Major (‘Les Adieux’), was miraculously realised, drawn tightly together by an inner surety. Avdeeva’s instinctive fecundity is one of her defining traits; it cast a grave filter over the adagio of Das Lebenswohl, realising the dark drama behind the composition’s creation. Too often is the third movement (Das Wiedersehen) taken with brazenly meaningless joy, but on Avdeeva, its natural vivacissimente is accompanied with real introspect, the interplay of subjects between hands telling of the politically programmatic intention Beethoven endowed it. Yet, her labours aren’t imposingly obvious and her interpretation can soar on even a superficial level of mere radiance – such is the roundness of her tone and archness of her phrasing.

But the chief reason I had rushed so impatiently through my day was in anticipation of the final item on the programme; Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, the only piece he wrote in pure sonata form. It is the finest example of Liszt’s greatest legacy on composition; the concept of thematic transformation, which purports to undertake the listener through a constantly evolving metamorphosis of motifs and themes, in a much freer form fashion than the classical variations which preceded it. It is a sonata in a single movement – thirty minutes of unbroken “blind noise” (as Clara Schumann disparagingly said) – which nevertheless contains distinctly divisible parts and the traditional scheme of exposition, development and recapitulation. Structure aside, its visceral power has held me in thrall since my first hearing; it has Liszt’s trademark virtuosity but also desperate Romantic gentility, paradoxical conflict and ravishing passages. For all those who find Liszt unaccountably bolshy and meaninglessly indulgent – I direct them to this carriage into the sublime which is, in the words of Wagner, “beyond all conception”.

Such is my endless admiration for the composition that I have listened to nearly every recording made. Where many exponents suffer is in conflating Romantic rush with haste, a heinous fault to befall any Liszt composition. It is one of those pieces in which the contrast between its youthful and wizened interpreters is magnificently intriguing. Claudio Arrau’s late recording is perhaps the most complete, with a stateliness and roundness of tone that endows the delirium with contemplation.

Avdeeva’s reading is much more eager and premised on the vehemence of youth and febrile reasoning. She courts the dangerous rumble of the opening Allegro Assai with such hedonistic abandon that, when the climatic Grandioso is reached, the opening chord is perversely almost ‘sotto voce’. It is a mark of instinct against form, of journey over destination. The same treatment is applied throughout. Lyricism flirts with grandeur and the ebb of the thematic transmutations is dispatched with such glee that it snatches wickedly. But, as ever with this pianist, nothing is ragged nor rushed. It is not the most elucidating rendition, but it is quite consistently brilliant, with such exquisite taste championing reckless feeling. Avdeeva’s Liszt Sonata is so charmingly accessible that the very rise and fall of the Dolce passages were instinctively mimicked by the collective worldly sigh of the audience, who succumbed to sheer purity of feeling. Deceptively simple, it is a wise reading – too many young exponents have attempted to impart grand, sonorous themes upon this layered creature. Yet, their keenness belies haste and exposes a psychological want and lack of gravitas. Avdeeva’s currently dabbles with the precipice of abandon rather than opulence – and I look forward to hearing its evolution over time, if I should be so lucky.

It was under such enchantment that I gave what was only my second standing ovation in a recital hall this season – alongside, it seemed, everybody else. Our gratitude was handsomely repaid with a return to Chopin, whose genius first thrust this young phenom into public consciousness. The aching simplicity of the Nocturne in C Sharp stood in stark contrast to the twisted splendour of Liszt that preceded it, deployed with a free hand and murmuring rubatos. Yet, there was more garlanded wonder to come, with a ferocious and glowing Polonaise in A Flat Major (Heroic). Curious comparison can be made to Ingolf Wunder, the silver medallist at the 2010 contest, who played the same piece in the same hall, a mere four months earlier. The Heroic was projected shamelessly then, flamboyant and concrete. Male, tense and percussive, it coaxed its applause from awe but left without a sense of Chopin’s warmth. Once so disarmingly 'bel canto', his understanding of the composer has faltered since those competition days. But – oh, Avdeeva! Here is a Heroic Polonaise that breathes, that exudes synergy and thought amongst its very great brilliance. It is a testament to her style, vivacity and depth of consideration – and of course, to Chopin himself. And to think that the critics once cruelly disparaged hers as “a vision of Chopin [which] takes a step back to the concept of Chopin as a composer of ladies’ music – ladies who are as rich as they are talentless.”

What curiously unfitting censure! Warsaw Voice, eat your stolid little heart out – we’ll keep her gladly.

Edit: Many thanks to a Samaritan commenter, who has brought this (potentially illegal) recording of Avdeeva's Liszt Sonata to my attention!

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