Encounters with Yulianna Avdeeva
2014-10-28 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-06-21 — Brushed up for better readability
A Recital Invitation, 2008
Three years ago, friends invited us to a piano recital by Yulianna Avdeeva at their home, a spacious loft apartment near Zurich. This is the first time we were invited to such an event, and we had no idea who the artist was. I hadn’t been following the many piano competitions all around the world.
Here’s the invitation that we received:
For us this was the first event of this type, so I didn’t prepare myself much — I went to this concert merely curious about what we were going to experience. The setting was a relatively new, three-story, open, loft-style apartment, built into a hill. The piano resided on the ground floor / basement, partly under an open staircase. There were about 40 seats for listeners. In the middle floor (living room), refreshments were available during the break and after the concert. The entrance is on the top floor, in the back of the building. The event was of course “sold out”, as all listeners came upon personal invitation.
About the Artist
As mentioned in the invitation, Yulianna at that time had just finished her concert diploma and had since become Prof. Scherbakov‘s assistant. This presumably consists of filling in for him when he is away for concerts or for a recording session. This is now 3 years ago, and she has evolved quite dramatically as a pianist since then. In the aftermath, I could imagine that at the time of the concert Yulianna was still trying to “find herself”, i.e., to detach herself from her teachers and completing the process of becoming an autonomous artistic personality of her own. I don’t know whether the program was new in her repertoire, or whether (more likely) at least parts originated from her concert diploma program.
About Yulianna’s Playing
I did not take notes about her playing, so I’m merely posting a couple short remarks:
Bach, Toccata in D
The Bach Toccata in D (must have been BWV 912) did not make much of an impression on me — but one should not rate this judgement very high, as I have general reservations about playing Bach on a modern piano. She certainly played this OK — at least I don’t remember having specific objections about her interpretation.
Beethoven, Piano Sonata No.16 in G major, op.31/1
Similarly, with the Beethoven piano sonata (No.16 in G major, op.31/1) I must have been biased already: at that time I had started listening and becoming fond of interpretations on the fortepiano (e.g., by Ronald Brautigam). Also within the realm of modern piano playing (where my favorites for this sonata are Gulda and Gilels, in that order) I did not think her interpretation was exceptional. It was good — though I vaguely remember having some reservations (articulation / phrasing?). Too bad I did not take notes!
Chopin: Scherzi No.2 in B♭ minor op.31, No.3 in C♯ minor op.39
With the two Chopin Scherzi (No.2 in B♭ minor, op.31, and No.3 in C♯ minor, op.39) we were suddenly in a different world (probably closer to her heart as well!): this definitely had more character, her playing was very powerful, virtuosic, sometimes at the border of risky—already then she rated expression higher than perfection. I vaguely remember that the prime impression was that of a forceful interpretation with a broad dynamic range, precise, strong accents, and I do remember that she sometimes almost “threw her body into the keys”, almost standing up from the chair.
Liszt: Rhapsodie espagnole (S.254)
Yet, the Rhapsodie espagnole (S.254) by Liszt was even more of a wake-up call: this clearly was the peak, the masterpiece of the evening. I remember well how we sat there breathless, in total amazement about her abilities and virtuosity, her enormous energy reserves, and the power in her fingers / hands. This was after the two Chopin Scherzi that already required a fair amount of energy! That Rhapsodie is of course the ideal platform to demonstrate virtuosity, as Liszt obviously conceived it as a showpiece.
Would be nice to be able to listen to a recording of that concert!
A Second Recital Invitation, 2010
Rather unexpectedly, early in 2010, we received another invitation to a performance by Yulianna, in the same venue — and this time the host explained to us, that this was in preparation for the Chopin competition later that year; consequently, the program was Chopin only:
I think that the second half of the first recital dominated our expectations for this one. Of course, we had not forgotten Yulianna’s interpretation of Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole, we probably expected Liszt style virtuoso music. We were in for a surprise: over the past 18 months, Yulianna had made enormous progress, had clearly evolved into a strong musical personality of her own!
I’m not going to make detailed remarks about the individual pieces in her program. All these compositions she also played during the Chopin competition, and plenty of people commented on her interpretations during the competition one way or another. Let me just give a few general remarks about that evening, back in May 2010:
About the 2010 Recital
- The prime impression: over the past 18 months, expression and emotionality had become much more important, were now prevailing over sheer virtuosity;
- she truly had come a long way from her time in the class of Konstantin Scherbakov;
- one striking feature now was her arpeggiando playing in slower, lyrical passages, especially in the Nocturnes op.27, and (even more so) in Ballad Nr.4, op.52;
- actually, for me there was too much arpeggiando. However, as it turned out a few months later, at that time she was apparently still experimenting, seeking. She had that evening recorded for her own reviewing. When she played the same pieces during the Chopin competition in fall 2010, she had slightly readjusted her playing. She still played arpeggiandi, but not to a degree that would cause objection, or be too conspicuous. Note that the degree of evolution in her Chopin interpretation since the concert in 2008 is not easy to assess: in the first event, the only pieces by Chopin were two Scherzi — compositions that are less lyrical in character.
- Overall, I felt that playing Chopin with so much softness and emotionality required a lot of guts on Yulianna’s side. I had fears about a confrontation and comparison with the “virtuoso players” in the upcoming competition; luckily, these fears later proved unnecessary!
I should also mention that our friend’s Steinway was in excellent shape and perfectly in-tune. My impression was that of one of the best piano tunings that I ever experienced.
Overall, I feel extremely fortunate and privileged to have been invited to these two private concerts. It gave us the opportunity to listen to such an extraordinary pianist, and these encounters in a private environment gave us a chance to experience her art in much more detail and proximity than in any regular concert!
Chopin Competition in Warsaw, 2010
After the concert, I did of course not forget about these performances, and about Yulianna’s planned participation in the Chopin competition in Warsaw later that year. However, I was busy and did indeed miss the first round. Only during round 2 I started watching the live webcasts. I was anxiously watching Yulianna’s performances, comparing them to those of her competitors. I’m fortunate to work at home, in my home office, so I was able to have major parts of the competition (from the second round onwards) running in real-time while at work.
I was glad to see that Yulianna had made yet another leap forward. The lyrical parts in her interpretation now sounded more natural, the excessive arpeggiando was back to a good level, in my opinion. Of course, she was still “playing risky” in favor of expression and emotion — and she did miss a few keys. As many others, I fell into the trap of watching out for (minor) errors in her playing, realizing that some of her contenders produced near-perfect performances. Consequently, because of a few missed keys I had foolish concerns whether Yulianna would reach round 3, and then the final round. Luckily, the jury members looked for the interpretation as a whole, and for musical expression rather than bare mechanical precision!
Naturally, the tension rose during the third round, let alone during the final round. Here, the contenders had to perform one of the two Chopin piano concertos. I won’t go into detail here: all performances have already been discussed extensively. Also, one can still view them online (at least some). Actually, one of the rather disgusting aspects of the competition were the public comments on the NIFC Web site and Facebook pages. They ranged from “but xyz is far better!” to complaints about an artist’s clothing — ugh!!
People simply appeared to be unable to accept that this was not a public vote, but a competition with a jury consisting of artists. These must have played all the pieces themselves, and they must know them (and all details of their scores) by heart. The jury includes highly qualified members such as Martha Argerich. Therefore, one should assume that the jury scores are created with highly competent background / reasoning, rather than just being a matter of taste. Inevitably, these results will not always be in accordance with the public opinion.
I stayed in communication with our friend who had been hosting the above two private concerts. For us, the hottest phase was the final round (obviously, because Yulianna was still “in the loop”). In reality, the sum of all results from the previous rounds are of course included. In some cases these may even render the scoring from the final round redundant! But of course, the secrecy about those initial ratings partially is what made the competition so interesting for the public!
Between our friend and myself, in the final round, Evgeni Bozhanov, Ingolf Wunder and Yulianna Avdeeva were all hot candidates for the first price. Particularly interesting was the comparison of the performance of Wunder vs. Yulianna in op.11 in that final round. Yulianna played at full risk (and again she missed a couple of keys), but put all her emotions and musicality into that performance.
Wunder played the same piece after her — technically, his playing was near-perfect; he did not take much of a risk, i.e., he played safe, clean. But in my opinion, his interpretation could (should) have been more expressive. It is probably fair to say that he knows to serve the expectations of the broad Chopin community.
Comparisons with Ingolf Wunder
Interestingly, our friend liked Yulianna’s interpretation, but Wunder left him with total amazement about the technical perfection / brilliance, his rounded, smooth interpretation (“Chopin as I think it should be”). On the other hand, he agreed that Yulianna’s interpretation was very touching. I recommended to him to invert the order, i.e., to re-listen the two performances, but taking Wunder first, then Yulianna.
He did so, and he had to revise his judgement at least partially. Our friend stated that while Wunder’s playing is near-perfect, there is also very little, if anything unexpected. He even found that upon re-listening he started to feel a sense of déja-vu, normality, almost boredom. In contrast, Yulianna put all her emotionality into Chopin’s notation. The common expectations are not much of a concern to her. I’ll return to her interpretation of Chopin’s concerto op.11 in a separate posting.
In my personal ranking, Wunder and Yulianna were at the top positions of the 10 contenders in the final round. In the end I was still surprised, happy, delighted to hear that Yulianna made it to the first prize. Had there been any doubts about the outcome of the competition, in my opinion, Yulianna’s performance during the award ceremony more than confirmed that the jury verdict was spot-on!
These are my current thoughts, thinking back about the past 3 years. I decided to make a separate posting in which I collect my thoughts and impressions from a year ago, immediately after the competition and the award ceremony.
To conclude this posting, a few comments on local media coverage. Yulianna is Russian, not Swiss — but at least she received parts of her education (with a Russian professor) at the local conservatory of Zurich / Winterthur. Maybe this is why the major Swiss newspapers rarely ever mention her name? In Switzerland there is this notion of an anti-patriotic reflex with local artists! The little note in the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 2010-10-22) certainly was extremely, appallingly slim, and of that little text, only the first 36 words are about Yulianna’s achievement (sorry about the awkward transliteration in the Swiss newspapers!):
It looks like they simply reproduced the text provided by the news agency. They didn’t even care to add a comment of their own! Our local newspaper (Anzeiger von Uster, 2010-10-22) was a bit more generous than that! They even dug up a picture:
Overall, I’m not really pleased with the (little) media coverage that Yulianna is getting here in Switzerland. I wonder whether it’s the same elsewhere? It’s sad to see that the public appears to fall for sex appeal and glamour only. It seems to be unable to appreciate true musical qualities of an artist!