Saturday, January 18, 2014

The girl who beat Trifonov

Last night I had my first introduction (live) to the playing of Yulianna Avdeeva, winner of the 2010 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. She took first prize as Daniil Trifonov pulled in third (and second prize was shared between Wunder and Geniusas, two contestants with fine names in every sense). To say that the competition sent waves of controversy through the pianophile community at the time probably isn't saying enough. The petite Russian girl from Munich is 28 years old, clad in a tailcoat, not much taller than I am and, unless I'm much mistaken, the first woman to win the Chopin since Argerich. And I'm very glad to report that she is the real deal, plus some.

She played Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 at the Royal Festival Hall last night with the LPO and Jurowski. They are all now on a plane to Spain, where late-night audiences in Madrid can catch them this evening.

From the very first entry Avdeeva showed a musical and intellectual sophistication that is several cuts above the average. She has an astonishing sense of the ineffable in sound: she can conjure a mezza voce that is both translucent and mysterious, filled with Brahmsian innigkeit, for instance; it's somewhat Kaufmannesque in concept. She spins long, wonderfully shaped melodic lines, but builds the music from the bass up, through the harmonic structure, and has the full compass of counterpoint, voicing and balance (listen to the close-knitted coda of the Chopin Fourth Ballade above, for example - it's carefully managed yet never loses fire). She may be slender, but her power, when fully unleashed, is thunderous; and that unleashing only happens when the music calls for it.

I can think of few pianists who can blend with the orchestral texture so ideally - many wouldn't even think of doing so, but at times this mighty concerto became nearly a concertante piece as Avdeeva duetted with the solo horn, accompanying, exchanging, playing chamber music, assuming a collegial role as one part of the massive and inspiring whole. There's a mesmerising beauty and intelligence to her interpretation and something that I don't mind classifying as an old-fashioned classiness of the best type: fully informed and intellectually aware yet deeply intuitive as well and with the ability to find not only the right sound for Brahms but the right sounds for every shade of his very considerable spectrum. It's worth adding that the players adored her awareness of orchestral sound and interaction, and one violinist declared it one of the best Brahms Firsts he's played in in 28 years.

Given this level of musicianship, the cruelty of some of the 2010 competition reviews is simply  staggering. But John Allison from the Telegraph was there and was hugely impressed with her. Let's hope she will come back soon.