Christoph Croisé, Sherniyaz Mussakhan / YES Chamber Orchestra
Mozart / Haydn / Vivaldi
Kirche Oberstrass, Zurich, 2017-11-22
The planning for this concert was a bit short-term. I only learned about this when my concert schedule was full already. At least, I was familiar with the main works (Mozart and Haydn). The one that I didn’t know (Vivaldi) was very short. So, I agreed to “give it a listen”. This concert was one of two serving as trials for the artists, for an upcoming recording of the Haydn cello concertos.
This is a formation of young musicians. Here’s what their Facebook profile states:
Chamber orchestra “Young Eurasian Soloists” (YES) was established in May 2015, in ￼Switzerland. ￼Young, professional musicians, winners of many international competitions were invited to ￼take part in this chamber orchestra. Musicians in “Young Eurasian Soloists” are coming from ten different countries from Asia and Europe, that gives us the possibility to bring and mix different schools and musical traditions in one rich ensemble.
The center of activities of the orchestra seems to be in Sion. I have never heard this orchestra play—neither on media, nor in concert (their Web site lists around 2 sets of concerts per year). In October 2015 the ensemble was performing in Zurich, and a friend gave me a warm recommendation to attend—unfortunately, that didn’t work out back then.But at least now there was an opportunity to witness this ensemble in action.
Since May 2015, the first violinist Sherniyaz Mussakhan (*1993) is the artistic director of the ensemble. Sherniyaz Mussakhan was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he graduated form the P.I. Tchaikovsky Music College in 2011. After further studies, in 2014 he graduated at the Lausanne High School of Music (HÉMU Lausanne) under Pavel Vernikov. Mussakhan shares the management of the orchestra with the Latvian violinist Jana Ozolina.
In this concert, Sherniyaz Mussakhan was the soloist in the Mozart violin concerto, the first work in the program, and he played the violin solo in the Vivaldi concerto. For the central works, he led the orchestra as concertmaster, from the first desk. As far as the size of the ensemble goes: I counted 4 + 3 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, one double bass, a tiny (folding, desk-top) harpsichord, plus wind instruments (2 oboes, 2 horns), as needed.
Christoph Croisé, Cello
The French-German-Swiss cellist Christoph Croisé (*1993) does not need to be introduced in this blog— I have written about a fair number of chamber music performances with this artist. This was my first encounter with Christoph Croisé playing concertos. Christoph plays a 1712 cello by Mattio (or Matteo) Goffriller (Venice, 1659 – 1742).
The venue was the Reformed Church in Zurich Oberstrass, built 1908 – 1910 in the style of Art Nouveau. It’s a fairly big church that had its interior renovated 1976, the outside 1998. In 2000, a fire forced a second, total renovation of the interior. The pipe organ from 1975 was lost and was replaced by an electronic organ (the Art Nouveau organ prospect on the left side of the nave is just a prospect, not a functional organ. The orchestra played in the center of the church.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) wrote five violin concertos: Concerto No.1 in B♭ major, K.207; No.2 in D major, K.211; No.3 in G major, K.216 (“Strasbourg”); No.4 in D major, K.218; No.5 in A major, K.219 (“Turkish”). The Violin Concerto No.4 in D major, K.218 was composed 1775 in Salzburg. Its movements are as follows:
- Andante cantabile
- Rondeau: Andante grazioso – Allegro ma non troppo
Already from the first bars, the ensemble struck me as having its own, distinct performance style: full of grip, virtuosic, short, clear and light in articulation (staccato rather than portato, portato rather than broad legato), yet with a tendency towards strong attack. Maintaining transparency, clarity and coordination proved to be a bit tricky with the fairly strong reverberation in this church.
Sherniyaz Mussakhan of course followed that scheme in the solo, showing even more attack, often almost violent—obviously giving vivacity and liveliness precedence over traditional esthetics (with its broad, often legato articulation). He played with lively dynamics and very little, if any vibrato—which I really liked. Very expressive, indeed (and this doesn’t require vibrato!). His instrument projected above the orchestra, often even dominated the sound, the scene. He had a short memory lapse around bar 166, but he and the orchestra recovered from this almost instantly—amazingly fast, actually, considering the relatively fast tempo (I was puzzled by the fast recovery!).
The cadenza (presumably the soloist’s own) contrasted with the movement for a variety of reasons: for one, it was lyrical and playful (quite a difference to the attack and the drive in the rest of the movement). Then, it was using predominantly material other than Mozart’s. I think there should be at least a good balance of melodic and/or rhythmic elements from the concerto, if extraneous material is to be used at all. Things went a bit over board when the first desks (violin, cello) started participating in the cadenza. Beethoven did something similar once, in the piano version of his violin concerto in D major, op.61. This was a rare exception even for Beethoven. I think that doing that here is taking things a bit too far. Even just the violin part at times sounded like a cadenza to a concerto by Paganini.
II. Andante cantabile
Here, Sherniyaz switched to a broader, more lyrical articulation, also applying vibrato where this seemed necessary & appropriate. There were moments where—for my taste—the vibrato was touching upon the upper limit, where it started affecting the intonation. Also the cadenza in this movement was accompagnato (with cello and harpsichord, even oboe). This one fitted the style of the movement much better, even though it didn’t ostensibly use material from the movement—as music, it was really lovely.
III. Rondeau: Andante grazioso – Allegro ma non troppo
Mozart’s last movements can be approached with a bit more liberty, as the composer was (almost) always willing to add jokes, fun features in this movement. And Mussakhan was excellent at these jokes, e.g., the “bite”, the push in the minore couplet, the strong agogics in the musette segment. In the latter, the entry of the oboe far too strong, dominating the entire scene (it made the listener feel as if the strings were playing con sordino). There was, however, a certain tendency for the soloist (and occasionally also the orchestra) to push the tempo, far beyond what I would call “lively agogics”.
The main cadenza in this movement started as a canon, with a new melody, later used short interjections on the violin with “proper” material. It sometimes reminded me of stuff that Nigel Kennedy (*1956) might do in his cadenzas—not too hair-rising here, though. Some might have viewed it as a bit far-fetched—but in the sense of a Mozart joke, I found it to be OK, and not too far out-of-style. There was a second cadenza, though (at bar 209), which was more extravagant, to say the least—it felt like (a fragment of) a cadenza by Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907) or Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962).
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) wrote two concertos for cello and orchestra. The first one in C major was composed 1761 – 1765, but was long thought to be lost. It was rediscovered 1961 only. Its three movements are
- Moderato (4/4)
- Adagio (2/4)
- Finale: Allegro molto (2/2)
I have written about this concerto in a short comparison post. There is also a separate post about a live performance of this concerto in Zurich, on 2016-02-02.
In the cello concerti, Christoph Croisé was cooperating with Sherniyaz Mussakhan (now first desk / concertmaster) in directing the ensemble. I have given plenty of general comments about Christoph Croisé’s cello playing in other blog posts (see above)—all these (regarding the quality of his tone, the intonation, and hist instrument as well) can be assumed to be valid here as well, so I’ll keep this short.
Also here, the orchestra showed a noticeable tendency to accelerate, especially in the final bars of the exposition, and towards the end of the movement. I found the articulation to be more moderate, more “civilized” than in the Mozart concerto. To a lesser degree, also Christoph occasionally pushed the tempo, e.g. towards the end of a phrase.
I really like Christoph’s Goffriller cello (who wouldn’t), its warm, strong sound, the full-bodied, round sonority. It’s an instrument with a tone that is rather dark than bright. Somehow, I had the feeling that for this concerto, maybe these acoustics, a brighter, more “singing” (lighter?) instrument might have been a better fit. OK, the instrument is older than the concerto. However, one should keep in mind that in its original state, cello had gut strings, possibly also less inclination of the sound board, therefore less string tension.
Christoph’s playing was simply excellent, of course all by heart, with a lively attack vivid, his memory and firmness flawless, as also the intonation. The cadenza was beautiful and seemed to fit the character of the instrument very well—as Christoph told me, he is playing his favorite cadenzas, all by Maurice Gendron (1920 – 1990), in these concerti (with one exception, see below).
Excellent articulation, dynamics, etc. in general (a tad, occasional pushing the tempo in the orchestra), also a good overall arch / large-scale phrasing. In my notes, I wrote that maybe at the level of 4 or 8-bar periods, the solo part (or the movement) might profit from more (intermediate) phrasing, in order to avoid or compensate a certain uniformity in Haydn’s composition. Cadenza: Maurice Gendron, see above.
III. Finale: Allegro molto
Here, tempo was very challenging—maybe occasionally a bit too challenging for the orchestra, where some of the fast motifs started to sound superficial, at least in the reverberating acoustics of this venue. And again, the tempo felt a tad rushed, accelerating at times (also in the solo). I don’t think one should take this as an olympic challenge, rather should make this movement feel playful. Here, it often felt rather sporty.
And I need to return to my remarks about the character of the instrument and it’s use in this concerto. As much as I like Christoph’s cello, particularly for music from the romantic period and from the 20th century. I felt that the relatively dark sonority of the instrument wasn’t always an advantage here. This may also have to do with the acoustics of the venue, I should say.
One instance as example: at [C] (bar 41) and at [P] (bar 224), maybe also [E] (bar 81), the cello “sneaks in” with a 2-bar crescendo on a single note. In my view, the instrument should first be inconspicuous, and then gradually grow out of the orchestra. I felt that here, it took too long for the cello to “reach the surface”. Maybe the crescendo was a bit slow? An instrument with a brighter sound (gut strings??) might have done a better job at this particular position. Or maybe, if the bow was placed closer to the bridge, this would have produced a brighter sound? I’m just guessing…
Long thought to be the only cello concerto by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), this concerto is now known as No.2. It was composed in 1783. Haydn’s autograph was discovered in 1951, confirming the authenticity of the concerto. It may be more lyrical, less “sporty” and enthralling—but it is more challenging for the soloist. Its three movements are
- Allegro moderato (4/4)
- Adagio (2/4)
- Rondo: Allegro (6/8)
I. Allegro moderato
I liked the careful, diligent articulation in the orchestral introduction. Also the solo performance was outstanding, virtually flawless. On rare occasions, the strings did not respond instantly at very high pitches, close to the “eternal snow”. The solo part is well-differentiated in articulation and dynamics, the tempo control much better. Unwanted acceleration occurred only very rarely, e.g., in bars 130 – 135, in the orchestra. And it’s such beautiful music! The C major concerto may be more enthralling, more sporty—this one is more lyrical, often serene, with very nice cantilenas—and at the same time really brilliant!
The cadenza (again by Maurice Gendron, as Christoph told me afterwards) somehow reminded my of the cadenza that was played on an ancient LP of mine, with Ludwig Hoelscher (1907 – 1996) as soloist and Georg Ludwig Jochum (1909 – 1970)conducting the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, which I probably haven’t heard in 40 years. As I correctly remembered, Hoelscher played a cadenza by (Gevaert and) Klengel. That doesn’t tell much about my memory, more about how often I must have listened to that recording!
A peaceful, calm movement, with such beautiful singing in the solo part. This applies to the composition, as well as to the actual performance. Cadenza: once more by Maurice Gendron—short, but nevertheless beautiful, and well-fitting.
III. Rondo: Allegro
Also here, the tempo was—once more—very ambitious. And yet, there were places with slight rushing / pushing the tempo, e.g., bar 50ff, bar 115ff (minore part), and bar 160ff. There is a short cadenza prior to the last maggiore part. This one is by Christoph Croisé himself: well done, excellent fit (there is no need for an extended cadenza here).
It’s very hard to criticize anything in the soloist’s performance! Maybe, as a minor quibble, there seemed to a rare, occasional tendency towards soft articulation—unwanted swelling in the first part of a tone, towards a “belly note”. My personal preference would (occasionally) have been a more “percussive” articulation (as—I think—Pablo Casals used to call it).
And I should mention that this was the first public performance of these concertos by Christoph Croisé and the YES Chamber Orchestra. So, my notes should not be taken as harsh criticism. I merely wanted to provide accurate feedback on the performance, in view of the upcoming recording.
The number of concertos that Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741) has written is huge. The Concerto for Violin, Cello, Strings and Continuo in B♭ major, RV 547, is one of a minority with multiple solo instruments—almost a Concerto grosso, with three short movements:
- Allegro (4/4)
- Andante (4/4)
- Allegro Molto (3/8)
An interpretation full of temperament and drive! Maybe, in the given acoustic setting, the playing was a bit too emphatic? In drier acoustics, this would probably “work better”. I noted the occasional viola line, all in syncopes—a nice detail, thanks for making that stand out!
Was this just my imagination, or is Sherniyaz Mussakhan a tad more familiar with baroque ornamentation than the cellist? OK, it doesn’t really matter: the movement is so short!
III. Allegro Molto
A little firework with another little tempo challenge: pushing it (and luck?), but still mastered well (faster would definitely no longer work!!), congratulations!
All photos © Rolf Kyburz