Yulianna Avdeeva at Leeds Conservatoire

'For me - pianos are like elephants. They have a very good and a very long memory. They do not forget anything.'
Colin Petch
February 1, 2024

On Friday night (2 February) there is a unique opportunity to see and hear Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva at Leeds Conservatoire, as she arrives in West Yorkshire to celebrate THE LEEDS 2024 ahead of general ticket sales opening for this year’s 21st Leeds International Piano Competition on 5 February. (Competition 11-21 September.)

Since the first edition, which took place in 1963 - thanks to the passion and foresight of Fanny Waterman, The Leeds International Piano Competition has rightly cemented its place as one of the world’s foremost music competitions - and has been responsible for kick-starting the careers of many of our greatest contemporary pianists.

Ms Avdeeva’s Quarry Hill appearance on Friday is a rare chance to witness one of the the hardest-working and most-accomplished artists in Europe. Yulianna’s recurring concert engagements at the Warsaw Philharmonic or Rudolfinum in Prague, Pierre Boulez Saal Berlin, Vienna Konzerthaus and Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, are consistently sold-out. 

Gaining worldwide recognition at the 2010 Chopin Competition, where she won First Prize with a ‘detailed way of playing’ that ‘matched Chopin’s own’ (The Telegraph) - Yulianna is renowned for her power, conviction, sensibility, fiery temperament and virtuosity - and so it was with more than a little trepidation we caught up with her this week from her home in Munich.

Playing only once before in Leeds, with the City of Birmingham Philharmonic, the musician is looking forward to her return. So, how did the recital come about?

Yulianna: “I received an e-mail from Adam Gatehouse, [the competition’s Artistic Director] - and I immediately said yes. He came up with an idea and contacted me about the recital and of course, I was very happy, because I know that it's a very important competition. There's a lot of enthusiasm and many connoisseurs of piano music and piano playing there, so I wanted to come to Leeds.”

Pianist Yulianna Avdeeva photographed by Maxim Abrossimow
Pianist Yulianna Avdeeva (Image: Maxim Abrossimow)

And it’s fortunate for us that the dates worked, because Yulianna’s diary for 2024 is already rather packed: “Just ten days ago, I came back from the United States. I performed with the Baltimore Singers and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. And then from February I will be back [in the U.S.] making my new recording at the beautiful Tippet Rise Art Centre in Montana.

“It's a very quiet place where I will have a kind of isolation - and no distraction from the world, so I will be able to concentrate and focus on my music and recording. After that, I go on a big Asian tour. I go to Japan, China and Taiwan. It’s going to be a busy schedule in the coming weeks, but it's great to be back on the road after the pandemic”

And during Covid, Yulianna created something rather amazing to help us all stay connected with her - and her music. What was the inspiration?

“You know, it's really very funny, because I actually never spoke [previously] to an audience during a concert. I never spoke on the stage because I didn't feel comfortable with that and also with using social media. However, the last week before the COVID lockdown, I was with an orchestra, [in Pittsburgh] and we had the wonderful solo clarinet player Michael Rusinek. He agreed to learn the Weinberg clarinet sonata, because I'm also a great admirer of the music of Weinberg. 

“It's very interesting because the audience was sitting around the piano for this recital. We were surrounded by the people. It was very cool. Finally, just before I went on stage, someone gave me the Mic and said ‘would you please maybe share some words about playing?’  And because I didn't have any chance to think or to get scared or something - I just went for it. I just spoke a very few words and I could immediately see in the eyes of the people that they were not scared anymore to listen to the music that they didn't know.

“And I think that's what it is actually all about [the sharing]. So after the concert I received wonderful comments about how helpful to understand the piece [my words had been].

“So I came home and literally two days later all the borders were closed. The situation was so new and I thought: OK, it's not really clear what's happening - but we still have the possibility to keep in touch - thanks to technology. I thought it would be an idea [to play live from my home] and somehow the first streams were a very big success. 

Yulianna embarked on an 18-month long project which saw her ‘live on air’ every Thursday at 7:30pm.

“And then of course when a concert was possible, I could stream from the places I was performing and I hope it was interesting for the people just to see how sometimes the dressing room looks, or sometimes I could even stream from the stages which was amazing. 

“It was also an amazing experience for me, because I could also learn a little bit more about the audience - what their interests are, what they're listening to, or reading - for me it was an exchange. It was not only that I was talking to them, but they were also giving so much feedback. I'm very grateful for this experience.” 

And after a short break, Yulianna returned in October with a developed theme:

“I have this new online project which is actually short videos about the composer [that followers select], then they ask questions about the pieces or problems around playing, or whatever they are interested in. I play a little - explaining something - so it's called Yulianna’s Musical Dialogues and this is the continuation of the path I started back in lockdown.”

And has it changed your perspective on not only the music that you play, but also how music's perceived more broadly across the world?

“I think first of all, it is about the emotional quality of music which reaches the people. There's your own knowledge about the piece you perform and everything, but actually the perception of music is mostly more on the emotional level, [through the streams] which is for me, very moving to hear. 

That the music makes people feel sometimes better, or maybe if they if they are sad that it can support them. This kind of thing shows that music is a universal language - which I was also so fascinated about. There are people watching from all over the world. From Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Hong Kong, the United States, UK, India. So they are coming from very different places and still we all share this passion for music and these beautiful nights it gives us.

And the impact of Yulianna’s efforts online become clear whenever she meets music lovers:

“I'm very happy when people report that they are playing some pieces that we were talking about. Almost every concert where I play someone comes to me and says, ‘Oh, I watched your videos and they are so great'. I even had a student from the Technical University in Zurich tell me: ‘Oh, you know, I came across your videos by accident, but now I have bought a keyboard and in my freetime I try to play a little bit'. For myself, that was the happiest feedback I could ever get.”

Can you tell us a little bit about Friday's programme and why the choices of music? How do you arrive at those pieces?

“The Hammerklavier Op 106 by Beethoven is probably one of the greatest pieces ever composed for piano. Also for me, the result is the essence of his entire work. It's a huge piece, consisting of four movements. For me, the slow movement is maybe one of the most intimate pieces of music. You know what? When I think about this piece - [I think] it’s one of the greatest achievements humanity has ever achieved.

"That a human being is able to create something like this - and not just because of its technical difficulties or challenges - but the entire spirit of Beethoven is in this piece. It's so idealistic and also reminds us of the good qualities of human beings.”

Pianist Yulianna Avdeeva photographed by Maxim Abrossimow
Pianist Yulianna Avdeeva (Image: Maxim Abrossimow)

And your connection with Lizst?

“He also met Beethoven at least once personally and he arranged all nine symphonies by Beethoven for piano solo, so only for him. He [Lizst] was playing them everywhere in the smallest places. He was performing them so that the people who have no access to orchestras, that they still have a chance to learn this new music and basically actually through Lizst and his humanistic approach, that all people could hear the music.

“I'm starting the recital with the late pieces by Lizst. They are very rarely played - and they are absolutely the opposite of what we know from his earlier period. It’s actually really a window to the music of the twentieth century, because it has no tonality, it has no melody, [in comparison] to what the romantic music stands for. It's mostly moods. 

“[I think] Liszt prepares the way for Bartok Scriabin and the serious impressions and expressions, so it's really a real clear link to the music of later generations, and he was wishing that he would be famous for the music of the late period and not for the music of the of the early years - but it didn't happen. but I still think that this late period of his work gives listeners a chance to know and learn his personality.”

The ethos of the piano competition - and what you’re doing, is very much carrying on Liszt’s work. The competition is built around encouraging people to enjoy piano that maybe would feel intimidated or not be able to access piano music elsewhere. And you're doing the same thing.

“I would. Never go so far and say that I'm doing the same thing, but I think if we have the possibility to use the technology - we just have to share this. The Inspiration - this desire, right? Why not do that?”

I must ask you about your Resilience recording from last year and the background to that. The Szpilman family piano that you played -  could you just tell me a bit about that, because I was incredibly moved to hear about it. (Wladyslaw Szpilman was the Polish Jew that the book and film 'The Pianist' remembered.

"I have known the family of Wladyslaw Szpilman for many years already. And in the fall of 2020, when the son of Wladyslaw Szpilman called me and said they would like to arrange a concert on the House piano and asked if I would be happy to join them. I was very moved, because for me - you know, pianos are like elephants. They have a very good and a very long memory. They do not forget anything. 

“The [Szpilman] House piano is even more special because sometimes with the piano you share the feelings which you would never be able to speak out -  because words are not enough sometimes to express ourselves, but music is.

“On this occasion Szpilman’s son gave me scores of two pieces - and it was very moving to learn the story of one piece: the suite of The Life of the Machines. This suite was started in Berlin. And he composed this suite in 1933. So it's very early work, right before he went back to Warsaw. During World War 2, almost all his manuscripts were lost - and that for me was so shocking and so difficult to understand. After the war he could not restore any piece he composed before the war.

“He was so traumatised by his experiences and was not able to reconstruct them. It was really a wonder that this original copy of the piece was [then] found in California by accident in 2000 - and returned back to the family of Wladyslaw Szpilman, so now everybody can enjoy the music and have a kind of idea of the music he composed before the war.

“I will never forget the evening when I was performing on Wladyslaw Szpilman’s piano and yes, it's something which will remain in my heart. It's a unique memory.”

Energised by almost a week across the Christmas period when she didn’t touch a piano key, Yulianna is clear:

“I have come back with a fresh head. I have come back with fresh ideas and I'm happy to say hello to my piano again. It's a friend which I have been missing. The trips are long and sometimes they are challenging, but I think that it belongs to the life of the musician that, you know, you are on the road. You must enjoy travelling, which I definitely do. You see so many different cultures, you see so many different people, you get to know some traditions better. And of course through the music it's something very unique. As I said, it's a universal language that I can go somewhere and then I play and somehow at the moment we understand each other, even if I don’t know the mother tongue.”

Leeds Conservatoire is undobtedly the place to be on Friday evening for lovers of the piano - ahead of the upcoming competition in September.

For further information/tickets and to hear Franz Liszt and Ludwig van Beethoven’s music in Yulianna Avdeeva’s recital (which closes with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata).CLICK HERE