Piano Recital: Yulianna Avdeeva
Bach / Chopin
Kultur- und Kongresshaus Aarau , 2017-03-05
Introduction — Artist & Venue
A rare opportunity to witness the playing of Yulianna Avdeeva (*1985)! She is a pianist that I have first encountered in 2008, at a private recital, I followed her through the International Chopin Competition 2010 in Warsaw, and I have since been to two of her rare concerts in Switzerland. For further information on the artist see also Wikipedia.
This recital was organized by the Hans Huber Foundation in Schönenwerd/SO and was held at the Kultur- & Kongresshaus Aarau, featuring a very nice, “flexible” concert hall. For this recital, the podium was at ground level. The auditorium formed an upwards ramp, giving everybody an excellent view onto the artist and the Steinway D. The instrument stood in a stage opening that was shielded with wooden panels.
The venue was about half full, which I consider excellent for a provincial piano recital. I still vividly remember the discomfort when attending a recital by Hans Richter-Haaser (1912 – 1980) back around 1971, when the same venue was near-empty!
A Note on the Repertoire
Yulianna Avdeeva devoted the first half of the concert to music by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). Bach did not know the piano with its percussive mechanics. The only percussive keyboard instrument he was familiar with is the Clavichord, which is a very intimate, soft instrument, with sound characteristics (in terms of harmonics, etc.) similar to a harpsichord (but much, much softer).
So, Bach couldn’t even remotely anticipate the sound or the articulatory properties of a (now) modern concert grand. Arguments such as “Well, if Bach had known the modern piano, he would certainly have…” are pure speculation and actually utter nonsense. Bach wrote for the instruments he knew and had access to, with their sound in mind. Therefore, a performance can—in the strict sense—only be called authentic, if the artist realizes it on instruments that the composer was familiar with. Consequently, for purists such as Gustav Leonhardt (1928 – 2012), there is no justification for pianists publicly playing Bach on non-authentic instruments such as a modern concert grand.
I have a lot of understanding and compassion for Gustav Leonhardt’s point-of-view. However, it goes too far, at least, when pianists such as Yulianna Avdeeva have made serious efforts to learn about proper ornamentation and articulation etc. of keyboard (Clavier) playing in baroque times. Besides studying the piano with Konstantin Scherbakov (*1963), Yulianna Avdeeva has taken classes in historical performance with Johann Sonnleitner (*1941) at the ZHdK (Zürcher Hochschule der Künste). So, with some restrictions, playing harpsichord music on the piano is definitely possible (and often acceptable), but it often requires different tempo selections (faster in some cases, slower in others).
Works by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
Bach: Toccata in D major, BWV 912
After returning from Lübeck in 1706, where he spent several months with Dieterich Buxtehude (1637/39 – 1707), Bach digested the latter’s Stylus phantasticus in seven Toccatas (BWV 910 – 916) for keyboard instrument. Yulianna Avdeeva played the third composition from this set, the Toccata in D major, BWV 912.
The Toccata per se is a free type of composition (as opposed to forms with formal structures, such as fugues, etc.). The Stylus phantasticus in addition describes a “wild”, fantastic / fantasy-rich style, full of rapid cadenzas and exotic figures, rich ornamentation, often far-reaching modulations. The Stylus phantasticus has been used with harpsichord and other plucked instruments, in organ music, as well as in music for string instruments, such as the violin.
Playing this Toccata on the concert grand confronted Yulianna Avdeeva with an extra challenge, beyond playing Bach on the piano in general. Producing the effect of the Stylus phantasticus on the piano is difficult, in comparison to the harpsichord. The sound of the instrument is essentially devoid of pungency. Pianos are meant to produce equilibrated, well-balanced sound across the range, while allowing for fine differentiation in dynamics. The harpsichord (for which these Toccatas were very obviously written) or the baroque organ have very limited possibilities for altering the dynamics within a piece, but on the other hand, they feature very pointed articulation.
As mentioned above, these differences in characteristics lead to different tempo preferences. Quite often a “typical” tempo for a given movement type on the harpsichord may simply not be applicable to the piano.
The Toccata in D major, BWV 912 features several segments:
- a freely preluding introduction (4/4, 10 bars)
- an Allegro (57 bars)
- an Adagio (12 bars)
- a second Allegro (fugue, 32 bars)
- a free part (con discrezione, 16 bars)
- another fugue (6/16, 138 bars)
- a coda (6/16, 11 bars, and 4/4, 2 bars)
As can be expected from the above, the introductory, freely preluding Toccata segment (in the narrow sense of the term) is rather smooth, fluent, rather tamed compared to what it could be on baroque instruments.
The first Allegro felt playful: I really liked how Yulianna Avdeeva almost skittishly highlighted the chordic bars, in particular when the music moved into more distant tonalities.
The Adagio is a typical example for a movement that is very hard to realize on the piano, the result far away from the original harpsichord music. The outer segments were rather restrained, mellow. Some “rebelling Toccata flavor” could at most be found in the short tremoli, and in the little build-up in the center of that section.
Allegro (Fuga) — con discrezione — Fuga
The first fugue, too, begins retained, quite pianistically, though the artist differentiates the second exposition to switch to più f. I was happy to see that with the con discrezione part she “moved closer to Bach” again. I also liked the playfully baroque second fugue in 6/16 time.
What I really liked: in all the Bach that Yulianna Avdeeva played, she used the sustain pedal exclusively to enhance the resonance on individual notes, never (as far as I could see) to create a legato.
The “Overture in French Style”, BWV 831 is formally a Partita in B minor, a baroque suite. The original suite typically consisted of at least the four baroque dance movements Allemande — Courante — Sarabande — Gigue. Optionally, a Prélude precedes these movements, and often there are extra dance movements (Bourrée, Gavotte, etc.), mostly between the Sarabande and the Gigue. The BWV 831 lacks the Allemande, but features several extra dance movements:
- Gavotte I/II
- Passepied I/II
- Bourrée I/II
All movements in BWV 831 are in AABB form (two parts, each part with repeat signs). Where movements are in pairs (e.g., the Gavottes), the first instance (I) is repeated after the second one (II), but then without “internal” repeats. Yulianna Avdeeva played all repeats.
Bach published this suite in 1735, paired with the Italian Concerto, BWB 971, under the label “Clavierübung, Teil II” (keyboard exercise, part II).
The performing requirements in this composition are quite different from those in the above Toccata. In the latter, the score essentially contains all detail, including all ornaments. In contrast, the French Style requires excellent familiarity with baroque ornamentation. Artists may or may not perform all of Bach’s written ornaments in the first pass. However, in the repeats, the artists would typically add extra ornaments, according to their personal preference and taste.
Yulianna Avdeeva proved excellent taste with the ornamentation. She did not overload the text. In the first pass(es), she rather lefts out selected ornaments in Bach’s score, while in the repeat she selectively and sparingly added ornaments of her own. All this sounded very natural, baroque (as we now understand it), well-balanced. I was happy to note her very moderate dynamics (she avoided romantic crescendo / decrescendo, etc.). The artist largely observed the two-level dynamics that Bach annotated in the score. Bach wrote the piece for a harpsichord with two keyboards.
The theme for the fugue was well-articulated, with “speaking agogics” (at least, when the theme was played without comes). Among the more “piano-like” features in her interpretation was the mellow, soft articulation in the comes (voice that accompanies the main fugue theme), as well as some witty accents / syncopes that freshened up the inherent uniformity in the piano sound / articulation.
This was a rather “pianistic” movement / interpretation (not an imitation of the harpsichord, for sure): it featured soft, mellow articulation. On the bright side, in the second half I noted rich phrasing: “talking”, even narrating.
III. Gavotte I/II
Very nice, dance-like, extra ornamentation in the repeats, discreet agogic play in Gavotte II.
IV. Passepied I/II
Strong, outgoing articulation in Passepied I. In contrast, Passepied II was again rather piano-like: fast, soft & retained in articulation and dynamics.
Also this movement was soft, restrained in dynamics, well-articulated. However, I missed the dance character: maybe it was too slow to still allow the feel for the 3/4 Sarabande rhythm? At this pace, it is very hard to add “dance agogics”.
VI. Bourrée I/II
Bourrée I featured perky, playful articulation. In contrast, Bourrée II was again rather mellow, very careful in the keyboard touch (too careful, maybe? Yulianna Avdeeva risked omitted notes rather than having notes stand out excessively).
This movement followed Bach’s two-level dynamics.
That last movement, with its echo imitations (on the harpsichord, this is where the second keyboard is useful & necessary!), featured particularly nice agogic play.
Overall, this was an interpretation without unnecessary extravaganza. I consider it an adequate “translation” for the modern piano. Yulianna Avdeeva’s playing clearly indicated thorough preparations, a serious study of the composition, and of baroque music & practice in general. The artist deserves high respect for this performance!
Works by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)
After the intermission, Yulianna Avdeeva switched to music by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)—a composer very close to her heart. It’s no miracle that she won the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 2010. She has worked hard on her interpretation & technique, for the competition and for Chopin, and the competition has opened the concert halls of this world for her
Chopin: Four Mazurkas, op.7
In his 69 Mazurki, Chopin created his most personal, most “Polish” set of pieces for the piano—those most strongly tied to his home country. This music covers a large variety of character pieces in the style of Masurian folk music (music from Poland’s Mazovia region). After the four Marzurki op.6, the op.7 is Chopin’s second set of published Mazurki. The five pieces in op.7 are annotated as follows:
- No.5 in B♭ major: Vivace (3/4, 3/4 = 50)
- No.6 in A minor: Vivo, ma non troppo (3/4, 1/4 = 160)
- No.7 in F minor (3/4, 3/4 = 54)
- No.8 in A♭ major: Presto, ma non troppo (3/4, 3/4 = 76)
- No.9 in C major: Vivo (3/4, 3/4 = 60)
Yulianna Avdeeva played the version from the Polish National Edition, which has differences primarily in Mazurka No.8. It also does not feature Mazurka No.9 at all.
Already these four short pieces (less than 10 minutes overall) were very representative of Yulianna Avdeeva’s way of playing Chopin, the strength and uniqueness in her interpretations. I found it to be excellent how she brought out the slightly melancholic atmosphere in this music!
Mazurka No.5 in B♭ major
A prime example of Yulianna’s strong, outstanding agogics! Despite her extensive rubato, the piece retains a strong, distinct dance character—excellent! The pp part appears clearly separated from the rest.
Mazurka No.6 in A minor
Mazurka No.6 appears to hesitate initially, then takes up momentum, again featuring a substantial amount of rubato. In the second half of the first part (bars 17ff.), the artist applies stronger arpeggiando articulation. I really liked how she brought out the dolce (bar 33ff.) and scherzando (bar 37ff.) characteristics in the middle part.
Mazurka No.7 in F minor
This Mazurka starts with a threatening motif in the bass; the continuation is rather moody, later becoming more lively, then returning to the initial tone. A truly masterful interpretation by Yulianna Avdeeva, at the height of her art!
Mazurka No.8 in A♭ major
Almost joyful, yet, also with pensive moments. Overall jokingly, cunningly jumping around—a very nice miniature for closing this small set of pieces!
Chopin’s Piano Sonatas
Frédéric Chopin wrote three piano sonatas:
- The Sonata No.1 in C minor, op.4 is from 1828, but was not published until 1851. This early sonata does not appear in programs very often (there are only few recordings). It stands in the shadow of its famous sister sonatas.
- The most popular of the sonatas is the Sonata No.2 in B♭ minor, op.35—the most brilliant, outgoing and virtuosic of the three. The majority of the contenders in competitions play Sonata No.2—so did Yulianna Avdeeva.
- Finally, Sonata No.3 in B minor, op.58; this sonata is more intimate, more poetic, retained, and less extroverted-virtuosic than the other two. In competitions, pianists are less likely to play this sonata: in comparison to contenders playing the more brilliant Sonata No.2, this might feel like putting themselves at a disadvantage. At the same time, it is the one requiring the most artistic maturity—another reason for artists not to tackle this one too soon.
At the competition in Warsaw in 2010, Yulianna Avdeeva played the second Sonata. Only years later, she took up Sonata No.3 into her repertoire.
The Sonata No.3 in B minor, op.58 features the following four movements:
- Allegro maestoso (4/4)
- Scherzo: Molto vivace (3/4)
- Largo (4/4)
- Finale: Presto non tanto (6/8)
I. Allegro maestoso
Yulianna Avdeeva started this restrained, not too dramatic (after the initial fanfares), she diligently controlled the dynamics, avoided “keyboard thundering”, kept the music transparent. She kept her usual, rich agogics, even when Chopin wrote “in tempo”, which she assumed to refer to the basic pace. In other words: in her interpretation, “in tempo” is not assumed to mean “strictly hold the tempo”, but merely, that the base pace is “back to normal”, while still allowing for (short-term, intra-bar) agogic play). No matter how busy the left hand, she kept the one or two melodies in the right wonderfully singing, with rich expression, “narrating”, very poetic. In the agogics, I very much liked how she applied “time dilatation” to allow for ornaments to flourish! Needless to say: the exposition was repeated.
II. Scherzo: Molto vivace
In its outer parts, the Scherzo was virtuosic, hushing by, blazingly fast, but not extroverted, with flashing runs across the keyboard. As contrast, the middle part (legato) remained restrained, earnest, pensive; in the center, a menacing atmosphere developped, but calmed down again, turning almost serene, before the virtuosic, flashing Scherzo part set in again.
The Largo followed attacca, without any interruption (the final bars in the Scherzo are to be played with sustain pedal). The movement starts with a set of double-punctuated fanfares. Yulianna Avdeeva kept the right hand soft, fluent, singing an intimate melody above the accompaniment which alternates between bass and chords in the middle position.
The sostenuto middle part was mellow, fluent, intimate, yet intense and melodic. It was remarkable how the artist managed to “pull out” the hidden, “inner” melody lines. The A-part returns, and towards the end (all to be played softly), murmuring rebellion developed in the bass, building tension towards the final movement.
IV. Finale: Presto non tanto
The initial fanfares (again!) formed a dramatic crescendo. The subsequent 6/8 quaver figures evolved in long phrases, waves of flowing dynamics, building up, with fluent runs and scales in-between—very virtuosic, but not extroverted, not just “shiny excellence”, but always full of expression, even in the big, grandiose gestures, when the tempo is at the limit of what is doing on the mechanics of a concert grand.
In response to the strong applause (the audience seemed to include a fair number of devote Avdeeva fans!), Yulianna Avdeeva offered two encores, both of course by Frédéric Chopin:
- From the 4 Mazurkas, op.17: Mazurka No.4 in A minor (Lento ma non troppo): a mostly earnest, melancholic, pensive piece, full of hesitations, with two short episodes where it gets more excited. Needless to say: a masterful, enchanting interpretation also here!
- The artist decided not to release the audience with such a pensive piece. Instead, she closed the recital with the famous Polonaise in A♭ major, op.53: a resounding piece, full of big gestures. But Yulianna Avdeeva presented more than a mere bravura piece. She formed harmonious, big, dramatic arches, of course applying her agogics, even allowing for some lyrical aspects, and definitely with a distinct personal touch.
The one snag in this: by the time of the second encore, the piano tuning had quite noticeably degraded.
Needless to say that this provoked a standing ovation!
Something I noted already back in 2010, during the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw: Yulianna Avdeeva’s Chopin may well be polarizing, some listeners (especially those feeling attached to traditional Chopin interpretations) may even outright reject it—but there is no doubt that her playing is unique. That uniqueness is hard to describe adequately—one really needs to hear it, listen to it, maybe overcome initial hesitations, listen with one’s heart!
I may be getting myself in hot water—let me state this anyway: I personally don’t know of any pianist that comes even close to Yulianna Avdeeva’s intensity, her strength of expression in playing Chopin. Her Chopin (so far) is unmatched, an absolute highlight, a really great moment!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.