Yulianna Avdeeva’s Playing: Observations

A Reflection

2013-12-19 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-10 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-14 — Brushed up for better readability

Table of Contents

An Observation with Yulianna Avdeeva’s Playing in a Live Performance (Online)

I was recently watching a recording of Yulianna Avdeeva playing the 3 Klavierstücke, D.946 by Franz Schubert, in a live recording from the Annecy Classic Festival on August 26th, 2013. Yulianna played on a Yamaha CFX. It is an excellent recording (thanks to Cyril F. for posting!):

Yulianna Avdeeva playing Schubert

This concert performance reminded me of observations I made earlier on when watching Yulianna play the piano — particularly, I think, with music of the romantic period. It has to do with what Yulianna does with her arm & her body while playing.

What is This About?

To explain this properly, let me first go back to one of my early “piano heroes”, the late Friedrich Gulda. In his booklet “Worte zur Musik” (Piper, München, 1972, ISBN 3-492-00311-7), Gulda writes (on p.14):

VI. Achtung Oberarmversteifung! Diese vermeiden zwecks dauernder Akzentbeherrschung und Akzentbereitschaft; besonders bei Bach. — Außerdem: Atmen! Eventuelle Methode dazu: Vorsingen und den natürlichen Atem dann in die Noten einzeichnen. Ausführung: Konzentrieren, eventuell Hand heben, ja sogar körperlich tief atmen. 1954

Zum ersten Satz dieser Notiz: Die Akzente sollen, um erstens von der Vorstellung so schnell als möglich in die Hand zu gelangen, zweitens um möglichst fein abgestuft zu sein, wie es die musikalische Imagination befiehlt, aus den Fingern kommen, nicht aus dem Arm. Letztere schlechte Technik verzögert, vergröbert und beeinträchtigt die harmonische Bewegung des Spielapparates und mithin die der Musik.

Let me try a translation:

VI. Attention — stiffness of the upper arm! This needs to be avoided for the purpose of permanent control of and readiness for accents; especially with Bach. — Also: breathing! Possible method for this: sing (a passage) and indicate the natural breathing (pauses) in the score. Execution: concentrate, possibly lift (the) hand, even do a deep breath with your body. 1954

About the first sentence in this note: for the purpose of 1) reaching the hand from imagination as soon as possible, and 2) being as finely graded as possible, as commanded by musical imagination, accents should come out of the fingers, not from the arm. The latter, bad technique delays, coarsens and impairs the harmonic movement of the playing apparatus, and hence that of the music. [comment added later, around 1970]

Looking at Friedrich Gulda’s Hands…

To many, these statements may sound almost trivial — but let me still illustrate this with two excerpts from images on LP covers with Friedrich Gulda, first from the LP where he plays the Mozart piano concerti K.503 and K.595 with the Vienna Philharmonics and Claudio Abbado, in 1976 (DG 2530 642; click to enlarge):

Friedrich Gulda at the piano (I)
Friedrich Gulda at the piano

For me, this is the most natural and most relaxed hand positioning that I have ever seen, with any pianist. Just love to look at these hands! Gulda typically kept his hands close to the keyboard, always totally relaxed, even if the music was more involved. An example is shown here, from the cover of the LP with the Mozart piano concerti K.466 and K.467 in 1975 (again with the Vienna Philharmonics under Claudio Abbado, DG 2530 548):

Friedrich Gulda at the piano (II)
Friedrich Gulda at the piano

To me, Gulda always stood out for his crystal-clear, direct playing. Indeed, the accents, the music altogether always came out of his hands / his mind very directly (from the musician to the listener’s mind, so to say). I think this was one of the big strengths in Gulda’s playing. He had weaknesses, too, e.g., where his playing occasionally lacked the ultimate emotional detail, possibly influenced — or caused — by his “other personality” as a Jazz pianist.

Is this still relevant for today’s pianists? I think so, and be it only because after Martha Argerich moved to Europe, Gulda was (as far as I know) her only teacher. They both share this ability to “transmit” emotions directly, through clear and detailed playing and rhythmic directness and agility.

Back to Yulianna Avdeeva…

Now, back to Yulianna Avdeeva: I don’t mean to compare the hand positions in Gulda’s and Avdeeva’s playing. Still, there is an extreme difference between Gulda’s totally relaxed body and arms, and what happens when Yulianna is playing. One could even claim that in some aspects they are antipodes:

  • while Gulda stays relaxed when playing, he still and always is in total (intellectual) control of the situation. He is observing himself (as well as the audience!) while playing, often strongly interacting with the audience. According to statements that she made in interviews, Yulianna immerses totally into the music she is playing, she barely takes notice of the audience. Her body movements (as well as the legs not used for the pedals) are spontaneous and not intellectually controlled;
  • often impulses from playing accents appear to cause an arm to fly up, up to the height of her head. I have never seen this with Gulda, though many other pianists do it as well. One example I remember is Arthur Rubinstein, see the Film “Arthur Rubinstein — The Love of Live“.
  • often also, impulses appear to come from her entire arm, if not her entire body. This seems to contradict Gulda’s hypothesis.

Is she Going to Be Late?

Moreover (and that’s what really led me to write this note), Yulianna not only lets the impulse from accents lift her arms: she very often then does not let the arm “fall” into the next key or chord. She rather appears to move / “sink” it down into the keys in a distinctly controlled manner. While she is playing, this is almost certainly not mentally controlled, I think. When I watch this, my mind often tells me “now she is going to be late!”. There are many such instances in the Schubert video mentioned above. It’s as if she wanted to prevent a note or a chord from being early. I see this as unique to Yulianna’s playing: at least, I don’t remember any other pianist doing this as strongly as she does!

Of Course Not!

However, the key point is: she never is late! And even if notes or chords may appear a tad later — and I’m sure that’s exactly what she (or her intuition) wants to achieve. Especially in music from the romantic period, her playing lives from subtle, intended delays / asynchronicities and often hardly noticeable arpeggiando playing. I’m sure this is absolutely intended, even though not strictly intellectually controlled while performing. Yulianna’s playing lives from its emotionality, from her subtle play with agogics and rubato, and from the expression in almost every single interval. Again: I think this is spontaneous, not intellectually controlled.

In many ways, this is different not only from Gulda / Argerich, but from most other pianists. I have seen people remain clueless about her playing. Remember those TV commenters during the Chopin competition in 2010, claiming that “this is not how one plays Chopin: there are other ways to express emotions”. They were totally baffled by the jury verdict!

And of course this is not Yulianna’s only “playing mode” — if needed, she can just as well play rapid, instantaneous accents and rhythms, coming “out of her fingers” (not her arms or her entire body), as exemplified in the Prokofiev Sonata Nr.7 in B♭, op.83, live from the same concert — but even that has instances of that of those “(sub)consciously delayed notes / chords”!

Yulianna Avdeeva playing Prokofiev

As a listener, I think it is best simply to let Yulianna’s playing speak to one’s heart. The essence of her playing is in the emotions, the expression, not in technical / instrumental perfection. Sometimes, she is taking risks — but what counts is the end result, not absolute, cold instrumental perfection!

For further posts about Yulianna Avdeeva in my blog see

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