Thursday, 30 March 2017

Yulianna Avdeeva Astounds at St John's Smith Square

I last saw Yulianna Avdeeva in September at the Wigmore Hall but in truth, I spied her mere weeks ago, amongst Elton’s muses in the Radical Eye exhibit at the Tate Modern. I cannot remember the photographer’s name, but its subject was a young woman arching away from the camera, with the supplest neck and quiet humour. Avdeeva herself has one of those tempestuous auras, replete with a gamine countenance and such expressive eyes. Her very presence exudes a radiance that is almost otherworldly; and, luckily for us all, this inwards glow translates ardently to her music.

Avdeeva is an artist who can inspire the most violent reactions from my person. The combination of her soft deftness an immense academic understanding of the keyboard’s possibilities make me lose my mind entirely. The 2010 International Chopin Competition birthed three immensely successful medallists who have all gone on to forge notable careers. In fact, I have had the wondrous luck of hearing all three perform in the past four months. It is odd to call the winner of (arguably) the most prestigious piano competition in the world a maverick character. Yet this is a label that has plagued Avdeeva since the prize, the award of which was accompanied by considerable controversy. But there is a candour in Avdeeva’s playing and a modern ferocity that turns my head more than any other. The virtuoso and curious charisma of Daniil Trifonov is now applauded worldwide and Ingolf Wunder constantly astounds with brazen technique. Avdeeva, however, is arguably the most rewarding to behold and when she connects with the stool, the possibilities are endless.

The first half of the programme was entirely devoted to Beethoven, with his Sonatas 26-27 curiously inverted in order. The 26th, the Piano Sonata in E Flat Major (‘Les Adieux’), was miraculously realised, drawn tightly together by an inner surety. Avdeeva’s instinctive fecundity is one of her defining traits; it cast a grave filter over the adagio of Das Lebenswohl, realising the dark drama behind the composition’s creation. Too often is the third movement (Das Wiedersehen) taken with brazenly meaningless joy, but on Avdeeva, its natural vivacissimente is accompanied with real introspect, the interplay of subjects between hands telling of the politically programmatic intention Beethoven endowed it. Yet, her labours aren’t imposingly obvious and her interpretation can soar on even a superficial level of mere radiance – such is the roundness of her tone and archness of her phrasing.

But the chief reason I had rushed so impatiently through my day was in anticipation of the final item on the programme; Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, the only piece he wrote in pure sonata form. It is the finest example of Liszt’s greatest legacy on composition; the concept of thematic transformation, which purports to undertake the listener through a constantly evolving metamorphosis of motifs and themes, in a much freer form fashion than the classical variations which preceded it. It is a sonata in a single movement – thirty minutes of unbroken “blind noise” (as Clara Schumann disparagingly said) – which nevertheless contains distinctly divisible parts and the traditional scheme of exposition, development and recapitulation. Structure aside, its visceral power has held me in thrall since my first hearing; it has Liszt’s trademark virtuosity but also desperate Romantic gentility, paradoxical conflict and ravishing passages. For all those who find Liszt unaccountably bolshy and meaninglessly indulgent – I direct them to this carriage into the sublime which is, in the words of Wagner, “beyond all conception”.

Such is my endless admiration for the composition that I have listened to nearly every recording made. Where many exponents suffer is in conflating Romantic rush with haste, a heinous fault to befall any Liszt composition. It is one of those pieces in which the contrast between its youthful and wizened interpreters is magnificently intriguing. Claudio Arrau’s late recording is perhaps the most complete, with a stateliness and roundness of tone that endows the delirium with contemplation.

Avdeeva’s reading is much more eager and premised on the vehemence of youth and febrile reasoning. She courts the dangerous rumble of the opening Allegro Assai with such hedonistic abandon that, when the climatic Grandioso is reached, the opening chord is perversely almost ‘sotto voce’. It is a mark of instinct against form, of journey over destination. The same treatment is applied throughout. Lyricism flirts with grandeur and the ebb of the thematic transmutations is dispatched with such glee that it snatches wickedly. But, as ever with this pianist, nothing is ragged nor rushed. It is not the most elucidating rendition, but it is quite consistently brilliant, with such exquisite taste championing reckless feeling. Avdeeva’s Liszt Sonata is so charmingly accessible that the very rise and fall of the Dolce passages were instinctively mimicked by the collective worldly sigh of the audience, who succumbed to sheer purity of feeling. Deceptively simple, it is a wise reading – too many young exponents have attempted to impart grand, sonorous themes upon this layered creature. Yet, their keenness belies haste and exposes a psychological want and lack of gravitas. Avdeeva’s currently dabbles with the precipice of abandon rather than opulence – and I look forward to hearing its evolution over time, if I should be so lucky.

It was under such enchantment that I gave what was only my second standing ovation in a recital hall this season – alongside, it seemed, everybody else. Our gratitude was handsomely repaid with a return to Chopin, whose genius first thrust this young phenom into public consciousness. The aching simplicity of the Nocturne in C Sharp stood in stark contrast to the twisted splendour of Liszt that preceded it, deployed with a free hand and murmuring rubatos. Yet, there was more garlanded wonder to come, with a ferocious and glowing Polonaise in A Flat Major (Heroic). Curious comparison can be made to Ingolf Wunder, the silver medallist at the 2010 contest, who played the same piece in the same hall, a mere four months earlier. The Heroic was projected shamelessly then, flamboyant and concrete. Male, tense and percussive, it coaxed its applause from awe but left without a sense of Chopin’s warmth. Once so disarmingly 'bel canto', his understanding of the composer has faltered since those competition days. But – oh, Avdeeva! Here is a Heroic Polonaise that breathes, that exudes synergy and thought amongst its very great brilliance. It is a testament to her style, vivacity and depth of consideration – and of course, to Chopin himself. And to think that the critics once cruelly disparaged hers as “a vision of Chopin [which] takes a step back to the concept of Chopin as a composer of ladies’ music – ladies who are as rich as they are talentless.”

What curiously unfitting censure! Warsaw Voice, eat your stolid little heart out – we’ll keep her gladly.

Edit: Many thanks to a Samaritan commenter, who has brought this (potentially illegal) recording of Avdeeva's Liszt Sonata to my attention!

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Onegin with the Wiener Staatsballett

Credit: Wiener Staatsoper

On a short break where I spent most of my time tearfully fawning over various classical giants (I like to think that the tears were a by-product of the amount of champagne I consumed daily, but I might just be that uselessly maudlin), I don’t think I would have been able to forgive myself if I went all the way to Vienna without spending at least a few hours rhapsodising at the Wiener Staatsoper. I resolutely refused to see the production of Werther with a baritone Werther (seriously, stop that right now), so my rapturously blonde Viennese friend booked tickets to the ballet and off we went in search of the proud Onegin.

I have seen Cranko’s ballet a worrisome amount of times in London, all with exemplary casts who are amongst the best in the world. Thiago Soares remains the finest Onegin I have encountered and Natalia Osipova’s role debut two years ago as Tatiana was enough to leave goosepimples for a week. I know each solo variation and anguished step of every pas de deux so well that I was probably amongst the toughest critics in the house.

When Cranko’s balletic interpretation of Onegin was finally staged in Russia in 2013, nearly fifty years after its creation, it was met with a general sense of indulgent amusement. Pushkin’s poetic epic is engrained into the national subconscious in ways that we can’t even begin to fathom; Tatiana is a national icon of strength and every Russian schoolchild knows a few stanzas by heart. Cranko, a South African upstart, took liberties with the plot and characterisation and the rather piecemeal Tchaikovsky score inspired mirth in some quarters. Yet, the novel remains at the ballet’s core and every interpreter, regardless of balletic or operatic manifestation, should endeavour to remember Pushkin’s core lessons.

This was not entirely prudently done by the Staatsballett. Here are a few key examples.

First, in Tatiana and Onegin’s first pas de deux in the garden, Onegin should lift Tatiana up in a stationary lift, place her gently down and then look away. It signals his engrained society mannerisms against his underlying indifference, the stark contrast to Lensky’s country exuberance mere minutes ago. The timing of the turn of the head should convey not callousness but danger. Our Onegin on the night (Roman Lazik) turned before Tatiana had touched the ground.

Second, Pushkin’s Lensky is no hot-headed fool. Pushkin writes him as a scholar of German Idealism – not quite Kantian, his heroes are Goethe and Schiller. He pursues his Romantic Ideals not thoughtlessly, but with the joy and languor of youth with purpose and vision. This ardency was absent from Davide Dato’s interpretation of the doomed poet – Dato appeared onstage with such bounding, compact energy, he seemed focussed on technical prowess than gentility. Under his awkward stewardship, Lensky became a caricature of the youth who died for Romanticism – he was sulky, small-minded and impetuous, hardly a foil to Onegin’s Byronic self. When he was felled during the duel, it was with an exasperating sense of happenstence, rather than a boyish defence of the ideals on which he has crafted his entire existence.

Thirdly, the entire core of the story’s conclusion was lost in one single moment, even before the final meeting between our two leads. The curtain rises on Act Three several years after the duel and away from small country society. We are in St Petersburg, amongst grand dames and Princes. In comes Onegin, eyed with scepticism by his peers. His years of travel, a self-imposed exile, have changed him from the easy-going young dandy whose company they once enjoyed. Then enters Tatiana and Prince Gremin, her elderly husband. They dance the gentlest pas de deux, yearning but tempered. Onegin is shaken badly:

``Can it be she?'' Eugene in wonder
     demanded. ``Yes, she looks... And yet...
     from deepest backwood, furthest under...''
     And every minute his lorgnette
     stays fixed and focused on a vision
     which has recalled, without precision,
     forgotten features. ``Can you say,
     prince, who in that dark-red bĂ©ret,
     just there, is talking to the Spanish
     ambassador?'' In some surprise
     the prince looks at him, and replies:
     ``Wait, I'll present you -- but you banish
     yourself too long from social life.''
     ``But tell me who she is.'' ``My wife.''
     ``You're married? No idea whatever...
     Since when is this?'' ``Two years or more.''
     ``To...?'' ``Larina.'' ``Tatyana? never!''
     ``She knows you?'' ``Why, we lived next door.''
     So to his wife for presentation
     the prince bring up his own relation
     and friend Evgeny. The princess
     gazes at him... and nonetheless,
     however much her soul has faltered,
     however strongly she has been
     moved and surprised, she stays serene,
     and nothing in her look is altered:
     her manner is no less contained;
     her bow, as calm and as restrained.

It follows that the whole story is crippled and loses its force if Tatiana run offstage in tears upon meeting her former idol. This profligacy is not Cranko’s, but the dancer’s. Perhaps nothing I see this year will irritate me this much. The reason Tatiana is a Russian icon is for her resilience and strength, for her knowledge of oneself. This single act of fleeing unnerves because it renders the sacrifice she makes completely redundant – Pushkin’s Tatiana ultimately spurns Onegin not so much for society, but also for herself.


These are, of course, the gripes of someone who has spent too many hours with Pushkin. There was much to admire in the dancing, regardless of such inconsistencies. Yakovleva’s acting as Tatiana was crystalline and projected well throughout – in particular, her Act Two ball variation was wonderfully executed, those great leaps containing all the desperation of a spurned young girl. The nuances she noted with the final pas de deux were superb; for instance, when she lands flat footed from his lifts, it is clear that, in her heart, she has already rejected him. Tcacencoa’s Gremin showed some very able partnering in the Act Three pas de deux, which he paced regally; I would go as far to say that it was the most enjoyable part of the evening Yet, I question the choice of Onegin – Lazik is both physically and emotionally too slight for the role. He struggled immensely with the famous ‘bum lifts’ in the mirror pas de deux and he has none of Onegin’s manifest cruelty. Onegin is not malicious, but he is cold – but when interpreted by Lazik, it is difficult to draw a coherent narrative between the Onegin first arrived at the Larina’s estate, with the tormented suitor at the end. We finish without knowing his story – does Lazik envisage him a cad who learns how to feel too late? Or a dangerously haunted individual? What about a man of true merit that has been marred by societal temptation? The lack of narrative finesse is unfortunate.

I was however hugely impressed with the corps de ballet of the Staatsballett, who do everything with great unison, as most evident in the Act Three polonaise, which is too often scrappy and lethargic. There is a Slavic lilt to the company that manifests pleasingly across this Russian tale. An imbalanced evening it may have been, but one well worth experiencing.