2017-02-19 — Original posting
Jecklin Forum, Zurich, 2017-02-03
“Igor Stravinsky, from Romanticism to Jazz”
Works by Stravinsky & Tchaikovsky
I don’t need to introduce the Kazakh pianist Oxana Shevchenko, as I have witnessed and written about her playing in several concerts. I have reviewed with her as duo partners with the cellists Christoph Croisé and Narek Hakhnazaryan, and on top of that, I have attended a concert in Lausanne, where she played Aloÿs Fornerod‘s Piano Concerto. Last, but not least, I have enjoyed her playing at a private solo recital on 2016-01-16, near Zurich.
This posting is about the third concert in a mini-series of four small-scale recitals that Oxana Shevchenko has given in the Zurich area. I’ll post a separate note on the “story” around these recitals (such as organizational aspects, etc.). Let me just state here that this is not a standard concert review—rather more of a teaser article giving the outline of the program. The idea behind these recitals was two-fold:
- Oxana has the opportunity to record all works for solo piano by Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) with Delphian Records, Ltd. (Edinburgh, U.K.). She has been working on parts of this repertoire for a while, but now she was given less than 5 months of lead time prior to the recording date (week of March 6th), and she wanted to have some exposure with a real audience prior to recording, rather than just playing & rehearsing for herself.
- Delphian asked the artist to contribute around one-third of the production costs. Oxana was able to raise the bulk of that sum, but she is still looking at covering the remaining 20%.
Why Four Recitals?
The recording will presumably be on two CDs. In other words: Stravinsky’s oeuvre for solo piano is too large for a single concert. So, the works that Oxana wanted to perform were split into three programs. The notice period was unusually short (too short for getting the recitals into any of the regular series in the area). This made regular advertising difficult, if not impossible (or very expensive). With each of these programs, Oxana Shevchenko included compositions from the classic or romantic period, with the idea to gather a bigger audience, and to increase the chances of meeting the financial goal. In the end, the series comprised four recitals, where the first program was repeated in the last concert.
In addition, Oxana felt that “the more recitals, the more exposure, the better”. She will perform additional recitals in Moscow (2017-02-17 and 2017-02-18), Canterbury, U.K. (2017-02-26), as well as in Boston, MA (2016-03-02), on top of a tight rehearsing schedule.
A General Remark
I’m not critically reviewing the performances as such. For one, the four recitals discussed here are the first public exposure at least for some of the compositions. Therefore, Oxana’s interpretations can’t be regarded “final” at this stage: in a tight rehearsing schedule, her interpretations are still expected to evolve up to the recording date. On top of that, Oxana’s rehearsing schedule was hampered, because around the end of 2016, an infection severely reduced her rehearsal hours for several weeks. This caused some of the interpretations to be more preliminary than anticipated.
Zurich has (had) two of Switzerland’s biggest shops / companies / agencies for Music (instrument sale, maintenance and rentals, sheet music, LP and CD sales, etc.), Musik Hug and Jecklin. A while ago, Musik Hug bought up Jecklin, but kept (most of) Jecklin’s sites and facilities. LP sales have long gone from these shops, and CD sales also stopped a few years ago. Now, also sheet music is more and more purchased on-line, forcing Musik Hug to restructure their business. This means that Jecklin’s original site will be closed down. This also means that the venue for this concert sadly will cease to exist as such by the end of March. The acoustics in this room are quite good for piano recitals and chamber music.
That concert venue is called “Jecklin Forum”. It is an underground room in the basement (an ancient cellar, really), equipped with up to 80 seats (48 chairs were setup for this recital). There was a mid-size Fazioli grand piano, which unfortunately turned out to have a minor snag: occasionally, when the shift pedal was used, some of the middle keys were hanging. As this really is a cellar, the room tends to be humid. There is a de-humidifier (of course turned off during the recital), but even with that, one could sense a higher-than-average humidity in the room.
More information about the setup, facts and stories etc. around Oxana’s recitals will be posted in a separate blog entry.
Oxana Shevchenko’s Recital
What was somewhat special about this recital over the other three in the series is, that Oxana announced the pieces she was going to play, along with some explanations. On top of that, she inserted some nice & fun anecdotes about Stravinsky that she picked up from literature, as well as in Lausanne, the place where she studied for a while (2014/2015). I don’t want to spoil future instances of such story-telling, so I won’t mention the content, let alone details from these stories. Two of the pictures below show Oxana talking to the audience.
Tchaikovsky: “Les Saisons“, op.37a
For Pjotr Ilyitsch Tschaikowsky (1840 – 1893), composing for the piano was mostly a distraction from his big projects, such as symphonies, ballet, and opera. This explains why he has written relatively little music for piano solo. His biggest work in this genre is the Piano Sonata in G major, op.37. Apart from that, he mostly composed short character pieces for the piano. The most well-known and most popular among these are collected in the cycle “Les Saisons” (the Seasons), op.37a (also known as op.37b).
The title of this cycle seems to suggest a connection with the cycle of four violin concertos “Le quattro stagioni“ (The Four Seasons) by Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741). Indeed, each of the pieces in Tchaikovsky’s work has an associated short poem (by a Russian poet, such as Pushkin), just like Vivaldi’s four concertos (Vivaldi allegedly created those poems himself). But unlike Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky decided to write one short piece per month, rather than one per season. Most of these pieces are unpretentious, natural, atmospheric. However, not all of them are as easy to play as they may sound. In her recital, Oxana Shevchenko played the following five pieces from this cycle:
- Janvier (“Au coin du feu” / At the fireplace)
Moderato semplice, ma espressivo — Meno mosso — Tempo I
- Février (“Carnaval” / Carnival)
Allegro giusto — L’istesso tempo
- Mars (“Chant de l’alouette” / Song of the lark)
- Mai (“Les nuits de mai” / The nights of May)
Andantino — Allegretto giocoso — Poco meno mosso — Andantino
- Novembre (“Troïka”)
I. Janvier / “Au coin du feu”
In Oxana Shevchenko’s hands (and mind) this is more than the picture of someone cuddling up near the warmth of a fireplace! Rather, the memory of that person gradually brings up memories lively, flourishing pictures, scenes, maybe also a longing for the revival of nature in spring. Towards the end, though, after a climax, the music calms down again, returns to the rather melancholic mood of the first bars. I like that continuous, wide arch spanning the entire movement: very captivating, despite the melancholy!
II. Février / “Carnaval”
A lively carnival scene—not polished, cold elegance or mere “show”, but rather vivid, lively dancing, stumbling (nicely pointing out those sudden syncopes that disrupt the rhythm!), more dancing, almost going overboard: a colorful piece that lives! The tempo is moderate, but not too slow, giving a chance to play out and enjoy the little rhythmic details.
Oxana adds a strong contrast in the middle part: at the double bar, she stops shortly, then continues at a distinctly heavier, seemingly slower pace. The composer writes “L’istesso tempo“: yes, momentarily, Oxana appears to switch to a slower tempo, but that is more in the sense of a rubato, momentarily showing a different, more earnest, more dramatic atmosphere. I liked the cute little sforzati in this section: this was like adding little puns into an otherwise almost earnest, moody tale! Indeed, the music soon returns to the original, lively pace, and to the initial carnival temperament.
III. Mars / “Chant de l’alouette”
A wonderfully contemplative piece, strongly contrasting to the preceding movement. Oxana Shevchenko illustrated the arbitrariness of bird song with a distinct, explicit rubato: very nice, living nature! After an almost lively climax, the piece calms down again, into a silent, pensive ending, almost like a big question mark!
V. Mai / “Les nuits de mai”
Another lyrical piece from the cycle. It was indeed contemplative, but without exaggeration, i.e., retaining some youthful atmosphere, lightness in the lively middle part, and flow: I really liked that interpretation!
XI. Novembre / “Troïka”
“Troïka” in this case refers to the Russian folk dance with that name, interestingly in 4/4 time (whereas “troika” may also refer to “three of a kind”, e.g., as a carriage pulled by three horses, one of the key symbols for Russia). In Oxana’s interpretation, the syncopated outer parts are melancholic, almost grave. However, it retained the solemn “swing” of a stepped dance. The lively middle section with its acciaccaturas and later semiquaver garlands offer a refreshing, atmospheric contrast: what nice music, well-characterized in Oxana’s interpretation!
Stravinsky: Scherzo (1902)
The Scherzo in g minor is one of Stravinsky’s earliest surviving compositions, written 1902, at age 20. It’s almost a miracle that it survived the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, which otherwise caused the loss of many of Stravinsky’s very early compositions. The Scherzo re-surfaced in the estate of Nicolai Ivanovich Richter, a pianist and friend from Stravinsky’s youth, and the dedicatee of the piece. Only in 1972 it got published, as facsimile.
A piece with simple structure, maybe limited musical / melodic content. But it’s still interesting with its irregularly hesitating, faltering flow in the Scherzo part. The Trio definitely reminds of music by Bach or Handel. When the Scherzo returns, one starts to feel a lack of further invention (it feels like a 1:1 repetition); luckily, a light-hearted, outbursting Coda comes to the rescue. An interesting glimpse into the early stages of a composer’s evolution!
Stravinsky: Piano Sonata in f sharp minor (1904)
The Piano Sonata in f sharp minor is another one of Stravinsky’s earliest compositions, written 1903/1904. The piece features four movements:
- Scherzo (Vivo)
- Finale: Allegro – Andante – Tempo I
Stravinsky presented this sonata along with the Scherzo from 1902 to his teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908). Like the Scherzo, it is dedicated to the composer’s friend Nicolai Ivanovich Richter, who also played the sonata to Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as in public, in 1905. Stravinsky later believed that most of his early compositions had been lost. In his autobiography Memories and Commentaries, he even referred to the composition as “the lost—fortunately lost—piano sonata”: he considered it an imitation of late Beethoven. Even when he visited Russia (Moscow and Leningrad) in 1962, he was not informed that most of his early works—this sonata included—were kept safely by the Leningrad State Public Library. It was only in 1973, when Stravinsky’s widow gave permission to publish it.
A nice, colorful collection, a kaleidoscope of ideas in the disguise of a classic piece, with romantic segments added in, including some rather too-popular, “earwormy” melodic traits. Yes, mostly indeed imitating, but with big gestures, and very virtuosic already. To me, this is still and interesting nice music, even though it lacks a unifying, compelling concept (though with the bracketing of some recurring themes / sections). Some might consider it somewhat monstrous, with its 10 minutes duration. However, I still enjoyed the music, and—needless to say—the playing!
II. Scherzo (Vivo)
The Scherzo is rather light-hearted, playful, fast, but still with an almost Menuet-like attitude at times. In contrast, for me, the Trio strongly reminds of music from Tchaikovsky’s “Seasons”, both from the texture, as well as in the harmonies.
Atmospheric music at a swaying, walking pace, reminding of music by Schumann (or Mendelssohn?); Oxana played this in very nicely formed, long phrasing arches, building up to almost dramatic, intense climaxes. Even though Stravinsky definitely hadn’t found his personal styles yet, and even though it may be seen as a pure imitation of romantic music (or of a character piece by Tchaikovsky, more precisely), if find this the best of the movements in this sonata. There is a Coda section (poco a poco agitato) that leads into the final movement (attacca), anticipating the somewhat more trivial themes in the Finale:
IV. Finale: Allegro – Andante
One may see some degradation in the sonata, through the overly folk song-like melodies in the last movement, coupled with gestures that are too big for their melodic / musical content (some of the melodic elements would suit a national anthem!). However, I still find this interesting to listen to! The Andante part starts more lyrical, then accelerates, gets more virtuosic, falls back into the Andante again. There is another build-up that leads back into the thematic simplicity of the Allegro, and then, and agitato leads into the big gesture of the final Coda. While some of the melodies in the Finale are rather trivial, the technical demands are not to be underestimated!
Overall: nice music, maybe not of the highest musical (thematic, structural) quality, but definitely an interesting, rarely performed piece at the very least!
Stravinsky: Quatre études, op.7 (1908)
The Quatre études (Four Studies), op.7, were composed 1908, while Stravinsky was in the Ukraine. The studies deal with difficult, irregular rhythmic structures:
- Con moto (c minor)
- Allegro brillante (D major)
- Andantino (e minor)
- Vivo (F sharp major)
I. Con moto
Very tricky, training rhythmic firmness with fast semiquaver quintuplet accompaniment against one or two melody voices in quaver triplets and doublets! In Oxana’s hands, this sounded natural—but I’m sure that many pianists will struggle with this!
II. Allegro brillante
Even more difficult, in 6/8 time, fast, not easy on the fingering. In Oxana’s hands, it indeed sounded brilliant, a showpiece almost: fascinating!
Here, the left hand plays a melody (6/8 time) with a two-voice chordic accompaniment, while “independently”, the right hand plays semiquaver sextuplets with a “built-in” melody in the peak notes on the fourth and tenth semiquaver in each bar: an interesting, intricate maze of ingredients!
A “two voice invention”—but definitely not in Bach’s style! In the number of voices, it’s simpler than the third study. It mainly uses two simple motifs: groups of four semiquavers in the right hand (legato), descending broken chords in the left hand, in groups of four quavers (staccato sempre). However, it is very fast, and in both hands, the motifs are not aligned with the bar lines, but shifted forward by one quaver in the articulation. The middle part offers some extra, virtuosic challenges. Trying to play these shifted motifs / phrases, but rhythmically maintaining the bar structure is a real challenge! I admire Oxana for mastering it so brilliantly, while still making it sound playful and light!
Stravinsky: Chorale (1920)
1920, the journal La Revue musicale published a special edition in memory of the passing of Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918). Stravinsky’s contribution to that edition was this short Chorale. Later, Stravinsky incorporated the piece into his Symphonies d’instruments à vent (“Symphonies of Wind Instruments”), again dedicated to the late Claude Debussy, as last movement.
As Oxana put it in her explanations: in this and the subsequent pieces, Stravinsky has finally found his personal style.
A very interesting, short piece, like a combination of a church chorale and a funeral march in its solemn, stepping pace. As appropriate for the piece’s designation, it expresses pain in its obstinate dissonances. Yet, when I listen into the piece, dive into the music, let my mind float in the harmonies, the composition (to me) seems to express utter beauty, the harmony of the spheres: very nice, and much too short! From listening to Oxana’s interpretation, I also understand why Stravinsky later expanded this into a larger setting for wind instruments!
Stravinsky: Serenade in A (1925)
Stravinsky wrote his “Serenade in A” in Vienna, 1925—it’s a work with four movements:
- Cadenza finala
The Serenade is neither in A major nor in a minor, but it evolves around the tone A as “tonal Pole”, or “tonal center”.
Fascinating music! The Hymn is nothing that one would associate with a serenade: more like a choir of trumpets, if not an entire brass music, strongly rhythmic, dissonant, yet seemingly tonal, based on catchy motifs, simple structures, yet multi-faceted: at times it strongly reminds of the Sonate our piano from 1924. It’s definitely very virtuosic—and Oxana mastered it very well! The first three movements all end using an interesting feature: prior to the last chord, a specific key in the bass must be pressed without the hammer touching the string. When the last chord ends and is muted, that key stays pressed, and one can hear the silent string resonate, mirroring the last chord(s).
Also the Romanza is barely fulfilling common expectations suggested by the title. Yes, there are parts in which one can picture a guitar player singing in a nightly serenade. But then, there are these ghastly, virtuosic staccato segments. And suddenly, we find ourselves in beautiful harmonies and a melody that is almost too nice and cantabile: a multifaceted piece, with some seemingly odd (composed) ruptures in the flow. Very, very nice music, not as virtuosic as the first movement, but very demanding in the interpretation: nothing an artist will just play well prima vista!
My favorite piece in this composition, full of drive (at times almost jazzy), fun, joy! It reminds me of Bach’s Interventions for two voices in the two competing voices running mostly in semiquavers, with very nice, catchy melodic fragments, hidden in the constant, busily running figurations in the right hand, while the left hand constantly plays broken (minor and major) chords.
No, not a boisterous, loud ending, nothing like the cadenza in a concerto! Rather, an almost lyrical pice, often running in parallel thirds and sixths—yet harmonically intricate! The movement builds up in volume and intensity, as well as harmonic complexity—just to finish almost abruptly after the climax.
Overall, to me, the Serenade in A is a masterpiece, at the level of the Sonate pour piano from 1924: too bad it’s just around 10 minutes! Enchanting, really—and also here, the long silence up to the applause indicated that the audience was captured by this music and Oxana’s interpretation!
Stravinsky: Piano-Rag-Music (1919)
After his studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908), Stravinsky emigrated to France. There, he encountered with American Jazz music. It was mainly the conductor Ernest Ansermet (1883 – 1969) who made Stravinsky familiar with the features of this music, using sheet music brought over from the States. At that time, around 1919, Stravinsky wrote his Piano-Rag-Music. He composed it for the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887 – 1982). However, in 1919, it was José Iturbi (1895 – 1980) who premiered the work in Lausanne.
A rather unusual piece of piano Jazz music!! Music with clear allusions to Ragtime, but of course all dressed up in Stravinsky’s harmonic, exotic excursions and percussive highlights—thrilling, enthralling, fun! Oxana Shevchenko has had this in her repertoire for several years already. See below for a link to Oxana’s recording that she made a few years ago in Lausanne.
Stravinsky: Tango (1940)
During WWII, when Stravinsky settled in Hollywood, California, he found himself in financial difficulties: he could not access his royalties from earlier compositions in Europe, in parts due to copyright issues. He therefore started composing and publishing works entirely in the USA. The first of these “US-based” compositions is the Tango, written 1940. It’s a tonal composition that Stravinsky later transcribed for various instrumental settings, from orchestra down to piano and violin.
An interesting piece, also this! Undeniably a Tango in rhythm and melody, quoting and paraphrasing popular compositions, but “beefed up” with his personal harmonies & dissonances in the accompaniment. However, as much as I liked Oxana’s interpretation and performance: maybe it’s not the best idea to present the Tango after the Piano-Rag-Music, as this makes it appear “too tonal”, too much trying to appeal to popular taste?
Even though at that point the recital already lasted almost 1.5 hours, Oxana offered two encores by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886): transcriptions of Lieder by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) for piano. For information on the pieces, and a short description of Oxana’s interpretation and performance see the post on the earlier recital in Rüti, on 2017-02-01. The two Lieder were the same as in the recital in Rüti—though here, the sequence was suitably inverted:
- Lied “Der Erlkönig“, op.1, D.328 (Liszt S.558/4)
Amazing how well Oxana managed to play this wildly dramatic piece after all the Stravinsky!
- Lied “Du bist die Ruh‘”, op.59/3, D.776 (Liszt S.558/3)
Sure, Oxana Shevchenko could not release the audience with the devastating drama in “Der Erlkönig“! Then, what’s better than to follow up with the serenity of “Du bist die Ruh‘”? Thank you so much, Oxana, for the soothing relief of this intense musical “good-night kiss”!
The material used for announcing the recital, as well as used for distribution in the concert (all in German) included
- A flyer, covering all four recitals: Overall Flyer (PDF)
- A program leaflet: Zurich Concert Leaflet (PDF)
- As part of their service, Jecklin produced their own leaflet (PDF), based on the same material;
- The work description for the repertoire in all four recitals: Work Descriptions (PDF)
- A sheet for ordering Oxana Shevchenko’s existing two CDs: CD Order Sheet (PDF)
- Finally, an extra sheet for pre-ordering the set of Stravinsky CDs, once available: Stravinsky CD Pre-Order Sheet (PDF)
I have posted separate notes about the recitals in this small series:
- 2017-02-01: Recital in Rüti, ZH (Amthaus)
- 2017-02-02: Recital in Uster, ZH (Gemeinderatssaal)
- 2017-02-03: Recital in Zurich (Jecklin Forum, this posting)
- 2017-02-05: Recital in Weinfelden, TG (Kirchgemeindehaus)
Finally, I plan on posting a separate note on organizational & related aspects around these recitals.
There is a live recording with Oxana Shevchenko playing the Piano-Rag-Music (from 1919), from the time when she was studying in Lausanne. This recording is now available on Soundcloud.