Rhinegold

Robert Turnbull

Home from home: Yulia Chaplina

12:24, 13th July 2017

Yulia Chaplina is one of the latest artists in an illustrious line of Russian émigré musicians who have made a profound cultural impact across national borders. Robert Turnbull discovers a pianist who celebrates her musical birthright wherever she plays and teaches, especially when she is at home in London

Transcending its current political and economic sanctions, Russian artists are thankfully still free to visit the European continent and keep important channels of communication open. That is unlikely to change. After decades of enjoying a succession of great pianists, we can perhaps be forgiven for taking them for granted, but our concert halls would feel bereft without them.

One of the latest talents to emerge is Yulia Chaplina. Born in Rostov–on-Don, in a region boasting cultural icons such as Chekhov and Musorgsky, Chaplina began lessons with her mother and made her debut, aged seven, with the Rostov State Symphony Orchestra. After a brief spell in Moscow, where in 2004 she won the first prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition Junior Section, she moved to Berlin to study with Klaus Hellwig at the University of the Arts. Next stop was the Royal College of Music for lessons with compatriot Dmitri Alexeev. She currently resides in London with her British husband, pianist Jonathan Deakin, one of the founders of the Aurora Orchestra.

In the UK, Chaplina began engaging with London’s large Russian community. She founded the Tchaikovsky London Music School in South Kensington, which she set up in March last year to provide quality education based on Russian methods of teaching. More recently she has been curating events at Pushkin House, a home for the Russian arts that is actually the oldest foreign culture centre in London.

Chaplina loves teaching (especially children), lectures on music when she can and enjoys a busy schedule as a chamber musician and partnership with world class orchestras. Her solo work tends to be mostly in Germany, where she has retained her old contacts, and Japan where she has enjoyed ‘an amazingly appreciative audience’.

Chaplina never attended the Moscow Conservatory – which explains why she has yet to make an impact on the Russian musical scene; yet there is something quintessentially Russian about her playing. The technical fluency, intense lyricism and rich tonal shading are reminiscent of the great Communist era artists such as Emil Gilels and Samuil Feinberg. She is, in a sense, a chip off the old (Soviet) Block.

Much has been made of the demise of the nationalist schools of piano playing in an era of globalisation. Only Russia, it seems, bucks the trend with young pianists from former Soviet Union countries still emerging at an astonishing rate, all with very individual styles, persuasive musical personalities and powerful techniques: ‘It’s very normal there for young kids to start playing very early,’ Chaplina says. ‘They just seems to get that head start. Russian pedagogic tradition is still unmatched and very, very rigorous. Technique is drilled into you practically from birth’.

Dmitri Alexeev’s influence has been crucial. This self-effacing gentle giant won the Leeds piano competition in 1978 but now spends his time teaching. His post-Leeds solo recitals in London were must-see events, especially if they included Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Chaplina says, ‘The sense of the shape of music phrases within the rhythm is the most valuable thing he taught me.’

There have been a wide range of other influences, from the stern taskmaster Klaus Hellwig in Berlin, who coached her in the Viennese classics and Bach but largely poo-pooed Russian music, to Sir András Schiff for whom she presented a version of Haydn’s F minor Variations only to have them torn apart in one of his masterclasses. Other pianists she admires are Marc-André Hamelin, Mitsuko Uchida and Daniil Trifonov. If anything unites them, it is their meticulous phrasing, which, she feels, emulates the act of singing. ‘This is my one rule,’ she says. ‘One needs to take breaths, to allow the music to sound natural.’

Like most musicians, Chaplina is building a career which combines hard work and the sheer pleasure of playing. Winning several competitions has certainly raised her profile, but hasn’t affected her basic view that there is more to musical life than the drudgery and loneliness of the solo concert circuit.  Next on the agenda is a recording of Russian music with her newly formed quartet Gamma Majoris, and a disc of rare Prokofiev transcriptions with violinist Yuri Kalnitz.

Gamma Majoris will release their debut album on the Champs Hill label in November 2017, featuring Yulia Chaplina on piano with Anastasia Prokofieva (soprano), Ksenia Berezina (violin) and Alisa Liubarskaya (cello). www.champshillrecords.co.uk

Chaplina’s disc of Prokofiev transcriptions with Yuri Kalnitz is scheduled for release in 2018 by Toccata Classics. www.toccataclassics.com

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