Her ability to “seduce the microphone” makes one feel as though she's performing especially for you. In many ways she is. And the music in her words only emulates that, though being thousands of kilometres away in Rome while we speak, where she’s preparing for her 6-month tour ahead.
During touring what does a normal day look like? Every day is different. Ideally, I would start in the morning with my 4 hours of practice and then try to enjoy the place where I’m staying. Most of the time I don’t take advantage of that, but if I can it’s nice to walk around and take in a bit of the culture. Because it’s already very stressful travelling and performing every night, I try to strike a balance between this and resting time because resting is just as important as the practice.
One admirer wrote: “Here is a true artist, sober, mature, full of integrity, humble enough to let the music come forth and the difficulty disappear behind it.” To me, this was such a beautiful quote on your playing of the Bach Goldberg Variations of which you won the Edison award. What’s rewarding for you when making such impressive recordings? Impressive? I don’t know. The only thing that I follow is my own instinct and the sincerity that I would have on stage in front of an audience. It’s very difficult and sometimes very frustrating to imitate this situation. I remember what Tony Pappano said to me - it was my first recording experience and I was getting very frustrated because it was totally different to what I had expected - he turned to me and said “you know, you have to seduce the microphone. It’s not like talking to the audience" I think this is so appropriate because it’s not talking to the microphone but it’s about twisting your perception of the microphone and finding another solution to communicate.I project so many expectations when recording that I can never listen to my recordings afterwards. My approach to the Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev [Piano Concertos] and the Goldberg was very sincere and honest even though these experiences were completely different. With the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, I remember the recording days being filled with energy. There was a lot more concentration and a sort of spirituality while recording [the Goldberg] in the studio.
Photo credit: Marie Staggat / Warner Classics How long would a recording cycle generally take? It depends on how well the recording is going. In this case [with the Goldberg] it was faster than expected because I didn’t want the last minute pressure. I worked very hard in the first days in order to provide myself with the freedom to experiment in the last afternoon. What’s nice about recording is that you can do experiments that you can’t do on stage. The most fascinating experiment for me is with sound because in a hall you can’t play an exact pianissimo. Of course, you can play a pianissimo relative to the performance but you can’t get an absolute pianissimo. This means there is a very different quality of sound because the sound must be projected in the hall. In the recording studio you don’t have to project to the last stall but instead, you can try out different versions of the sound. For this reason, it’s a time of luxury.
Do you have upcoming plans to record more albums? We just finished recording a live version of the Bernstein Symphony “The Age of Anxiety” because Tony [Pappano] is doing the complete symphonies. There I was able to see for the first time what it means to do a live recording. In previous recordings, I was always complaining about the lack of an audience. Now that there was an audience, I was so worried about the recording. But it was a very nice experience. I always admired Bernstein as a conductor but I never had a chance to get close to Bernstein the composer. It was really a wonderful week of music. This recording will be out and then I have a few ideas but nothing is set yet so I shouldn’t really talk.
Observing all this piano playing one might wonder what made you take up the instrument in the first place? A very banal reason actually. I was born into a family where both my parents were pianists. So I had no choice! No, honestly there were so many pianists at home - I saw my parents playing the piano often - [that] it was so natural to just start playing. There was something that belonged to the daily routine of my family. So I wouldn’t say it was a choice. It was just the daily life. When I started in primary school, I remember visiting a friend’s house and discovered they didn’t have a piano anywhere. I was completely shocked! I thought, “this girl has no piano at all!” For the first time, I realised not everyone had a piano. And having a piano was not a normal thing to have in your home.
So with your musical background, your parents being pianists themselves, this must contribute to your role as a soloist. Do you approach solo performances with what you learnt from your parents/family? My parents were never my teachers. One of the main inspirations was the opera and singer’s world. My father works as a repetiteur at an opera theatre so many singers would come to our house to rehearse. At the same time, my sister was learning cello. I remember getting jealous because I’d never considered playing another instrument and she was always getting the best melodies! I always heard a strong bel canto with either singers or cello in my upbringing. When I was 18 I moved to Germany. This was another kind of a shock because it had a completely different musical culture. There is so much in German literature about approaching music. It starts in the language and leads into lieder repertoire. For example with the Beethoven sonatas or Schumann or even Bach were all related to a different tradition of music making. This was my real background - singing and hearing melodies. Photo credit: Marie Staggat / Warner Classics
From your childhood, who would be your biggest inspiration? When I was a child, of course, my idol was Martha Argerich. Right now I can’t say who is my favourite because I love so many things about so many artists and I couldn’t pick just one.
What advice do you give to young musicians who aspire to be professional musicians (pianists or otherwise)? Sometimes I feel that in the world of young pianists the goal is the competition and not what could come after. It’s as though the competition is the main goal and that there’s no real world outside of it. Competitions are not nice - it’s a lot of pressure, but you have to go through this pressure in order to have a real concert life afterwards. It’s not the only way to reach a career but it’s at least the most democratic. My Italian teacher often sent me to other teachers and other countries just to experience different points of view about music. I think I learnt the most by being able to compare myself to my classmates who all had different backgrounds and goals. It helped me face different realities. This is important for me even now.
Relating back to your earlier comment about competitions: you came to attention after winning the main prizes at the Montreal International Piano Competition, and you were awarded Gramophone Young Artist of the Year, and your Goldberg album was really well-received, but you have since declared you will not compete again, despite still being young enough. What’s the reason for that? Personal safety! But honestly, when I was younger I just loved the excitement of competition and performance. Competitions were the only way to perform on stage so I was always looking forward to being on stage. I did the Montreal with so much joy because it was my first big piano competition. It was an honour to be there. I had absolutely no expectations about winning. I didn’t even have the dress for the final round! Then I decided to do the Van Cliburn which was two years later. When I arrived for the competition I was not so happy anymore because I really felt the pressure of expectations, of the media, and competing with people I still respected. It was a very difficult time. I remember being very happy [saying] “goodbye” to the competition world because competitions are just a tool to reach the concert stage. For a person like me who could never have had contact with great conductors or audition for certain people, at least I could apply to compete and have a chance to be heard. There is [also] a very strict set repertoire. The Goldberg was a moment of escaping this strict repertoire. I never dared to play Bach in competitions because he is one of those composers that you “don’t play” if you want to continue to the second round. So the Goldberg was complete freedom and getting to understand what you really want to do as a pianist.
Ok, we’ll round it down a little now. I have some quickfire questions so say whatever pops into your head first.
What do you like to do for fun in your free time?
When travelling I love to walk a lot in the cities - getting lost, and hopefully not wandering into any dangerous areas. When at home in the south I like to go out with my parents, swim, and go into nature.
What is your favourite food? Pasta.
Pasta? That’s such a cliche! Do you have your own recipe? Absolutely. I always take it with me when I’m travelling. I’m not a cook but I can do a decent pasta.
Where would you like to live? I could, just for a period, live in New York. But not long. I also wouldn’t mind experiencing life on a tropical island. I think it would be great. But it’s an impossible idea.
If you could time-travel, what time period would you travel to? I would love to go to ancient Greece. I love Greek philosophy and I think I’d like to experience that world.
What do you prefer: streaming music online or listening to live music? Live.
And last question: what do you find are the best qualities of each? Streaming is a luxury. You can have anything you want. If you want chocolate, you can just put on your headphones and have some chocolate. With live music, it’s a human experience. You can go there with friends and experience the music and the emotion together.
"For me, it is very important that I keep this extraordinary feeling and not let it turn into a routine. I need to be sure that I’m well prepared, happy to play and feel the excitement." Read more in the interview with the pianist Yulianna Avdeeva.
This Friday we prepared the newest releases from London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev, David Aaron Carpenter with London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Haydn Piano Trios from Trio Wanderer.