Magazine article The Spectator

Truly Masterful

Magazine article The Spectator

Truly Masterful

Article excerpt

Radio

Highlight, and wonder, of the radio week for me was the Soviet pianist Maria Yudina, vintage artist on Radio Three's CD Masters. I'd never heard of Yudina until a few months ago, when the estimable Rob Cowan introduced a riveting interpretation of a Shostakovich prelude and fugue. The performances broadcast last week revealed one of the most startlingly original and truly masterful pianists of the last century. Schubert's Trout Quintet, usually presented as one of the composer's most relaxed works, full of Viennese charm, sounded as if it had had several thousand volts put through it (did this have anything to do with the electrification of the Soviet Union?) - Yudina and friends playing at an unbelievable speed with steely strength and tension. I'm not sure I'd want to hear this too often, but I certainly won't forget it. Unforgettable in a different way was the performance of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. This was not only gripping and arresting but extraordinarily moving and truer to the quirky, gruff, sublime spirit of the work than any other version I've heard.

Yudina was no ordinary person. Sviatoslav Richter described her eccentric demeanour on stage, appearing like a woman possessed, accoutred in black with a prominent crucifix on her breast. Yudina remained an openly devout Christian, corresponding with banished theologians and berating Stalin for his unchristian behaviour in sending fellow-Russians to the gulag. How did she get away with it? The dictator (infinitely less philistine than our own dear Tone) was besotted with her playing. Once he heard her play a Mozart concerto on the radio, and immediately ordered a copy of the recording to be sent to him. (No doubt he had better luck than I seem to with the obviously under-resourced Radio Three publicity department.) During the siege of Leningrad Yudina did as much as anyone to keep up the spirits of those confined in the icy, starving city, tirelessly giving concerts and teaching - a kind of tragic, daemonic Myra Hess. Yudina, as much as any classical musician I've heard, had what Lorca called duende - the spirit which connects performer and audience with an electric charge (those volts again).

Cowan, to go back to him, seems an exemplary presenter - absolutely dedicated to what he is presenting, quite unegotistical and inspiring. The same goes for his colleague, the engaging and expertly insightful Jonathan Swain. These two represent the new Radio Three at its innovative best, probably better than it's ever been in terms of genuine accessibility. …

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