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Inexplicably Belated Debut of a Russian Pianist

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
02/02/2023 -  
Fryderyk Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie in A‑flat Major, Op. 61
Wladyslaw Szpilman: The Life of the Machines (Suite)
Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Piano Sonata No. 4 in B Minor, Op. 56
Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B‑flat Minor, Op. 36

Yulianna Avdeeva (piano)

Y. Avdeeva (© Jennifer Taylor)

In October 2010, the young Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva was awarded the 1sy Prize at the Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. A few short months later, as a result of pre‑Competition agreement, she appeared as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic in January of 2011. A year or two later, she toured the United States as a soloist with the Warsaw Philharmonic, appearing NEAR but NOT in New York and that’s how much New York saw of her. That is until now. Twelve years after her victory in Warsaw, her New York recital debut occurred at Carnegie Hall. While this is a significant time lag, one must stress that she performed in the US quite frequently as a soloist with some important American orchestras and conductors, but it took an unusually long time for this artists to appear again in front of New York audiences. It was well worth the wait, because as an artist she is not the same person we’ve heard in 2011.

In Zankel Hall, Ms. Avdeeva presented a sample of her repertory in which we heard staples as well as works either totally unknown or infrequently performed. The first half of the program was devoted to three Polish composers—Chopin, Szpilman, and Wajnberg—all of whom were once active in Warsaw and whose careers in that city were greatly affected in their early 20’s. We know that Chopin left Warsaw for Paris while barely 20 years old; Mieczyslaw Wajnberg was also 20 years old when World War II erupted and he escaped eastward to save his life. His family, however, to the last person perished in the Holocaust. In September of 1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman (then in his late 20s) had a thriving career which also came to an abrupt end during the first days of the war but was rekindled almost six years later at war’s end.

To open her program Avdeeva chose Chopin and one of his most majestic compositions, the Polonaise-Fantaisie. In addition to being one of his most enigmatic works, it is also the most thespian, convoluted and declamatory. The element of polonaise, the Polish national dance, is scarce, the element of fantasy ever‑present. The mood changes almost with every line and oscillates between tragic, ecstatic, or heart‑wrenching. There are pianists who infuse this score with his or her own personality or ego and, though rarely the case in Chopin’s other works, this magisterial composition can tolerate this touch of personal approach. Ms. Avdeeva seemed to be satisfied with letting Chopin’s music do the talking and still offered us a very musical, well thought‑out and superbly executed interpretation with sufficient attention given to small details while keeping an eye on a general structure. Attention was given to illumination of a bass line and stressing harmonic changes. The pianist shied away from any form of exaggeration and her emotions were displayed in a very subtle manner. Her total interpretive freedom—in this work as well as all of the others on the program—was achieved not by showing her “feelings” but rather a view of a work: completely, thoroughly examined and worked out in every detail. It would be, however, very wrong to mistake the lack of said “feelings” for lack of involvement and impersonal playing. Similar to another Chopin Competition winner, once a giant among pianists, Maurizio Pollini, Avdeeva represents an Apollonian type of interpreter, with a precious little need for showing the “heart‑on‑the‑sleeve”, rather than the Dionysian one, frequently associated with the so‑called Russian School, to which this pianist seems not to belong. In her sculpted, well‑controlled, unaffected interpretations she often reminds me of the renowned Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes, who performed at Carnegie just two days earlier.

After Chopin came a novelty, a short Suite, barely 5 1/2 minutes in length, The Life of the Machine by the already mentioned composer and pianist Wadyslaw Szpilman (1911‑2000). For those to whom the names means little or nothing, he was the real-life protagonist of the famous movie by Roman Polanski The Pianist. As I mentioned, when he was in his late 20s and worked in the Polish Radio, his career was cut short by the outbreak of the war. Before then, he was a sufficiently promising pianist to be sent to Berlin to study with Schnabel and composition with Franz Schreker. It is possible that in Berlin, then a musical capital of Europe, he might have been introduced to the avant‑garde composers and influenced by their fascination with the industrial explosion: machines, locomotives, foundries, mills. Szpilman’s miniatures were composed in 1933 and the manuscript was lost during the war. The copy from which Avdeeva learned this music was given to her by the estate of yet another formidable Polish‑Jewish pianist and a friend of Szpilman, Jakub Gimpel, who survived the war. Gimpel had come to the US already and spent his post‑war years in California. Gimpel’s more famous violinist brother Bronislaw, was a frequently partnered by Szpilman in sonata evenings and together they formed the famed Warsaw Quintet.

Those miniatures, upon first hearing, probably owe more to Prokofiev or the French School (Ibert?), rather then to any other avant‑garde composers. There are obvious echoes of a Toccata, including the upward glissando on the last measure of the untitled first piece. Avdeeva played them with charm, elegance simplicity and piquancy, with biting touch when necessary.

It was a lovely gesture toward the Polish culture, as was the next composition, this one by Mieczyslaw Wajnberg (1919‑1996). For the last few years Ms. Avdeeva has been championing the scores of this Polish‑Jewish composer-pianist whose career, just like Szpilman’s, was also interrupted by the war. Was Szpilman aware of this younger colleague in pre‑war Warsaw? Had their paths crossed at a concert hall or one of the numerous Jewish theaters to which both had strong ties?

Wajnberg escaped from Warsaw toward the East: after a short time of studies in Minsk, and after the Germans entered the war with Russia, he fled to Tashkent. It was there that he was discovered by Shostakovich, who befriended him and helped in finding a place in Moscow. For the rest of his often‑tragic life he was to be known as a Soviet composer Moisiej Weinberg, rather then Mieczyslaw. It is only in recent years that he has been claimed and adopted by the Polish culture.

His Sonata No. 4 from 1955 was written for and dedicated to Emil Gilels, who those days apparently championed some of Wajnberg works. Avdeeva added it to her repertory only after performing several of Wajnberg chamber scores. Some of them (Sonata No. 5, Piano Trio) she performed and recorded with famed violinist Gidon Kremer, who, as she admits, introduced her to this composer. She made also a formidable recording of the Piano Quintet and has performed this work frequently: I was privileged to hear her in this repertory both with Kremer and others and each time it was revelatory.

The gentle melancholy mood established in the very first bar comes with an underlying sense of unease and dogged insistence, akin to the F‑sharp minor Prelude from Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, while the warmer, chordally constructed second subject has strong affinities with the corresponding theme in Shostakovich’s Third String Quartet. A large‑scale development section brings all this material to a passionate climax, followed by a regular recapitulation, and a coda that finally pacifies the first subject’s demons. The second movement is a rhythmically lively scherzo, nervously vigilant in character and bringing to mind Balkan-influenced rhythmic structure.

There follows an introverted dirge‑like Adagio, once again indebted to Shostakovich’s Second Piano Sonata for its arching melodies and elliptical harmonies. It was rendered by the pianist with an extraordinary expressivity and deeply felt Jewish folk‑intonations are never far from the surface in this work, especially in the finale’s rondo theme. The Sonata, similar to Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata in F Minor and Shostakovich Cello Sonata, ends in peaceful melancholy, quoting material from earlier in the movement in a pacified yet mournful way, with a final recall of the central Largo of the slow movement. This music has yet to enter the repertory of American pianists, as it already has with many of European ones. Those sonatas are important and often fascinating works, suffused with aches covered on the surface by bitter humor.

The second half of the recital started uncharacteristically with Bach’s Partita No. 2, which decades ago was a favorite of another famed Chopin Competition winner, Martha Argerich. However, unlike her legendary predecessor, Avdeeva in the last few years has devoted a considerable amount of time to learning and studying Bach works more broadly, especially the Well‑Tempered Clavier, demonstrating them also in her online programs. Her approach to Bach is unabashedly pianistic (devoid of pecking the keyboard imitating the harpsichord!) but also retaining historically informed characteristics and style.

In the Partita No. 2, her sound was crystal clear, ringing, the articulation immaculate and varied, and what impressed me greatly, she barely touches the sustaining pedal, and if at all, it’s only for expressive purposes. In her Bach, Avdeeva demonstrated yet another example of her maturing as performer: this time I was impressed by a stylish ornamentation, perfect execution of all sorts of mordents, and a new sense of rhythmic freedom, still a bit absent in her recording from a decade ago. There was also necessary expressiveness and lyricism that made her Bach even more exceptional. So perhaps when the Carnegie Hall invites Ms. Avdeeva back, she should consider programming one of the books of WTC: if the Partita No. 2 was any indication, I suspect should would have something to say in Bach’s preludes and fugues.

The program concluded with Rachmaninov’s sprawling Sonata in B‑flat Minor (1913), this time in a shortened version from 1931 which was supposedly Ms. Avdeeva’s own arrangement of the two scores. It is perhaps worth noting that this work is frequently performed by pianists who pick and choose their own combination between the two scores. This is Rachmaninov’s second work in sonata form after a much larger Sonata in D nbsp;Minor and here the composer sensibly revised the 1913 score when he came back to it in 1931.

Although conceived in three movements (Allegro agitato, Non allegro (yes! it was Rachmaninov’s marking!), Allegro molto), the Second Sonata flows as one astonishing piece, its bravura technical demands matched by that dark emotional intensity which runs through so much of Rachmaninov’s music. The movements are bound together by thematic cross-references and transformation; in particular, the opening descending passage pervades all three movements in different guises. This is a more fugacious score, than Rachmaninov’s previous Sonata in D minor, full of those sudden increasingly elliptical flights of fancy, which starting with this work gradually became more prominent. There are similarities in form with the Second Symphony and Third Piano Concerto, in similar second themes, in recalling of material from earlier movements.

The 1st movement opens with an explosive, preemptory gesture, but for all the succeeding flood of florid power I feel there is almost a total lack of thematic interest, which I also feel made his First Sonata plenty-bombastic but not a terribly interesting work. So all seems to be a caprice, teeming with life though one has to wait a considerable time before something resembling a theme appears. There is a huge sense of hesitancy, of unanswered questions...

Avdeeva tore through the opening pages with power and energy but soon her approach changed, and unlike many pianists, younger or older, she opted for the more measured, level‑headed approach. It was perhaps not only a point of view or perspective I’d like to hear, but it was refreshing to hear a version devoid of the typical idiosyncrasies and bombast. She had plenty of power but at the same time lyricism and a beautiful luminous sound and sensitivity. The tempi might have seemed as ruminative or a little broad but this lack of posturing brought dividends in form of a rarely encountered clarity, an element which often was the composer’s approach when he performed his own works. From time to time a little objectivity in presenting such thorny scores is a welcomed element.

There was only one encore, the Mazurka in F minor by Wladysław Szpilman. Here, Avdeeva preceded her performance with a brief verbal footnote: Szpilman, as a Jew, was forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. There, still active as a pianist and composer, he wrote this miniature modeled on Chopin at the time when Chopin’s music was not to be performed by Jewish musicians. The score for this piece came to our pianist from the same Gimpel collection. I felt that in this two‑minute trifle, Ms. Avdeeva showed another hitherto unseen side: it was in a way the most heartfelt, emotional, tender and elegant playing of the evening and one could understand why. I am glad she shared that with us.

I also hope that we shall not wait another decade for Ms. Avdeeva return to NY and to Carnegie Hall. On my wish‑list would be some more Wajnberg piano sonatas: I know she will do them justice. And as I have indicated previously, some more Bach.

Roman Markowicz



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