Leonard Ip writes
With Avdeeva being the first female after Martha Argerich to have won the first prize of the Chopin Competition, and videos of her performances showing a thoughtful artist with a technique to burn (what a Wagner-Liszt Tannhauser Overture!), expectations were high on this recital. It wasn’t, however, as good as it could have been.
The E flat minor Klavierstücke opened with arresting nimbleness and subtle accents, but it was soon manifest that Avdeeva wasn’t in her best shape: the slow central section suffered from strange, disconnected phrasing. Despite her endeavour to harness a delicate sonority, her tone ended up sounding rather thin. The last of the three Klavierstücke brought the cycle to an aptly lively end, and hope was raised for the next, huge Dante Sonata.
Doubts about the acoustics of the hall were quickly confirmed as the Dante Sonata proceeded. Avdeeva, for all her virtuosity, didn’t miss a note, but Liszt’s octaves, either motivic or virtuosic, lacked impact – the bass register in particular was completely absent from the sonic picture. The sonority of the piano was reduced to a one-dimensional, radio-like tone. I lamented for Avdeeva, because even though she did not storm the heavens like Bolet and Ogdon did in their magnificent, standard-setting recordings, her treatment of the vast dramatic structure of the sonata was logical and persuasive, dispatching athletically the torrents of notes (the wide leaps in the final presto was particularly impressive) without forgetting to take care of important symbolic motives. The hall, however, robbed her of any tonal allure or impact.
Given the acoustic restrictions, the Chopin preludes, mostly intimate pieces, fared better. As one would expect of a champion of the Chopin competition, Avdeeva has a natural grasp of Chopin’s poetic language, spinning out the slow preludes with an an exquisite touch and sometimes individual use of rubato. The 4th, 6th, 8th and 13th preludes stood out for their enchanting tone-painting and thoughtful voicing, evoking a solitary and unique sense of space and time. Admirably, she laid out a two-part conception of the entire 24-piece structure by emphasizing the continuity from preludes 1-12 and 13-24. This did not, unfortunately, keep me from remaining unconvinced by certain idiosyncrasies, such as the unnaturally prolonged tempo of the 23th prelude. Avdeeva’s execution was also surprisingly uneven in some preludes (e.g. the runs in the 3rd and 10th preludes), especially when comparison was made with the outstanding recording of Rafael Blechacz, the last champion before Avdeeva (even if we must allow a degree of leniency given the different conditions between a live performance and a studio recording).
The audience was nonetheless quite enthusiastic and Avdeeva gave two encores – both infectious Chopin dances – that were generally more inspired than her slightly cautious performance of the preludes. Her rubato, though precariously generous, was consistent and provided enough forward momentum to prevent the narrative from sagging. Even so, I am inclined to argue that Avdeeva’s rubato was actually a tendency to compress the tempo in order to make way for a satisfying structural flow, instead of being naturally breathed into the musical construction.
In sum, then, this was a disappointing recital, with both the hall’s inferior acoustics and Avdeeva herself to blame. It would be uncharitable to discredit Avdeeva’s success for one disappointing recital and I do believe she was not in her best shape and was probably hampered by the acoustics and the piano. It takes more time to justly assess her true artistic merit and I look forward to hearing more from her. I will end on a note on the acoustics of HKAPA’s newest hall – a disgrace to the Hong Kong artistic environment like the Cultural Centre concert hall. This is particularly ironic as HKU’s Lee Shau Kee hall and CUHK’s Lee Hysan hall, both halls of non-musical institutions, have excellent acoustics. The Hong Kong Arts Festival should consider organizing all future piano recitals (events that, for various reasons, demand sonic balance more than any other) in the Hong Kong City Hall or other halls with decent acoustics.
Piano Recital by Yuliana Avdeeva
27 February 2014
The Hong Kong Jockey Club Amphitheatre, HKAPA
Schubert: Drei Klavierstücke, D. 946
Liszt: Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata
– Intermission –
Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28
Chopin: Waltz in A flat, Op. 34 No. 1
Chopin: Mazurka in D, Op. 33 No. 2