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The Russian Archives
Maria Yudina (piano)
see end of review for details
rec. 1948-1958
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94398 [3 CDs: 65:41 + 68:29 + 53:05]

Maria Yudina was one of the most individual of pianists in the history of music. Her idiosyncratic interpretations often shocked other pianists who, nevertheless, greatly admired her. Sviatoslav Richter summed it up when he said “...when she played Romantic music, it was impressive - except that she didn't play what was written.  Liszt's  Weinen Klagen  was phenomenal, but  Schubert's B flat major Sonata, while arresting as an interpretation, was the exact opposite of what it should have been, and I remember a performance of the Second  Chopin Nocturne  that was so heroic that it no longer sounded like a piano but a trumpet. It was no longer Schubert or Chopin, but Yudina."
Maria Yudina was her own woman who remained resolutely true to her own set of principles and who refused to be conveniently moulded into what the State wished. She was born into a Jewish family but converted to the Russian Orthodox Church; she was a passionate opponent of the Soviet regime who suffered many bans from performance and sackings from posts as a result. She embraced modern music and championed various banned composers such as Bartók and Krenek with whom she became friends and even dared to recite the poetry of Boris Pasternak as an encore at one of her recitals for which she received a five year ban from performing. Despite all this she escaped the worst case scenarios that were played out for so many others because she was Stalin’s favourite pianist. Even so she was prepared to donate the monetary portion of her Stalin Prize to the Orthodox Church asking that they said  "perpetual prayers for Stalin's sins".
One particular story which shows the absolute fear that Stalin engendered tells of a night when he heard her playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 on the radio and asked the radio authorities to get him a copy. Unfortunately it had been a live concert and there was no recording but no official was prepared to admit that so they woke Maria Yudina up in the middle of the night, assembled an orchestra in a studio, and recorded the concerto pressing a single copy to present to Stalin. During the recording they were obliged to change the conductor three times, two of them so fearful they couldn’t complete the job. According to Shostakovich that record was the last thing Stalin listened to the night he died and was found on his turntable. Apparently the matrix survived and the recording is available on CD - I’d love to hear that!
It is then with considerable anticipation that I turned to her interpretations. The first disc opens with the oldest recording made in 1948 of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue and I was struck with how gentle a sound it was with her hands fairly skipping across the keys producing a wonderfully fluid account. The Six Preludes and Fugues from the first book of Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier are played with obvious reverence coupled with intelligence while Bach’s Violin Sonata No.3 is a thing of beauty with Maria Yudina providing a wonderfully solid accompaniment to Marina Kozolupova’s beautifully sweet sounding violin.
The second cd of the set begins with one of Liszt’s arrangements of Bach in the shape of his Prelude and Fugue in A minor. It’s a wonderfully grandiose affair in which Liszt emphasises the towering majesty which was the hallmark of so much of Bach’s writing, placing it at the very pinnacle of musical art. Shostakovich wrote that: “Externally, there was little in Yudina’s playing that was feminine. She usually played energetically and forcefully, like a man. She had powerful and rather muscular hands with long sturdy fingers. She held them in a unique way so that they resembled an eagle’s claw [...] Whatever she played, she played “not like everyone else”.” However, I find plenty of feminine touches if by that it means with a gentility that matches the mood of the music when required. Music is open to interpretation but nevertheless one must keep the composer’s intentions to the fore. I’m clear in my own mind that Liszt would certainly have been happy with Yudina’s playing of this work just as Bach would have been pleased with her playing of the works on disc one. Liszt would have been just as pleased, if not thrilled, at her interpretation of his Variations on Bach’s ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’ that explains the aforementioned Richter quote. The contrast she manages between thunder and radiant light are quite breathtaking and the fact that she objected to being called ‘a performer’ preferring the description ‘artist-performer’ explains her approach which goes beyond mere playing. However, one has to dispute her contention that “Listening to music is not a pleasure. It is a response to the grandiose efforts of the composer and the enormously important work of the artist-performer”. On the contrary I found listening to her recordings an intense experience full of pleasure and of awe at her abilities.
The two Beethoven sonatas nos. 5 and 32 are full of brilliance which highlights her aim of serving the composer and their music before anything else. I found the phrasing in the second movement of the fifth simply wondrous with a pacing and a touch that draws out every nuance while the last, Prestissimo, is a delight in every sense of the word. Sonata No.32 is an interpretation that Beethoven himself would surely recognise as being close to one he might have given with a first movement that is magisterial and passionate and a contrasting restrained opening to the second that proceeds to some wonderfully phrased passages. The whole sonata fully justifies Hugo Leichentritt’s description as ranging ‘from inferno to paradiso’. The booklet notes also quote a passage from Thomas Mann (in Doctor Faustus) that the Sonata No.32 had taken the form of the Classical sonata to its ‘end’ and that it ‘had fulfilled its destiny, reached its goal, beyond which there was no going’ and you can’t help agreeing with that sentiment at the conclusion of Yudina’s fine performance.
When I listen to Yudina I feel that I’m listening to a hugely important document that speaks to me across the years and that is quite unique in its attention to detail and desire to serve the composer at every turn. That she may have had her own unique voice is not only to be expected but, surely, desirable, for who wants to hear umpteen interpretations that all sound similar to each other.
What is important to me when listening is the overall impression of the piece and while I may, like everyone, prefer one performance over another and one pianist over another, initially I try to hear the interpretation in isolation from any preconceived ideas about preferred performances, and judge it on its own merits. Applying that to these discs gave me enormous pleasure and delight in hearing a pianist whose main aim in life was to produce the best interpretation that she could according to her own extraordinarily exacting standards. Shostakovich remarked that it was his impression that Yudina wore the same old dress all the time and when Stalin sent her 20,000 roubles following receipt of the aforementioned recording of the Mozart piano concerto she wrote a letter to Stalin in which she said words to the effect that "I thank you, Joseph Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He'll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend."
There are many and varied stories about Maria Yudina all of which show that she had no interest in the worldly pleasures that could be afforded by her income; her art was all that mattered and it shows.
The final CD in this important set begins with Brahms and first up is the second of his two rhapsodies op.79 and what a great performance it is with light and shade in abundance. Moving on we are tantalised with only a single movement from his 7 Fantasien the Intermezzo Op.116 No.2 - cruel! The Intermezzi Op. 117 and 118 are all imbued with an illuminating clarity with power in abundance when required and fairy-like touches at other times. The last items here are three of Schubert’s impromptus that are such fabulously gorgeous pieces one can never tire of hearing them. In the hands of Maria Yudina that is particularly true; her renditions are beautiful. Schumann is quoted in the booklet notes as saying of these works ‘Every page [...] whispers “Franz Schubert” - as we know him in his numberless moods, as he charms us, deceives us, and captivates us again, so we find him here’ and Yudina’s interpretations can be truly said to embody that very essence.  
Brilliant Classics have done the listening public a huge service in presenting at budget price a wealth of fantastic archive recordings of some of the twentieth century’s most amazing musicians that include Gilels, Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Sofronitsky, Richter, Kissin, Barshai, Gauk, Mravinsky, Rozhdestvensky, Tretiakov, Kremer, Shafran, Knushevitsky, Svetlanov, Kogan, Berman … the list goes on. This release of Maria Yudina in that series enables those who may not have come across her playing before to get to know an artist for whom playing was her life and who remained a passionate advocate of the music of her heroes.
Steve Arloff 

Track listing & performance details

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
CD 1
1. Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor BWV903 [11:32]
2-7. The Well Tempered Clavier: Book I (selection) [34:19]
8-11. Violin Sonata No.3 in E BWV1016* [19:46]
*Marina Kozolupova (violin)

CD 2
Johann Sebastian BACH/Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
1. Prelude and Fugue (after BWV543) in A minor S462 No.1 [9:54]
2. Variations on Bach’s ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’ S180 [16:43]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
3-5. Piano Sonata No.5 in C minor Op.10 No.1 [18:37]
6-7. Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor Op.111 [23:10]

CD 3
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
1. Rhapsody in G minor Op.79 No.2 [5:03]
2. Intermezzo Op.116 No.2:Andante [2:48]
3-5. Intermezzi Op.117 1-3 [12:11]
6-10. Intermezzi Op.118 1-4,6 [15:18]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
11. Impromptu in E flat D899 No.2 [4:05]
12. Impromptu in A flat D899 No.4 [6:51]
13. Impromptu in A flat D935 No.2 [6:44]

CD1: 4 September 1948 (track 1), 15 January 1951 (tracks 2-7), 6 May 1950 (tracks 8-11)
CD2: 10 April 1952 (track 1), 28 February 1950 (track 2), 3 May 1950 (tracks 3-5), 26 June 1958 (tracks 6-7)
CD3: 18 March 1952 (tracks 1,10), 17 July 1953 (track 2), 18 May 1951 (tracks 3-5,7), 6 March 1952 (tracks 6,8), 4 July 1952 (track 9), 15 January 1956 (tracks 11-13). Venues not stated.