2017-05-19 — Original posting
Konservatorium Bern, 2017-05-15
Beethoven / Shostakovich / Brahms
I have also written a review for this concert on Bachtrack.com, in German. This review is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.
This was my first concert in the Bern Conservatory, 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’s a street that has retained its central gutter, 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, making it totally inconspicuous (see the picture below).
The concert was a chamber music evening with the 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 Schnyder Trio, on the occasion of a Lied recital in Greifensee. Oliver Schnyder has been at the core of several postings in the past.
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., pianist, chamber music formation, or orchestra) performs all of a concert program.
Arranging Pieces with the Listener in Mind
There are several options that the artists might consider, assuming a program with pieces from different periods:
- the chronological option. That sounds like the most logical, but 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 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, 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 (which artists may need or want 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 or her full mental and physical forces.
The Schnyder Trio decided against the chronology, in favor of what I called “embedded option” above, placing Shostakovich between Beethoven and Brahms. The result confirmed that this selection was excellent!
Beethoven: Piano Trio No.4 in B flat major, op.11
The title for the Piano Trio No.4 in B flat 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:
- Allegro con brio
A sonata movement
- 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”) from the opera “L’amor marinaro ossia Il corsaro” (“A Seaman’s Love” or “The Corsican”) by Joseph Weigl (1766 – 1846). Other composers have used this melody as well. A popular melody that was sung in the streets was called “Gassenhauer” (“something that hits the streets”), and the trio is also known as “Gassenhauer Trio”.
The trio altogether is very catchy—and it is one of the most lighthearted compositions by Beethoven.
I don’t know this Trio by heart. Yet, I’m so familiar with it, back from the time of my youth, that I rarely feel a need to listen to it. The music still lives in my memory—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 at least for me, this version is embossed in my brain so much, that I hear the clarinet even when a violin is playing the top voice. I don’t see this “fixation” as a disadvantage, as both versions are obviously valid. I can indeed enjoy them both, even if the string instrument is far “smaller” in volume than a clarinet, and the sound balance is entirely different between the two versions.
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 used at all) mostly affects the volume, to a much lesser degree the pitch. On the violin, the vibrato mostly works via the pitch, and as it is generated via fingers, hand or forearm, it is usually also faster (up to nervous) compared to a vibrato on wind instruments, which is created through the 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, like an ornament. This clearly is also my preference, which may explain some of the remarks below.
As to be expected from the above remarks, 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, and sometimes even strong enough to start affecting the intonation. Particularly with the violin, I also disliked the occasional Nachdrücken (“post-pressing”), a short swelling at the end of long notes, caused by a short bow acceleration prior to bow changes. That’s 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 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, 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 in my view 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, and 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, while the pianist’s right hand accompanied with relentlessly rolling semiquavers.
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 set of 9 variations on a “Gassenhauer” theme. The Schnyder Trio gave them a very vivid interpretation, with splashy little sforzati.
The actual variations are a broad mix or character, tempo, mood, etc., starting with the brilliant, piano-only first variation, followed by the strings-only second one, a nice little, almost intimate dialog (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 which 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!), and 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. But that’s just for a mere four bars, up to the sudden, surprising closure.
I liked the performance, overall, but the final bars left me slightly dissatisfied. “Post festum“, I discussed this with the pianist, trying to find out what in my own perception did not work out. It’s not that the bars were—correctly—played p (apart from the sforzati and the final ff chords, of course), but 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 (keeping the counting units at the same pace), which is what the Schnyder Trio (roughly) did. Older interpretations used to slow down for the final bars, which is definitely not feeling “right”.
I have one interpretation in my collection that takes these four bares 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—but 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:
- Andante — Moderato
- Allegro con brio
- Allegretto — Adagio
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, accompanied by the strings playing motoric staccati. The roles then alternate between the players, and the movement evolves into a pleasurable folk dance, more and more expressive, passionate, with martial syncopes: 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”: vehement, almost ruthless, with deliberately and expressedly rude articulation in the strings, extremely expressive, emotional—enthralling, really! There are these marked, bulbous “belly notes”. That’s usually an utterly bad habit in music from the classical period, but here, it’s what the composer wanted!
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. I was instantly reminded 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 build a bridge to a section with typical Shostakovich motorics: it starts with staccato in the strings, then mutates into a relentless, persistent knocking from the piano, 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, requires boldness and perseverance, the piano part is really challenging. The three musicians offered an excellent performance—and it is fascinating music, for sure!
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 versionb—played also in this concert—premiered 1891 in Budapest. The differences between the versions are obvious already from the annotation and the number of bars:
Original version (1854):
- Allegro con moto – Tempo un poco più Moderato – Schnell (494 bars)
- Scherzo: Allegro molto – Trio: Più lento – Tempo primo (459 bars)
- Adagio non troppo – Allegro – Tempo primo (157 bars)
- Finale: Allegro molto agitato – Un poco più lento – Tempo primo (518 bars)
Revised version (Neue Ausgabe, 1889):
- Allegro con brio – Tranquillo – In tempo ma sempre sostenuto (289 bars)
- Scherzo: Allegro molto – Meno allegro – Tempo primo (460 bars)
- Adagio (100 bars)
- Finale: Allegro (322 bars)
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 Schnyder Trio felt like an interpretation from a single mold throughout the movement, though 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, which 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. I also think that 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, but not too fast, such that 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.
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—but 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 Schnyder Trio played this fairly fluent, maybe at a pace 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 not problem articulating these motifs). The composition has a virtuosic ending, resolute and extremely agitated—and the playing once more was brilliant!
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 (published posthumously), composed by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828), in 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!
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
The Schnyder trio has recorded & released all of Johannes Brahms’ piano trios on two CDs:
SONY Music 88843095422 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2014
Booklet: Cardboard sleeve only
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—