Piano Recital: Andrew Tyson
D. Scarlatti / Ravel / Albéniz / Liszt

Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2016-02-09

3-star rating

2016-02-12 — Original posting
2016-09-20 — Brushed up for better readability

Andrew Tyson (© Christian Steiner)
Andrew Tyson (© Christian Steiner)



The pianist Andrew Tyson was born 1986 in Durham, NC. He received his first music education from Thomas Otten at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Tyson then studied with Claude Frank at the Curtis Institute of Music. He further moved on to study with Robert McDonald at Juilliard School, where he obtained his Master’s degree and Artist Diploma. Andrew Tyson has since launched an international career as concert pianist. He also has received prizes at several national and international competitions, such as

  • Queen Elisabeth Competition (2001)
  • Eastern Music Festival Competition (2001)
  • Gina Bachauer Piano Competition and Arthur Rubinstein Prize in Piano
  • Young Concert Artists International Auditions (2011): Paul A. Fish Memorial Prize and John Browning Memorial Prize
  • Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient (2013)
  • Concours Géza Anda, Zurich (2015, first prize & audience prize)

Earlier Encounters

I first encountered Andrew Tyson’s name during the 2010 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. This was the first Chopin competition that was fully broadcast via Internet. Tyson did not reach the finals. His playing struck me as technically outstanding, but perhaps the most unusual, if not exotic among all competitors. My spontaneous comment then was “He makes Chopin sound like Domenico Scarlatti!”. Interestingly, his debut CD now features the Chopin Préludes. Equally interesting: the concert started with sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti!

The fact that in 2015 Andrew Tyson won the Concours Géza Anda in Zurich also won him the opportunity to appear in this concert in the Semper-Aula at the ETH Zurich, in the context of “Musik an der ETH“. Tis is a cosy venue (capacity: 99 seats, equipped with a Steinway D), in which I have already had the chance to attend a number of interesting concerts. So, here, he arrives, slender, shy, an unobtrusive personality, maybe somewhat gawky. He does not (yet) give the impression of an experienced, seasoned concert pianist…

D. Scarlatti: Sonatas K.9, K.322, and K.96

Andrew Tyson opened the recital with three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757). Scarlatti did of course not have any notion of the modern piano, so performing these sonatas on a modern concert grand may seem questionable. However, it turns out that most Scarlatti’s sonatas are fairly “robust” and hence “survive” amazingly well when played on a modern piano, or even other types of instruments.

The reason for this flexibility very likely is that Scarlatti’s sonatas are typically simple (some were really studies — esercizi) and designed to train a particular keyboard technique. Many are fast and aimed at training agility, lightness of articulation. There are slower pieces, too, but they rarely feature a very complex texture, multiple themes, complex polyphony, etc.

Some of the sonatas still profit from the specific articulation of the harpsichord. However, very often, Scarlatti’s melodic language is not so much dependent on a differentiated and specific harpsichord articulation. In other words: even if one takes away the harpsichord-specific articulation and phrasing in such sonatas, there is still enough substance for a (maybe entirely different) entertaining and enjoyable piece of music (and, after all, early versions of the fortepiano did exist towards the end of Scarlatti’s lifetime!).

Overall, I do regard playing Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonatas (at least a subset, I should say) on the modern piano as viable / acceptable. After all, one can hardly deny something to younger pianists what so many (starting with Vladimir Horowitz) haven been practicing successfully on concert stages and in recordings!

The Performance

Sonata in D minor, K.9

The first sonata in this recital was the Sonata in D minor, K.9 (Allegro). There it was again, instantly: this delicate, capricious articulation (such as sudden switch to staccato, abrupt staccato endings). This already struck me as special / extraordinary back in 2010, at the Chopin competition. Back then it seemed inappropriate and exotic, but here it made perfect sense. Tyson uses distinct, sometimes almost extreme agogics (small-scale tempo alterations), combined with rubato (larger scale accelerando / ritardando), his playing is very clean, the tempo natural, not exaggerated at all. He does all repeats, forms nice phrasing arches using dynamics and articulation; I would call this a “romantic interpretation in attitude, but a classic one in articulation” (not a baroque interpretation, in any case).

Sonata in A major, K.322

Here, the Sonata in A major, K.322 (Allegro) often sounded like a sonata by Haydn, with excellent articulation / keyboard touch. Andrew Tyson used an interesting tempo concept in both parts (also here, both repeats were done), with a distinct slow-down during the serene, lucid ending phrase. Another romantic touch? To me, the music still tolerates this.

Sonata in D major, K.96

Finally Sonata in D major, K.96 (Allegrissimo) is the most virtuosic of the three, challenging fast repeats, crossing hands, and other techniques at the same time. Andrew Tyson’s technique is flawless. He played this with almost aggressive attack, again capricious articulation and distinct, sometimes expansive dynamics, but letting the melodies sing nicely. Some acciaccaturas were played so short as to sound like a dissonance (e.g., when crossing hands). That’s a feature which I noted also in the first sonata above.

Ravel: Miroirs

The Scarlatti sonatas may be viewed as a “warm-up exercise”. For the most part, the rest of the program was very (if not extremely) virtuosic and technically demanding. Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) composed his cycle Miroirs in 1904/05; it consists of five character pieces:

  1. Noctuelles (“Night Moths”): Très léger (1/4 ca. 128) — Pas trop lent (1/4 ca. 80) — Presque lent — 1er mouvement
  2. Oiseaux tristes (“Sad Birds”): Très lent (1/8 = 60)
  3. Une barque sur l’océan (“A Boat on the Ocean”): D’un rythme souple (Très enveloppé de pédales)
  4. Alborada del gracioso (“Morning Song of the Jester”): Assez vif (3/8 = 92)
  5. La Vallée des cloches (“The Valley of Bells”): Très lent (1/4 = 50)

The Performance

I. Noctuelles

I quite liked Andrew Tyson’s “Noctuelles“. They were virtuosic, light, nicely depicting the flurrying, the nervous tumbling of moths accumulating around a light.

II. Oiseaux tristes

This was virtuosic, but to me, it sounded like he was using the sustain pedal almost throughout: there was too much resonance. I found that the entire composition sounded too “concrete” (especially considering that a lot of it is marked p or pp), not imaginative enough. I missed that feeling of loneliness (sadness, really). Unfortunately, this piece also gave the first, clear evidence of an issue that accompanied (and irritated) the pianist and (certainly parts of) the audience throughout the recital: this movement is full of accentuated and echoed Eb” tones (presumably depicting a sad bird!). Apparently (as the tuner later told me), that string had to be replaced that same day. Throughout the recital, that note to me became a “sticking, irritating point”.

III. Une barque sur l’océan

Andrew Tyson’s playing was very virtuosic, clean. It exhibited the artists stunning agility, his technical abilities. However, what I missed was the “ocean feeling”, or the “boat feeling”. Ravel writes “with a subtle rhythm”: I did not feel much subtlety here, let alone that feeling of “motion being driven by relentless waves”. I mostly heard a (somewhat dry) technical masterpiece. I think it’s not quite enough here to “let the music speak for itself”.

IV. Alborada del gracioso

Here, the playing again was extremely virtuosic, rather fast, relentless (almost rushed, very fast, too fast for me), but I was also missing the atmosphere. At times, this sounded as busy as a market place. I felt that the artist was often playing rather loud, with p/pp ending up as mf/f.

V. La Vallée des cloches

The general impression above continued in “La Vallée des cloches“: I missed the atmosphere, the feeling of forlornness, the calm, serene atmosphere. It again was sometimes a bit too loud. Also, the repeated semiquaver pattern in the right hand probably should have been less conspicuous (très doux et sans accentuation, i.e., “very sweet and without accentuation”). Sadly, the tuning issue hit again: Eb” appears prominently in several instances.

Albéniz: Iberia, 1st book

Isaac Albéniz (1868 – 1909) wrote his suite “Iberia” around 1905 – 1909); the suite consists of four books (three pieces each), the first of which was part of this program, after the intermission:

  1. Evocatión: Allegretto espressivo, A♭ major
  2. El Puerto: Allegro commodo, D♭ major
  3. Fête-Dieu à Séville: Allegro gracioso, F♯ minor

The entire suite is not only regarded a masterpiece for the piano, but it also includes some of the most difficult music in the repertoire, reaching out to extremes, especially in dynamics, covering pppppfffff (so, twanging strings and distortions in fffff are intended by the composer!).

The Performance

I. Evocation

The first piece, “Evocatión” is annotated “dolce“. It further contains annotations such as “ppp ma sonoro“, “souple très doux et lointain“, “très lointain“, “perdendosi“, “sonoro ma non forte“, or “absolument attenué“. I missed the pensive aspect, some of its contemplative atmosphere (what is being “evoked” here?): Andrew Tyson tended to be a bit “pushy”, dashing, sometimes also too loud. With the exception of a ff/fff outbreak in the middle part, most of the music is pp/ppp, towards the end down to ppppp. I think, the main challenge in this piece is in following the dynamic annotations. Sadly, the mis-tuned Eb” was striking again here.

II. El Puerto

No.2, “El Puerto” is a Zapateado, a dance from the Cadiz area. Here again, especially the beginning was too sporty, too fast, not really “living out” the wonderful, swinging nature of this dance, even though towards the end it seemed to calm down. To me, this was the weakest performance within this book of the Iberia suite.

III. Fête-Dieu à Séville

Finally, No.3, “Fête-Dieu à Séville”, is the longest and technically most challenging part in this book. It is notated partly on three staves, with rapid passages frequently featuring ffff, up to fffff. But the beginning is pp, also sempre pp: this already sounded like f. Towards the end, I failed to hear much below p (certainly, the “très lointain” wasn’t). Tyson’s playing was technically excellent (apart from the dynamic “upscaling”), even brilliant—but (as the other pieces) not very imaginative or atmospheric. Maybe a tad slower would have been better, too?

Liszt: Rhapsodie espagnole

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) composed his Rhapsodie espagnole , S.254, R.90, in 1863. That’s a real, pianistic showpiece, technically challenging. However, Liszt also knew exactly how to get the most effect out of the instrument! A challenging, impressive opening (Lento, mostly a cadenza) is followed by a segment based on the well-known theme “Folies d’Espagne” (Andante moderato). This grows into highly virtuosic octave parallels and parallel chords, up to Allegro animato. The following Allegro is a Jota aragonesa, again with gradually increasing virtuosic challenges. For the final build-up, Liszt first slows down a bit (Un poco meno Allegro), then continually builds up (sempre animando), up to Molto vivace, then Sempre presto e ff, up to the final broadening in an epic Non troppo allegro. Very theatrical music!

The Performance

Andrew Tyson played this with outstanding technical ability, precision, agility, a sparkling firework, especially in the opening section, exhibiting stunning virtuosity throughout. He was brilliant, stupendous, but in the case of this music, I would have preferred to hear more of the grotesque and show aspects of its virtuosity. Speed isn’t the only criterion here.

Encore, Conclusion

I suspect that in his mind, the artist had pre-assigned an encore: Le cygne (The Swan) from “Le carnaval des animaux” by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921), transcribed for the piano by Leopold Godowsky (1870 – 1938). This turned out to be a bad choice, most suited to point out the mis-tuned Eb”. I would have accepted an excuse that the encore is unplayable for reasons of bad tuning.

Andrew Tyson‘s technical abilities are definitely outstanding. However, I think he still needs to learn to listen into the atmospheric (and also humorous) aspects of his repertoire. Virtuosity, agility and technical perfection are just the basis. He needs to expand on the expression, the imaginative aspects of the music. But the foundation and the potential for an excellent career is definitely there!

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