Christoph Croisé & Oxana Shevchenko
Brahms / Stravinsky / Schubert / Prokofiev / Shchedrin
Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2017-03-28
2017-08-02 — Added new video recording of the “Arpeggione” Sonata
Here we were, for another concert organized by Musical Discovery, in the context of their series “Musik an der ETH“, in the venerable Semper-Aula of the main building of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. This time, it is for a duo recital. I don’t need to introduce the two artists, the cellist Christoph Croisé (*1993) and the Kazakh pianist Oxana Shevchenko (*1987), as I have written about concerts / recitals with these artists in numerous blog posts.
Actually, I have heard them play every single piece in this recital (except for the short march by Prokofiev) at least once. Yet, I did not want to miss the opportunity to hear them again: it has always been exciting—and it still is—to follow their career! And even if a piece to me is a “repeat”: the artists are still young, their interpretation is rapidly evolving and growing. And so, with every instance, there are new aspects / facets in their interpretation. In fact, it sometimes almost feels like a new interpretation, a different piece (or different artists!?).
The first cello sonata by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) has been in Christoph Croisé’s repertoire for several years: it is featured on his debut CD (also with Oxana Shevchenko, see the CD description below). I later heard it in a duo recital in Schönenwerd (2016-09-25), and then again in Brugg (2016-10-29). Let me just list the movements here:
- Allegro non troppo
- Allegretto quasi Menuetto — Trio — Menuetto da capo
- Allegro — Più Presto
This probably was the most “settled” interpretation this evening. I don’t mean this to be deprecating in any way—quite to the contrary! But I did not expect a radically different interpretation from what I heard earlier. However, the venue was new: the artists have never performed in this small hall with its 99 seats. This also involves a piano that Oxana Shevchenko hasn’t played before (a Steinway D-274 in excellent condition), and “new” acoustics that the artists needed to adjust to in their playing.
An Opening Piece?
As in the two previous instances, this sonata was selected as the opening piece for the recital. With its calm, soft beginning it appears like a natural choice for opening a recital. It’s a teacher’s trick, isn’t it? Talk softly, and the audience will turn silent automatically! In my opinion, what speaks against this “natural opening choice” is, that the audience needs a couple of seconds or bars to adjust their ears, to focus on the music. So, the very beginning is partially “lost” in the listener’s mind, even though it may be heard, and despite the artists’ conscious effort to hold off in silence for several seconds before starting. In other words: the very expressive dramaturgy that Brahms built into the opening bars—the beginning of the story that he is telling with his music—is over before the average listener is “tuned in” to the performance.
One could also say that using this as opening piece underrates, maybe even deprecates Brahms’ wonderful sonata movement to some extent. One (perhaps partial) solution might be that the exposition is repeated, so in the second pass, listeners have a chance to offer the beginning of the sonata the attention that it deserves. I will return to this topic at the end of this review, with an alternative proposal.
I. Allegro non troppo
Brahms’ score starts p in both instruments. Christoph Croisé took this a step further and played really sotto voce initially. This fits the music very well! He built a wonderful, long phrase, a big arch, out of the first theme, culminating in an expressive f climax, then returning to p expressivo. Oxana Shevchenko tuned in with very soft, mellow staccato chords: She left the lead in this first theme entirely with the cello, playing gently, diligently, with well-adapted, carefully tuned dynamics. I felt that in the dolce part, she managed to join the detached chords into an equally singing accompaniment. The piano really started to sing where it took over the theme from the cello.
In the soft segments, the acoustic balance between the instrument was close to perfect (as good as it can be in a live recital). However, in louder portions, and especially where Brahms writes an accompaniment in quavers throughout, I had the feeling that the acoustics supported the piano more than the cello, even though the lid of the concert grand was half-closed. It’s only nuances, but I felt that Christoph Croisé’s Goffriller cello could not play out its full sonority, maybe sounded slightly dampened (dull?). But these details aside: it’s marvelous music—and the playing was wonderful, up to the serene and calm ending: whoever was not touched by this must have a heart of stone!
I only wish the musicians had repeated the exposition (see above)—the 3 – 4 additional minutes would not have hurt!
II. Allegretto quasi Menuetto — Trio — Menuetto da capo
The Allegretto / Menuetto is an interesting piece! Is it just moody, or is this Brahms’ Northern-German kind of humor? Christoph Croisé must have thought of the latter aspect, particularly from bar 15 on, where he used mf, even though Brahms explicitly writes p. I’m not criticizing here, I’m just describing his playing & interpretation, which I think benefitted the music! I really liked the Trio with its restrained, careful playing, the very well-coordinated dynamics and the diligent, very eloquent rubato. It was obvious that the two musicians were intimately familiar with each other’s musical intents. Here, both repeats were observed. In the Menuetto da capo, I felt that Oxana allowed the piano to be a tad more prominent than in the initial pass—and again I think that this was an excellent idea.
III. Allegro — Più Presto
The last movement is an impressive, three-voice (sort of) fugue. Oxana started it with the proper, baroque, “big” attitude. It was an interpretation full of drive, momentum, without a single “dead” moment, enthralling, dramatic even in moments where the music seems to hesitate momentarily. I felt a single, dramatic “pull” up to the very fast Più Presto ending!
The one snag with the performance is not the artists’ fault: in the last movement, there are sections where Brahms appeared to get carried away, applying his typical, full-handed piano texture. Even with the lid half-closed, the piano sometimes covered the cello (e.g., in the poco f segment in bars 132ff.). As stated: there’s nothing the artists could have done to avoid this: playing softer on the piano (or—horribile dictu!—using the shift pedal) is not an option, as it would defeat the intended effect. I think this is one example where a historic piano similar to the ones Brahms was used to (e.g., a Streicher grand) would have offered a lighter tone and more transparency.
Stravinsky: Suite Italienne for Cello & Piano
Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) based his Suite Italienne on his music to the ballet “Pulcinella”. Rather: the Suite consists of a selection of movements of his “Pulcinella Suite” that again is based on sections from the ballet. For this music, Stravinsky “digested” pieces by late baroque composers, such as Domenico Gallo (1730 – 1768), Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer (1692 – 1766), Carlo Ignazio Monza (1680/96 – 1739), and possibly Alessandro Parisotti (1853 – 1913).
The Suite Italienne features five movements:
- Minuetto — Finale
Right from the beginning of Stravinsky’s Suite it was obvious that this music is far better adapted to the combination of a modern concert grand and a cello: the music remained transparent, the sound balance never was an issue!
The Introduzione was elegant, playful, light, the pace felt natural, rhythm & articulation were swinging: joyful, jaunty—a real pleasure!
The Serenata was maybe a tad slow, sometimes slightly heavy—but legato, marvelously singing, up to very high positions, partly double-stopped. Oxana added in the appropriate, light, dabbing accompaniment, entirely leaving the lead in the cello part.
In contrast to the previous movement, here, the initiative appears to come from the piano part. Oxana started off in the manner of a heavy country dance, with “peasant’s humor” with almost clumsy syncopes: that’s what the composer intended, the piece doesn’t need to be subtle. The artists added some fairly strong rubato / extreme agogics. The tempo occasionally reached the upper limit, to the point where details in secondary motifs were in danger of getting lost. However, overall, the playing was really excellent. In this first part, the humor almost can’t be exaggerated. I could also imagine slower performances, equally theatrical—but to me, this was an absolutely valid, more than just adequate interpretation: excellent!
Oxana Shevchenko seemed to conclude the first part with a short, boisterous laughter, then, a tremolo passage in the cello part switches over to a homophonic, chorale-like song of haunting beauty (sung by several soloists in the ballet music)—almost too beautiful to be true! I could almost hear Stravinsky’s own performance of the original ballet music. What more could one wish for?
I should add that of course, the “(pre-)classic beauty” in this music isn’t really Stravinsky’s invention, see above.
After the concert, Christoph Croisé told me that indeed he did listen to Stravinsky’s performance of the ballet music. This was most obvious in the Tarantella: on 2016-09-25, this had been way too slow and heavy, in Brugg (2016-10-29), the piece had gained speed, but was still far from a real Tarantella. The point is, that detailed, “ultra-clean” articulation is absolutely secondary with this music: the key is the wild, furious character of the dance. And now, this was really excellent, just the way it should be: congrats! Yes, technically, Christoph was operating at the limit of what is doable, also the limit for the sonority of the instrument (where notes are just still about discernible)—but I think that exactly was the composer’s intent!
V. Minuetto — Finale
A very vivid, lively interpretation, with all the rapid, sudden changes in character & atmosphere. Quite obviously, Oxana Shevchenko was “in the driver’s seat” for most of this movement: to me, her familiarity with this music was most obvious. It was pure joy to watch and listen to her playing. Clearly, this music is “in her blood”. Actually, she has just done a recording of all of Igor Stravinsky’s solo piano music a few weeks ago, following a series of public recitals with this music. For sure, this has further helped this performance as well.
Only towards the very end, the coordination wasn’t always quite perfect. However, that did not affect the overall impression at all. This performance was vastly better than in the two preceding recitals—excellent!
Schubert: Sonata in A minor, D.821, “Arpeggione”
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) composed his Sonata in A minor (D.821) for piano and a 6-string instrument—the Arpeggione—that was held (and tuned) like a guitar. The Arpeggione must have been fairly impractical to play. The sonata is one of the few compositions for this exotic instrument which quickly disappeared, soon after its invention (and for good reasons, it seems!). Only very few of these instruments are still around. One can now hear this in performances on either a cello or a viola. As both these instruments have just four strings only, tuned in fifths (rather than the guitar-like tuning in fourths and thirds on the Arpeggione), this piece is rather tricky to play (contrary to how it sounds!).
The Sonata has three movements:
- Allegro moderato
Also the Arpeggione Sonata I have heard already with these artists, in their recital in the small hall of the Tonhalle in Zurich, on 2015-11-07.
I. Allegro moderato
Schubert used the annotation Allegro moderato in this movement. One problem with this piece is that often it rather feels like an Andante and then is dragging along. In fact, in the 2015 performance I felt that the piece definitely had its lengths. I mentioned this in my review. After this recital, Oxana told me that they selected a faster tempo … interestingly, upon checking the timing, it turned out that the performance in this concert even lasted a few seconds longer (in every movement, actually)! Yet, I found this interpretation vastly better than the first one—so: what happened?
Sure, the beginning of the sonata does not feel like Allegro moderato—the time is 4/4—but the actual score makes this sound like an alla breve (2/2). Oxana may indeed have started the piano introduction a tad faster. But thereafter, the difference was not in the tempo, but in articulation and phrasing, and perhaps dynamics? Maybe also just the mental approach to this music, which is hard to pin down? Even a slight shift in the balance towards the piano, perhaps more clarity in the articulation of the accompaniment made the difference? Or was it a more mature, superior approach to the interpretation, maybe not consciously and constantly trying to make the movement sound interesting?
Frankly, I can’t explain it! In 2015 I found the first movement to lack tension, definitely having lengths. Now, the music never felt flat, both artists were able to “carry the music”, keep the tension, the musical flow—without rushing, without extra or unnecessary drama. It was anything but boring! I really liked the interpretation, and I felt that they could easily have repeated the exposition without any risk (in 2015 it seemed unthinkable to extend the movement by a repeat). Congratulations to the artists for their superb playing in that concert!
I can now add that it’s only through failed interpretations that one realizes how very difficult this first movement is—both technically, as well as (particularly) as composition!
Schubert’s composition is a masterful invention. And it received a stellar interpretation, in which Christoph Croisé’s Goffriller cello could play out its excellent, singing tone—complemented with Oxana’s equally singing accompaniment! It was gentle playing, but eloquent, like a Lied. And again, it never lost tension, especially in the second part. Tension was actually building up in the last segment, taken back into ppp by the artists, preparing the transition to the Allegretto. Also this was excellent, throughout—and from the timing it was not faster than in 2015!
Another masterpiece by Schubert! It starts with a Rondo-Theme—a beautiful song-like theme in the cello. Throughout the movement, the piano left the lead role to the cello, kept the dynamics in perfect control, never covering the cello. At the same time, Oxana retained enough presence to counterbalance the accents in the cello theme with delicately played syncopes, occasionally gently and momentarily protruding into the foreground, where Schubert wanted it: in general, she masterfully avoided playing herself into excess prominence. Also, the two artists showed perfect coordination throughout their distinct, gently swaying agogics. It was perfect harmony between cello and accompaniment!
I only have two little remarks here. After the repeat in the center of the movement (the musicians observed all repeats here), the slow-down to the following section was too abrupt and too strong. It seemed somewhat illogical to me. The piano corrected the tempo a bit where for once it takes the lead (the cello accompanies with pizzicati). Still, the extreme slow-down made the subsequent part, where the original tempo is picking up again, feel slightly rushed, “too fast”.
The other point is a minor one, really. I think that occasionally, in the intermezzi, some of the secondary quaver and semiquaver figures in the cello deserved a tad more attention in the articulation. But that’s tricky matter, as it easily can cause the music to lose momentum. And in case of doubt, I prefer momentum over detail here! Apart from these two points, the entire sonata was an absolute dream performance!
After the first performance in 2015, Christoph Croisé mentioned to me (after reading my review), that he apparently had caught a cold and didn’t feel too well that evening. He may (and must) have felt fit to play. Nevertheless, feeling unwell may add enough of a distraction to cause the artist to focus on good articulation and “local” phrasing—but to lose oversight with the big / overall structure. This likely was enough to cause the long outer movements (each in the order of 10 minutes) to “fall apart” to some degree, and so these movements may then feel “disconnected”. That’s not an excuse for the first performance, but maybe an explanation for the substantial difference between the two performances.
I must confess that up to this concert I only had limited interest in this sonata, as one can often hear performances that feel lengthy, if not boring—but here, this music moved me, made me want to hear it again, and again: thanks to the artists for exposing the beauty in this music!
Prokofiev: March from the Suite “The Love for the Three Oranges”, op.33bis
The year 1921 saw the premiere of the satirical opera “The Love for Three Oranges”, op.33, by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953). The composer took highlights from this opera for the 6 movements of his orchestral “Suite from The Love for Three Oranges”, op.33bis. Yet later, he transcribed the middle two movements from that suite (March and Scherzo) for piano. The most popular piece in all this (by far) is the March, which Mstislav Rostropovich (1927 – 2007) transcribed for cello and piano. It’s a fascinating, virtuosic little piece, just 1.5 minutes. Marked, hammering, percussive “drum roll” rhythmswith almost mechanical, “military” staccati drive this music. It culminates in rebelling dissonances, but is both enthralling and very (almost too) catchy: huge fun to listen to!
That is the only piece in this program which I never heard with these artists. Indeed, it is the first time that they performed it in public. As with the Stravinsky: here’s another composer that Oxana Shevchenko is intimately familiar with—this was very obvious here! It’s an enthralling, yet quite moody piece that hides its perverseness (Widerborstigkeit) behind momentum and a strong rhythmic texture. It begins as a (deliberately) stiff military march and ends in a little explosion—excellent playing, and for the rest: see above!
Shchedrin: “In the Style of Albéniz” (1973)
A second, short piece, “In the Style of Albéniz” (1973), by the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin (*1932) ended the official program. I first heard this music with these artists, as encore in their recital in Schönenwerd (2016-09-25), and I was thrilled by it! In the next recital that I attended, in Brugg (2016-10-29), the composition had already migrated into the regular program—and as now, it was the final piece. Rather than describing it, I attach a video link below, with these two artists performing: have fun!
This was an excellent conclusion to the official part of the program: extremely rhythmic, with equally extreme rubato, aggressively dissonant, moody, hesitant, rushing—telling stories! And it’s so full of action and tension that it sometimes feels like the soundtrack to a thriller! The melodies (rather, melody fragments, often sounding like set formulas, with a Latino / Tango touch) themselves are not catchy, but the piece is, through rhythm and suspense!
Especially at the beginning, Oxana’s piano part seemed even more “aggressive fun” than in the previous instances: not only the piece is fun, but it was obvious that the artists enjoyed this just as much as the audience. Oxana explored the full volume of the piano in the dissonant outbursts that break into the hesitant staccato suspense, her face alone told stories! Both artists presented a sparkling, virtuosic firework, deploying all their physical and emotional resources. I was glad to see that there was some intact hair left on Christoph’s bow when the piece ended!
Tchaikovsky: Pezzo capriccioso, op.62
I was very pleased (and felt privileged) to hear Christoph announcing the first encore, the Pezzo capriccioso, op.62 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), composed in 1887! It’s excellent music, starting in a rather elegiac tone, with big gestures, then culminating (and later ending) in extremely fast and virtuosic spiccato passages, exploring the top end of the tonal range on the cello. This is included on the CD described below, and there is also a YouTube video, see also below: watch and enjoy! This piece was also part of the earlier recital program in Schönenwerd (2016-09-25).
Prokofiev: March from the Suite “The Love for the Three Oranges”, op.33bis
This one new addition to their repertoire is an ideal and popular encore. Selecting it as second extra here was a natural, rewarding choice, and an excellent fit / humorous turn after Tchaikovsky’s virtuosic artistry!
Saint-Saëns: “Le carnaval des animaux” — No.13. “Le cygne”
There was a third encore—and I’m tempted to say that this was an even more obvious choice for ending the recital: the ubiquitous No.13. “Le cygne” (The Swan) from “Le carnaval des animaux” by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921). This was also featured as last encore in the two preceding recitals, 2016—and it may sound like an omnipresent earworm. However, in this case, it seemed to fit very well. It is more than just pleasant music, offers the right mood & atmosphere to end this recital. No objection here at all—thanks a lot for all the beautiful music!
A Last Remark
When I briefly talked to Christoph Croisé after the recital, he seemed to ponder where ideally to place Prokofiev’s March in a recital program, apparently unsure about the choice he made in this recital. It is true that after the highlight of Schubert’s “Arpeggione Sonata”, the program seemed a little fragmented towards the end. The obvious option would be to use this (primarily) as an encore.
But here’s a—maybe radical—idea: I mentioned my slight discomfort with starting the recital with Brahms’ first cello sonata, particularly if the first movement is played without repeating the exposition. How about opening the program with a splash, i.e., with Prokofiev’s “March”?? For the audience, this requires little adapting. It throws the listener right into the music, instantly catches one’s attention. After these 1.5 minutes, everybody will be fully awake, and ready to open their mind and heart to the beauty and richness of Brahms’ sonata? And at the end of the program, one could “close the circle” and still play the same piece as encore?
I could not resist writing up a separate note “Lay Concert Critics — A Personal Note” on my role as concert critic, and on my interaction with the two artists in this recital.
The Brahms sonata is also featured the following CD that the two artists have produced:
Visions — Compositions by Prokofiev, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Paganini, and Popper
Quartz Classics (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2015
Booklet 20 pp. (de/en) — Note that amazon currently only offers downloads (MP3), without the booklet
—Find MP3 downloads on amazon.com—
The hardcopy CD is now available from JPC.de
The contents of the CD:
- Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953): Cello Sonata in C major, op.119 [26’18”]
- Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor [28’09”]
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893): Pezzo Capriccioso [6’58”]
- Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840): Variations on a theme from Rossini’s “Mosè in Egitto” [8’33”]
- David Popper (1843 – 1913): Dance of the Elves, op.39 [2’35”]
I have given this CD a partial review in my earlier posting of 2015-08-31.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Pezzo capriccioso“, op.62 (the first of the encores in this program) is available on YouTube, with Christoph Croisé and Oxana Shevchenko playing. This is a performance on the occasion of the recording of the above CD. I have also written about this video recording in comparison to the actual CD in my short review of the CD.
Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D.821, “Arpeggione” is now available on YouTube, in a new recording with Christoph Croisé and Oxana Shevchenko playing: