NY Philharmonic/Gilbert/Avdeeva, Avery Fisher Hall, New York

Yulianna Avdeeva. Remember the name.

She was born in Moscow 25 years ago. On October 20 she won the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. It is a high-pressure contest, ventured only once every five years. The last woman to take top honours was Martha Argerich, back in 1965. Fittingly, Argerich served on the 2010 jury.

One of Avdeeva’s prizes was a pair of concert engagements with the New York Philharmonic. The first took place in Warsaw nine days after her victory. The second brought her to Lincoln Center on Tuesday.

Followed onstage by her gallant conductor Alan Gilbert, Avdeeva strode briskly to the keyboard. She looked serious and determined, also chic in white blouse and tails. She then confronted Chopin’s daunting E minor Concerto. After that long, possibly agonising orchestral prelude, she established her masterly credentials with a single flourish.

She mustered surging strength for the outer movements, but never allowed passion to distort clarity, never let the familiar sound routine, never confused sentiment with vulgarity. She let the music breathe, balancing the contradictory forces of flexibility and restraint. She made the florid flights seem organic, expressive devices rather than mere decorations, and in the moonstruck reverie of the Larghetto, shaded the line exquisitely, enriching the sighs and whispers with subtle dynamic contrasts and gentle rubato. Gilbert and the Philharmonic provided perfectly sympathetic support.

After the interval they turned to Act 2 of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. All of it. On paper the prospect seemed uninspired. OK, annoying. The perky sugarplums, waltzing flowers and hum-along tunes have become ubiquitous holiday clichés. Musical standards at the ballet are usually compromised by scrawny, rough and unready pit bands. Tempo decisions are often predicated on the dancers’ needs rather than the composer’s intentions. But it was hardly like that here. Gilbert and his inspired players approached the hand-me-down rituals with refreshing clarity, verve and wit. They sustained interest, even for jaded ears, with opulent timbres, daring tempi and surprising nuances. It was illuminating and, yes, it was fun.


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