Oliver Schnyder Trio
Beethoven / Shostakovich / Brahms

Konservatorium Bern, 2017-05-15

4-star rating

2017-05-19 — Original posting


Schnyder Trio (© Raphael Zubler-Switzerland)
Oliver Schnyder Trio (© Raphael Zubler-Switzerland)

Introduction

This was my first concert in the Bern Conservatory. This is situated in the middle of Bern’s beautiful, historic medieval town. The conservatory hides behind a stately Art Nouveau facade in Bern’s central Kramgasse. That street has retained its central gutter. It is now serving primarily as drain for the fountains and the rain water.

The institution’s big concert hall has been built into the former “backyard”. It’s a simple, “shoebox” type concert hall with a rear balcony and a north-facing podium. The simplicity of the architecture is underlined by the fact that the big organ hides behind a wooden grid. This makes it totally inconspicuous (see the picture below).

The concert was a chamber music evening with the Oliver Schnyder Trio. This consists of Andreas Janke, violin (one of the concertmasters of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich), Benjamin Nyffenegger, cello (also a member of the Tonhalle Orchestra), and Oliver Schnyder, piano. I have written previously about the ensemble, on the occasion of a Lied recital in Greifensee. Oliver Schnyder has been at the core of several postings in the past.

Concert Programming

Even just studying concert programs, and guessing what considerations led to a specific sequence of compositions may already be an interesting pastime by itself. Of course, I’m not thinking of those symphony concerts with that invariably given sequence of overture — instrumental concerto — symphony. I’m thinking of events where a single set of artists (e.g., a pianist, a chamber music formation, or an orchestra) performs all of a concert program.

Arranging Pieces with the Listener in Mind

For a program with pieces from different periods, there are several options that the artists might consider:

  • the chronological option. That sounds like the most logical option. However, it entails the danger that parts of the audience might leave before the most modern piece is performed;
  • ascending complexity / difficulty (for the listener or the performer). This may or may not coincide with the first option above. It equally may lead to empty chairs for the last piece;
  • “shock therapy”: placing the most difficult part at the start of a program. This may cause subsequent pieces to sound trivial. However, this might as well scare people off right away. Or, it may cause people to sneak in after the opening piece, with some flat excuse);
  • the “embedded” option: placing the most demanding piece in the center of a program. Hence, ending the program with more (possibly) conciliatory music.

Other Constraints in Programming

Then, there are of course other considerations:

  • time management: longer concerts should offer the opportunity for a break. Artists may need or want this for selling and signing CDs, etc.
  • managing stress and power. Not every artist is an athlete who can stand a full hour or more of relentless performance at or near the boundaries of his/her mental and physical forces.

The Oliver Schnyder Trio decided against the chronology, in favor of what I called “embedded option” above. They placed Shostakovich between Beethoven and Brahms. The result confirmed that this selection was excellent!

Bern Conservatory, big Hall (© Rolf Kyburz)
Bern Conservatory, Big Hall (© Rolf Kyburz)

Beethoven: Piano Trio No.4 in B♭ major, op.11

The title for the Piano Trio No.4 in B♭ major, op.11 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) correctly reads “Trio für Pianoforte, Clarinette oder Violine und Violoncell”. In other words: it’s either a regular piano trio, or a trio for piano, clarinet, and cello. The score contains both parts, clarinet and violin. The composition features three movements:

  1. Allegro con brio
    A sonata movement
  2. Adagio
  3. Tema con variazioni: Allegretto
    This is a set of 9 variations on a (then) popular melody “Pria ch’io l’impegno” (“Before I go to work”). This is from the opera “L’amor marinaro ossia Il corsaro” (“A Seaman’s Love” or “The Corsican”) by Joseph Weigl (1766 – 1846). A popular melody that was sung in the streets was called “Gassenhauer” (“something that hits the streets”). So, the trio is also known as “Gassenhauer Trio”. Other composers have used this same melody as well.

The trio altogether is very catchy. And it is one of Beethoven’s most lighthearted compositions.

Memories…

I don’t know this Trio by heart. Yet, from my youth, I’m so familiar with it that I rarely feel a need to listen to it. The music still lives in my memory. Actually, so vividly that I can recall even some details without effort. This alone is an indication how catchy this composition is! However, the version I remember from 45 – 50 years ago is the one with clarinet. And this version is embossed in my brain. I hear the clarinet even when a violin is playing the top voice. I don’t see this “fixation” as a disadvantage. Both versions are obviously valid. Indeed, I can enjoy them both. Even if the string instrument is far “smaller” in volume than a clarinet. And even if the sound balance is entirely different between the two versions.

Vibrato…

In my case, there was one detrimental effect of my “fixation” on the clarinet version. The violin is frequently & traditionally played with vibrato. In contrast, clarinet players usually apply much less vibrato—if any. Plus, the vibrato on the clarinet (if in use at all) does not affect the pitch as much as the volume. Conversely, on the violin, the vibrato mostly works via the pitch. As it is generated via fingers, hand or forearm, it is usually also faster (up to nervous) compared to a vibrato on wind instruments. There, it is created through flexibility in the diaphragm. In any case, many artists in the area of historically informed playing (HIP) now use vibrato very sparingly. Essentially just to highlight specific notes or parts of a phrase. Just like an ornament. This clearly is also my preference. And it may explain some of the remarks below.

The Performance

As to be expected from the above, my listening pleasure was somewhat affected by the virtually ubiquitous vibrato, primarily on the violin. For my taste, the violin’s vibrato was too nervous. Sometimes it was even strong enough to start affecting the intonation. Particularly with the violin, I also disliked the occasional Nachdrücken (“post-pressing”). That’s a short swelling at the end of long notes. It is caused by a short bow acceleration prior to bow changes. A “bad habit” that all too frequently creeps in with the use of modern Tourte bows. Classic and baroque bows are shorter and therefore less likely to lead to Nachdrücken.

I. Allegro con brio

The Oliver Schnyder Trio launched into the main theme of the opening Allegro con brio with lots of energy and passion. A beginning full of tension. The rather introspective secondary theme remained episodic in this performance. As usual in Beethoven’s early chamber music works, the very virtuosic piano part is the driving force. However, Oliver Schnyder kept his part integrated into the ensemble. He was playing with light articulation, smooth, if not elegant. Sure, a Steinway D can be more dramatic and spectacular. However, in view of the sound of historic pianos from Beethoven’s time, the “lighter” performance was perfectly adequate,. Particularly with the smaller volume of the violin (as opposed to a clarinet). It still happened, though, that the lower register of the cello was somewhat covered by the basses from the piano.

The exposition was repeated. Also, the development section was clearly separated from the exposition. This helped in the orientation within the sonata form of the movement. I particularly liked how in the development part. The staccato motifs were passed on between the left hand and the two string players. The pianist’s right hand accompanied with relentlessly rolling semiquavers.

II. Adagio

Up to the point where minor tonality darkens the picture momentarily. The middle movement was entirely serene, transfigured, unpretentious in the piano part. Also the cello part avoided any inappropriate grandiloquence. Sadly, in my view, the vibrato on the violin affected some of this serenity.

III. Tema con variazioni (“Pria ch’io l’impegno”): Allegretto

The most prominent, catchy part of op.11 is in the last movement. This is a set of 9 variations on a “Gassenhauer” theme. The Oliver Schnyder Trio gave them a very vivid interpretation, with splashy little sforzati.

The actual variations are a broad mix of character, tempo, mood, etc., starting with the brilliant, piano-only first variation. This is followed by the strings-only second one, a nice little, almost intimate dialog. That was played with very little vibrato, for once! The third variation is again brilliant, virtuosic. The following minore variation is more moody than earnest and sad. The subsequent maggiore variation again allows the piano to show off. A light, dancing sixth variation is more of an intermezzo to the energetic second minore segment that follows. The big eighth variation (maggiore again, of course) draws its energy from the busy (12/8-like) triplet accompaniment in the piano. Above this, violin and cello indulge in wonderful cantilenas (here again with limited vibrato only).

The big ninth and final variation starts as a playful fugato that mutates into a piano cadenza. Beethoven needed to show off his talent and abilities! A fermata leads into a joyful, light-hearted Allegro coda in 6/8 time. After a short, 2-bar, cadenza-like transition, the time switches from 6/8 to 4/4. However, that’s just for a mere four bars, up to the sudden, surprising closure.

A Post-Scriptum

I liked the performance, overall. However, the final bars left me slightly dissatisfied. It’s not that the bars were—correctly—played p (apart from the sforzati and the final ff chords, of course). However, somehow I could not follow the transition from 6/8 to 4/4. Beethoven gives no tempo annotation. So presumably, the transition is meant to be taken as 3/8 = 1/4. In other words, keeping the counting units at the same pace. This is what the Oliver Schnyder Trio (roughly) did. Older interpretations used to slow down for the final bars. This is definitely not feeling “right”.

I have one interpretation in my collection that takes these four bars considerably faster (from 3/8 = 115 – 120 up to 1/4 = 160, roughly). This can’t be justified from the score. Still, at this moment, I prefer it over 3/8 = 1/4. Maybe this transition wasn’t one of the composer’s most brilliant moments? That’s not meant to be a sacrilege. Beethoven was a human, too, after all!


Shostakovich: Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, op.67

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) composed his Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, op.67, during the second World War, 1944. The premiere was in that same year. The Trio features four movements:

  1. Andante — Moderato
  2. Allegro con brio
  3. Largo
  4. Allegretto — Adagio

The Performance

I. Andante — Moderato

Shostakovich’s Trio in E minor begins with an interesting, alienating effect. The cello “sneaks in” with the highest and softest possible whistling tones using flageolet. Soon, the violin joins in—on the G-string, basically a tenor voice. And it sounds like a cello! The piano adds a discreet, stepping bass line. A solemn, almost religious opening. In the Moderato part, the piano initially takes over the melody. The accompanying strings play motoric staccati. The roles then alternate between the players. And the movement evolves into a pleasurable folk dance. It turns more and more expressive, passionate, with martial syncopes. Simply put: excellent entertainment!

We do have a fair number of (video and audio) recordings with Shostakovich playing the piano in his own works. This gives us an authoritative view on how the composer wanted his music to sound. Or how he heard it in his mind. That does not necessarily mean that his way of playing is the only legitimate view onto his compositions. But it opens the view onto one legitimate interpretation. Considering the composer’s own playing, the piano part might occasionally have been played harder, drier. However, I think it is definitely OK for the pianist to add in his personal view, his own personality.

II. Allegro con brio

The second movement is “typical Shostakovich, from the books”! It is vehement, almost ruthless, with deliberately and expressedly rude articulation in the strings. Extremely expressive, emotional, really enthralling! There are these marked, bulbous “belly notes”. Usually, that’s an utterly bad habit in music from the classical period. However, here, it’s what the composer wanted!

III. Largo

The epic, chorale-like opening of the slow movement exposed the beautiful sonority of the Steinway D concert grand. But it also revealed Oliver Schnyder’s excellent dynamic balance within a given chord. Violin and cello join in with intense cantilenas. Here, an expressive vibrato is certainly OK (violinists were vibrating all over the place at the time of the composition!). The melodies go through a climax, then lead into a soft ending. Despite the dissonances (with excellent intonation, I must say!) I felt like indulging in perfect harmony over these last bars!

IV. Allegretto — Adagio

The Allegretto follows attacca. It begins with a combination of staccato and pizzicato. Humorous, joking, narrating, very pictorial and illustrative. Instantly, it reminded me of neo-classical music such as “Peter and the Wolf” by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953). There are impressive, vehement climaxes, featuring folk tunes in a polytonal setting.

An extended (sort of) piano cadenza with nostalgic interjections by the string instruments follows. This builds a bridge to a section with typical Shostakovich motorics. It starts with staccato in the strings. Then, it mutates into a relentless, persistent knocking from the piano. This is supplemented by more staccati. Almost baroque chord sequences lead into a silent ending in perfect harmony and silence.

The intonation in this movement is demanding. It requires boldness and perseverance. And the piano part is really challenging. The three musicians offered an excellent performance. And it is fascinating music, for sure!


Bern Conservatory (© Rolf Kyburz)
Bern Conservatory (© Rolf Kyburz)

Brahms: Piano Trio No.1 in B major, op.8

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) was 21 when he composed his Piano Trio in B major, op.8. The premiere was in 1855, in Danzig. Many years later, 1889, the composer reworked the trio to a degree that it is often regarded its own work (No.4). This second version premiered 1891 in Budapest. That’s the version we heard. The differences between the versions are obvious already from the annotation and the number of bars:

Original version (1854):

  1. Allegro con moto – Tempo un poco più Moderato – Schnell (494 bars)
  2. Scherzo: Allegro molto – Trio: Più lento – Tempo primo (459 bars)
  3. Adagio non troppo – Allegro – Tempo primo (157 bars)
  4. Finale: Allegro molto agitato – Un poco più lento – Tempo primo (518 bars)

Revised version (Neue Ausgabe, 1889):

  1. Allegro con brio – Tranquillo – In tempo ma sempre sostenuto (289 bars)
  2. Scherzo: Allegro molto – Meno allegro – Tempo primo (460 bars)
  3. Adagio (100 bars)
  4. Finale: Allegro (322 bars)

The Performance

The music after the intermission brought quite a change! Now, we found ourselves immersed in the big emotions, the big gestures of the young Brahms. That aspect has not changed in the 1889 version. There were Brahms’ typical harmonies, his intensity, his challenging piano score with the wide-spanning chords, the broad phrases.

I. Allegro con brio – Tranquillo – In tempo ma sempre sostenuto

The musicians played this music with expressive agogics which caught the listener’s attention immediately. The performance by the Oliver Schnyder Trio felt like an interpretation from a single mold, throughout the movement. This persisted through changes in atmosphere, over to the pensive, introvert, somewhat melancholic side themes. Violin and cello often seemed to amalgamate into one single voice. Even in their vibrato. The latter (to me) was sometimes a bit on the nervous side, though. Sadly, I was again irritated by occasional Nachdrücken. Thish sometimes even seemed to diminish the effect of syncopes.

The balance between the instruments wasn’t always ideal here. As already in the Beethoven trio, the piano occasionally covered the cello on the lower strings. Brahms used much more advanced pianos than Beethoven. Still, his instruments had a brighter sound (especially in the bass). They were more transparent. This would have made it easier to achieve balance between the instruments. Also, with a historic piano, the violin would have less of a need to push the sound (e.g., with excessive vibrato).

II. Scherzo: Allegro molto – Meno allegro – Tempo primo

The Scherzo is technically demanding. The musicians presented an excellent, subtle, careful and accurate performance. The tempo seemed optimal: fast enough for Allegro molto. Yet, it was not too fast. The repeated quavers remained clear and clean in the articulation. The Trio, though, again suffered from some Nachdrücken and (to me) an excess in vibrato.

III. Adagio

The Adagio begins softly, in transfigured serenity, with wide-spanning chords on the piano. The string instruments join in with melancholic, sometimes almost sad tones. Yet, the movement develops tense expectation. However, this dissolves again. The atmosphere clears up, gets transfigured. And the music appears to float away into eternity.

IV. Finale: Allegro

Brahms would of course not end a four-movement chamber music composition like this. The atmosphere is more down-to-earth again in this moody music. The Oliver Schnyder Trio played this fairly fluent. The pace may have been at the upper limit. The tricky, punctuated motif of the initial theme was occasionally lacking some clarity, succinctness in the string instruments. Oliver Schnyder on the piano had no problem articulating these motifs. The composition has a virtuosic ending, resolute and extremely agitated. And the playing once more was brilliant!

Encore

Judging from the shouting in the applause, the musicians appear to have a “fan club” here in Bern! The artists decided to give an encore: Lied No.4, “Ständchen (“Leise flehen meine Lieder“) from the song cycle Schwanengesang“, D.957. That cycle by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) was published only after the composer’s death. The artists performed a transcription for piano trio by Yi-Chen Lin. As a song, one may hear this as a reflective piece, sometimes presented with a certain casualness. None of this here! The encore appeared as an emotionally intense serenade. Could it be that the emotional turmoil in Brahms’ music caused some “overcharging” in this music? In any case, it still was a well-fitting, conciliatory transition into the balmy atmosphere of one of the first early summer nights in Bern!


Addendum 1:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review


Addendum 2:

The Oliver Schnyder Trio has recorded & released all of Johannes Brahms’ piano trios on two CDs:

Brahms: Piano Trios — Schnyder Trio; CD cover

Johannes Brahms: The Piano Trios

Oliver Schnyder Trio

SONY Music 88843095422 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2014
Booklet: Cardboard sleeve only

Brahms: Piano Trios — Schnyder Trio; CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link
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