Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva was the talk of the town after her Australian debut, a recital of Chopin and Liszt at City Recital Hall a year ago almost to the day. She shot to fame when she won the Warsaw Chopin Competition in 2010 and has carved out a name for herself as a Chopin interpreter, so it’s fitting that her return to Australia for performances with the Melbourne and Sydney symphony orchestras should feature the pianist-composer’s Piano Concerto No 1 in E Minor (his second written, in 1830, but first published concerto).

Yulianna Avdeeva, Sydney Symphony OrchestraYulianna Avdeeva, Andrey Boreyko and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Daniela Testa

Following a lush string opening coaxed from the orchestra by fellow Russian Andrey Boreyko on the podium, Avdeeva’s first solo entry immediately demonstrated why she’s become such a sensation – with ringing power and crystalline tone she made the piano sing with incredible presence. And indeed, throughout the Concerto she gave the music a lithe, agile strength that never became heavy, her sound glittering in Chopin’s passage-work and cascading descents, with moments of playfulness whirling into Romantic drama. Avdeeva’s second movement entry, ushered in by the horns, was all sweetness and delicacy, with magic conjured in her duet with Todd Gibson-Cornish on bassoon, building to the movement’s passionate climax and dreamy, cadenza-like moments. Boreyko barely paused before launching into the finale, where Avdeeva’s masterful technique sparkled brilliantly, from refined pianissimos to vibrant, dancing passages. This was a performance that favoured subtlety and textural finesse over raw virtuosity – which you can afford to do if, like Avdeeva, you’ve got the latter in spades. Sure, there’s a coolness to her playing, but it’s the chill, glistening beauty of an intricate ice sculpture – and utterly captivating. The orchestra plays second fiddle to the piano in this concerto, but the SSO was nonetheless in fine form, with the velvet string opening of the Romanze particularly arresting. For an encore, Avdeeva gave us Chopin’s posthumously published C Sharp Minor Nocturne, also composed in 1830, with which she opened last year’s recital.

Boreyko framed the Concerto with two very different tributes to Brahms. Krzystof Meyer, a student of Penderecki (who also studied with Nadia Boulanger), wrote his Hommage à Johannes Brahms for the 15th anniversary of Brahms’ birth in 1983. It opens with pounding timpani and seething strings, material recognisably drawn from the opening of his dedicatee’s First Symphony sliding in and out of distinctly un-Brahmsian harmonies before spiralling out in new directions, with colourful percussion, ringing bells, splashing brass leaving string afterglows – and a skittering, muted trumpet solo from Paul Goodchild – evoking something of the drama of Brahms but in a transformed sound world, encoded with a musical spelling of the composer’s name. There were a couple of moments when the biting accents, punched out by geographically disparate members of the orchestra, weren’t delivered absolutely immaculately, but the murmuring pizzicatos from the strings and a smooth, quiet clarinet solo from guest principal James Burke (from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields) were exquisite.

Burke starred too at the other end of the program, giving a ripping klezmer-inspired solo in the final movement of Arnold Schoenberg’s fascinating 1937 orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No 1 in G Minor from 1861. Schoenberg, who met and admired Brahms, wrote in a letter to the critic Alfred Frankenstein that his intention was “to remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not go further than he himself would have gone if he lived today.” The last part of that sentence is often glossed over, but it’s significant, as Schoenberg seems to approach his orchestration – which includes E Flat clarinet, bass clarinet and xylophone – not so much as Brahms might have done it in his lifetime, but as Brahms might have done it had he been working, like Schoenberg, in 1930s Los Angeles. The opening movement with its dramatic four-note motif is very Brahms though – and Boreyko gave it an appropriately weighty reading – as is the opening of the Andante con moto, which gives way to a military march, given plenty of boisterous, cymbal crashing energy over the snare drum. It was the finale, however, that sent the audience out on a high. Boreyko unleashed the Ronda alla Zingarese with wild enthusiasm – there were plenty of great wind moments, and the playful flurries from Rebecca Lagos’ xylophone were loads of fun. A wonderful program.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Yulianna Avdeeva performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1  is at the Sydney Opera House until May 18