Notes and Editorial Reviews
One of the few artists openly opposed to the Soviet leadership, Maria Yudina today ranks among the greatest musicians of her age. A phenomenal pianist who is particularly remembered for the virtuosity, spirituality and intellectual rigour of her playing, she prized Bach above all, as did all the Great Russian pianists of her day, but ventured far forward into the music of her own time, and was friends with many dissident artists and composers. Stalin famously had a soft spot for her Mozart playing; it is thought that this is what prevented her and her troublesome opinions from being dragged off to the gulag.
But here we have the 'Three Bs': the central-German repertoire to which Yudina always returned and had so much to
contribute in the way of iron-fingered discipline over matters of tempo and phrasing and yet an unquenched search for the matter behind the music.The set takes its cue from a thrilling, unyielding Chromatic Fantasy and concludes with some artless yet heartfelt encores of Schubert. In an age of hype, there will always be room for Maria Yudina.
- Maria Yudina was one of the greatest pianists of 20th century Russia. Uncompromising, sometimes ruthless playing characterised this enigmatic pianist, a sufferer of the Soviet regime. Sviatoslav Richter once asked her: "Why do you play this Bach prelude so loud?" her answer: "Because there is a war on!" The selection on this 3-CD set includes works by her beloved Bach, her magnificent Beethoven (Opus 111!), Liszt, and wonderfully tender Brahms Intermezzi.
- Recorded in 1948--58.
- Includes comprehensive booklet notes profiling Maria Yudina and each work.
R E V I E W: 3644770.zz4_RUSSIAN_ARCHIVES_MARIA_YUDINA.html
THE RUSSIAN ARCHIVES: MARIA YUDINA • Maria Yudina (pn); Marina Kozolupova (vn1) • BRILLIANT 94398 (3CDs: 187:15)
BACH Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in d, BWV 903. Preludes and Fugues: in b, BWV 869; in a, BWV 865; in A, BWV 864; in B, BWV 868; in B?, BWV 866; in b?, BWV 867. Violin Sonata No. 3 in E, BWV 10161. BACH-LISZT Prelude and Fugue in a, BWV 543. LISZT Variations on Bach’s “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” S 180. BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: No. 5 in c, Op. 10/1; No. 32 in c, Op. 111. BRAHMS Rhapsody in g, Op. 79/2. Intermezzi: in a, Op. 116/2; in E?, Op. 117/1; in b?, Op. 117/2; in c?, Op. 117/3; in a, Op. 118/1; in A, Op. 118/2; in C, Op. 119/3; in f, Op. 118/4; in e?, Op. 118/6. SCHUBERT Impromptus: in E?, D 899/2; in A?, D 899/4; in A?, D 935/2
Once again I am in debt to my job at Fanfare for introducing me to another in a number of exceptional pianists of whom I knew little or nothing prior to receiving their recordings for review. Vladimir Nielsen, Barbara Nissman, Leonard Shure, and now Maria Yudina (1899-1970)—quite a list, and the difficult thing to admit is that I wasn’t familiar with their playing beforehand, but I’ve always believed in “better late than never.” This particular 3-CD set appears to be a reduction of the 8-CD boxed set that Brilliant Classics put out in 2009, which is now selling for (I kid you not) about $250 for a used copy on Amazon. Fortunately, I was able to examine the contents of that set, and it appears that the present issue contains discs 1, 3, and 4. I only wish we had been given one more disc, since the larger collection included her playing the more modern music of Hindemith, Honegger, Lutos?awski, and Shostakovich, which this one does not.
For those who are already familiar with Yudina and her extraordinary story, please bear with me while I summarize it for those who aren’t. In brief, Yudina was a philosopher and a religious zealot in addition to being a great pianist. Born Jewish, she converted to Russian Orthadoxy at age 17 and never let go, not even when it meant her expulsion from the Conservatory or her being banned from performing. She lived constantly on the edge, barely eating, sleeping under her piano (really!), putting up with broken windows in the dead of winter even when she was given the money to repair them because she gave all her money away to the poor. She even gave some of her apartments away to the poor, and thus sometimes had nowhere to live herself. She wore a simple black dress all the time, which Shostakovich swore was the same dress, unwashed and unchanged for most of her life. She read the works of the banned writer Boris Pasternak after concerts in lieu of playing encores.
By this time you’re probably asking yourself: How on earth did she avoid being killed or sent to a gulag by Stalin? Well, hang on to your hat. Stalin admired her so much that he was willing to overlook her religiosity, even when having zero tolerance of it in others. Maybe he admired the fact that she gave away everything she owned to the poor, whereas the church did not. Maybe he was impressed by her tenacity. Maybe something inside him was touched when she wrote to him, “I will pray for you day and night, Joseph Vissarionovich, and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you.” In any case, we have him to thank for starting her recording career. He was so moved by her 1943 radio broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 that he called his assistants and asked if there was a recording of it. There was not, but they told Stalin there was…then ran to find Yudina and set up a recording session. Two conductors broke under the nervous strain and had to leave; only the third (sometimes said to be Alexander Gauk, but listed on a Vista Vera reissue CD as Sergei Gorchakov) had the courage to see it through. But the record was made and given to Stalin. Believe it or not, that recording was on his nightstand next to his bed on the day he died.
Shostakovich was a close friend, and he too admired her though he believed that religion, and particularly the Orthodox Church, was nonsense. He once said “Yudina saw music in a mystical light. For instance, she saw Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a series of illustrations to the Holy Bible…She always played as though she were a saint giving a sermon.” Shostakovich also said that when she gave recitals, “Her numerous fans went wild, but there were some interpretations which I didn’t understand and when I asked about these, I usually got the reply, ‘I feel it that way.’ Now, what kind of philosophy is that?…The conductor Nikolai Malko treated Yudina very rudely. He blatantly mocked her and her eccentricities, and used to say, ‘What you need is a good man, Marusya.’”
But it’s not just Shostakovich or Malko who found some of her interpretations strange. Fanfare’s own Peter J. Rabinowitz, reviewing one of her live recitals from 1954 in issue 30:4, complained that Yudina lacked virtually everything one listens to a pianist for, including “Dynamic nuance…An organic sense of rhythm…Sensitivity to aesthetic personality…Digital accuracy…Textual fidelity…Attention to details…Supple phrasing… she was criticized for her lack of discipline and, even more, for her tendency to shout down the composer’s voice with her own.” Rabinowitz also quotes Sviatoslav Richter as saying that “By the end of her concerts, I always used to have a headache.” Rabinowitz did, however, add that “while the performances may be somewhat grim (there’s not a trace of humor, even in the Prokofiev), there is something riveting about her rage, her refusal to submit.” Thus I came to this set with a certain amount of trepidation.
Since I don’t have scores of all this music in my collection, I compared her performance of the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue to Landowska’s (two versions, actually, from 1936 and 1950) and her performances of the Well-Tempered Clavier preludes and fugues to Gianluca Luisi’s (who told me himself that his performances are “as pure as a mountain stream”). I was able to check her performances of the two Beethoven sonatas against the scores, which I do possess. I also compared her versions of Schubert Impromptus to recordings by Artur Schnabel, so I feel I had appropriate models.
In the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Landowska’s phrasing is certainly more supple. In style, the 1950 version in particular is somewhere between the “bad old days” and our modern historically informed practice. Landowska was always noted for the charm and suppleness of her playing, particularly in fast passages, and she does not disappoint here, particularly in the fugue. Yudina, by comparison, plays it on the piano with little or no pedal (I couldn’t hear any, but this is a 1948 recording made in the Soviet Union), and in fact her straightforward style is remarkably similar to Glenn Gould’s Bach, though I seriously doubt that Gould ever heard Yudina before he immersed himself in that composer’s Goldberg Variations and other music. There is indeed some gentility in her phrasing of the slow passages of the fantasia. Her playing of the fugue may lack some of the charm of Landowska, I honestly admit, but her playing is not at all brutal (though the performance is quicker, coming in at 11:32 to Landowska’s more than 13 minutes) but instead enlivening and giving one a good architectural view of the music.
The last of Bach’s preludes and fugues from Book I of WTC is one of his quietest and most introspective, a piece that brings one into a calm center. Gianluca Luisi plays it thus, and imparts the shimmering tone of his Bösendorfer to it. Yudina is, again, faster (12:39 to Luisi’s 16:06), and in the prelude she pauses on one phrase and then plays the second half in a quicker tempo than the first. I found this a bit quirky, to be sure, but not so bad that I couldn’t accept it as musically valid. The opening phrase of the fugue is played with very strong accents, impressing each note on the listener’s mind as if rung on a bell, but then she eases up her finger pressure, delineating the additional voices of the fugue with alternating accents both subtle and strong. Shostakovich’s remark about her playing each voice of a fugue with a different pressure and color comes to mind; it almost sounds as if a strong vocal soloist is singing the principal line while softer-voiced choristers are filling in the remaining voices. It’s a remarkable effect, and I for one like it very much; she actually finds much more color and shading here than Luisi. In prelude and fugue No. 20, Yudina is much faster than Luisi, and I did find her steely fingering and tempos here a bit unyielding. The remaining preludes and fugues contrast similarly with Luisi: The Italian is consistently more genial, the Russian consistently more dramatic, but for me both approaches are valid.
The one performance I could not stand to listen to, but not because of Yudina, was the Bach Violin Sonata No. 3. Violinist Marina Kozolupova plays this music about as badly as it is possible to imagine, with too much portamento and an almost sobbing vibrato that got on my nerves after about a minute and a half into the first movement. You may safely skip this one.
The Bach/Liszt pieces are absolutely remarkable for their atmospheric quality; in fact, I can’t recall hearing them ever played better, particularly the variations on Bach’s “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.”
Yudina’s tempo for the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Sonata is a bit brisker than the composer’s tempo designation of dotted half = 69 (it’s more like 72), but her playing is far from brutal. In fact, she observes every dynamic and tempo marking, from the tenuto on the opening chord to the piano in bar 3, the forte in bar 5, the “reinforcing” or rinforzando of the accent in bar 13, the pp in bar 17 and the ff in bar 21. It’s all there, and in fact her performance of this sonata is very similar in shaping and phrasing to that of Schnabel. By way of compensation, perhaps, her tempo for the second movement is a shade slower than Beethoven’s eighth = 69, but again, despite a conspicuous absence of much pedal, her observation of dynamics and tempo changes are exacting. The style is very much in keeping with the late 18th century, when Beethoven wrote this work, and in fact her reticence to use the sustain pedal gives the music an almost fortepiano feel to it. Yudina even observes the footnote I have in my Schirmer score, obviously not by Beethoven but added by either von Bülow or Lebert, to “Play these groups of unaccented grace-notes within the time-value of the fourth sixteenth note of their respective measures.” The finale, written in cut time with a direction of Prestissimo and a tempo marking of half note = 100, is again played a bit faster than that; but again, Yudina observes every nicety, the ritardandos, stringendos, the resumption of the opening tempo only with a little sustaining sound, etc. What’s wrong with this performance? Nothing except a very slight pitch wavering, evidently due to the condition of the original tape.
In the masterful yet tricky last sonata, I again do not find Yudina to be at all brutal. The opening of the first movement is played right on the nose as far as tempo goes (quarter = 52), and I hear plenty of subtlety in her shading and coloring. When the music switches to Allegro con brio ed apparrionato, Yudina is plenty con brio and plenty appassionato. Coming to the famed, mystical Arietta in the second movement, Yudina is magnificently delicate and sensitive to every turn of phrase. (I heard Claude Frank play this sonata in person, and although he got all the notes right, there was no forward thrust to the Allegro con brio and no mystery in the Arietta.) Yudina is, perhaps, a bit too impetuous in the syncopated variation, giving the music an almost surging quality, but I for one prefer this to too little emotion.
As for the Schubert impromptus, D 899, once again it’s a case of lightness and delicacy versus a more straightforward reading with only a little inflection, but I didn’t find Yudina’s performances to be at all brutal or insensitive, only different. Thus we hear Schnabel as the consummate Schubertian, while Yudina takes a more modernist approach, rejecting all sentiment but also losing some of the music’s charm.
Thus one can listen to the Brahms intermezzos with pleasure, because Brahms was a much more “modern” composer than Schubert, one always concerned with his music’s architecture and far less with wringing out pathos and bathos. In fact, even though the intermezzos she recorded were different ones, I hear many similarities in Yudina’s playing here to that of Ilona Eibenschütz, a Brahms pupil, in the op. 119 intermezzos, but I did feel that Yudina’s Brahms Rhapsody was rather too fast and too brusque in expression (there’s also quite a bit of pitch wavering in this one).
The bottom line, then, is that this album is mostly remarkable for its excellence rather than for its few eccentricities, and I for one hear in these specific Yudina performances something quite extraordinary. Highly recommended.
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