Maria Yudina, A Great Russian Pianist = BEETHOVEN, STRAVINSKY, BARTOK – Praga Digitals

A concise portrait of the iconoclast Maria Yudina, who championed modern music.

Maria Yudina, A Great Russian Pianist = BEETHOVEN: Variations and Fugue in E-flat Major, Op. 35 “Eroica”; BERG: Piano Sonata, Op. 1; STRAVINSKY: Serenade in A Major; Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments; BARTOK: Mikrokosmos, Bk. V-VI: excerpts – Maria Yudina, piano/ USSR Radio Sym. Orch., Moscow/ Gennady Rozdhdestvensky – Praga Digitals PRD 250 342, 75:28 (9/30/16)  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Maria Yudina (1899-1970) studied at the Petrograd Conservatory under Anna Essipova and Leonid Nikoayev. Her advocacy of modern Western music would often result in her dismissal from various institutes. Despite her iconoclastic nature, she remained Josif Stalin’s favorite artist. Her criticism of his regime including her reading the poetry of Boris Paternak as an “encore” to a recital. Her prodigious concert career was denied any recordings by the official censors, so little exists of her collaborations. Sviatoslav Richter called her playing “prodigious and immensely talented,” in spite of the fact that her favorite composers – Krenek, Hindemith, Bartok, Stravinsky – had been officially banned from public performance. What has survived of her recorded legacy often originates with pirate or “underground” recording sources, not always of superior quality. [They must be really bad because most commercial Soviet recordings of that period were terrible…Ed.]

The Beethoven Eroica Variations (April 1961) effectively combines epic power and ardent lyricism. The pungent clarity and hard patina of Yudina’s line will convince uninformed auditors that Glenn Gould is at the keyboard. The three variations of the bass line prior to the initial statement of the main theme set up a perfect tension for the happily arioso character of the melody. Particularly incisive, the Variation VII “Canone all’Ottava” resounds with authority. Several of the subsequent variations by Yudina do not soften the passing dissonances in order to “beautify” the effect. The impression Yudina creates makes of Beethoven a natural forerunner of the explosive or “pulverizing” impulses found in the adventures of 20th-century music.

The 1910 Sonata (in b minor) of Alban Berg (rec. 10 June 1964) compresses traditional sonata-form into a firmly conceived space, basing all development on the opening two gestures. Likely, Berg chose this Op. 1 to pay homage to the Liszt opus in the same key. Yudina, naturally enough, exploits the chromatics, whole tones, and harmonic instability of the work to align Berg with much of passionate Scriabin as well as with Schoenberg’s principle of “developing variation.” The 1925 Serenade in A by Igor Stravinsky (rec. 2 March 1962) cannot claim the tonality as its “key,” but rather as a “gravitational” point of departure and return. The “A” might appear in the root, third, or fifth of the harmonic triad. Stravinsky, in need of money, wrote the four movements so that each would fit onto a 78rpm side conveniently. Stravinsky wished the Serenade to reflect his festive affection for Classical forms, though Hymne salutes Chopin – we hear allusions to the F Major Ballade – and the Cadenza finale pays homage to the composer’s national Russian roots. Yudina’s performance demonstrates her elastic rhythm, her fusion of humor and spirituality. The Rondoletto gives us a clear indication of Yudina’s virtuoso powers.
Bartok conceived Mikrokosmos as 153 pieces of progressive difficulty in six volumes, 1926-1939. In the West, Gyorgy Sandor became its most ardent spokesman. Yudina selects (8 January 1964) eight pieces from the last two volumes, most of which exploit Magyar and national rhythm and melodic fragments. In the spirit of a game, the pieces exploit major and minor seconds, major sevenths, repeated notes, recitative, and ostinati. The No. 146 Ostinato does indeed sound like a rustic bagpipe. No. 142 projects a nervous humor, subtitled “From the Diary of a Fly.” The No. 144, with its Molto adagio, mesto indication, allies itself to the late string quartets. Yudina can make the piano sound like a harmonium, although a defiant one. The No. 145 Chromatic Invention pays clear homage to Bach, whom Yudina no less adored. Yudina concludes with a mighty No. 149, the No. 2 of Dances in Bulgarian rhythm, which gives an indication of what her Bartok concertos could potentially include.

At last, we hear Yudina with an orchestra (September 1962), featured in Stravinsky’s 1924 Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. After the ceremonial Largo introduction, the furies unleash, and Yudina and Rozhdestvensky are off to the races. The trumpets and piccolo parts, acute and piercing, blend thoroughly with Yudina’s penetrating sonority. If the first movement plays like a ferocious toccata, the Largo establishes something like grim repose in Yudina’s agitated style. The virtuosic, martial affect returns for the last movement, percussive and metrically intricate, no less imitative of J.S. Bach. It’s been a rare treat to hear Yudina surrounded by inspired collaborators.

—Gary Lemco

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