Christoph Croisé & Oxana Shevchenko
Prokofiev, Shchedrin, Debussy, Chopin, Tsintsadze, Paganini

Lukaskirche, Lucerne, 2015-08-27

5-star rating


2015-08-28 — Original posting
2015-09-04 — Adding live video recordings from the concert, as they appear…
2015-09-20 — Changed the YouTube videos into a single playlist
2015-09-24 — Added link for hardcopy CD purchase
2016-08-01 — Brushed up for better readability

 


Christoph Croisé’s Debut Concert in Lucerne

This year’s Lucerne Festival was held under the motto “Humor”. Besides the “big” events (such as those in the KKL, the Lucerne Concert and Congress Center), the festival also offers a “Debut” series of concerts in smaller locations. One of these was the lunch time concert in the Lukas Church on 2015-08-27. It was a brilliant day, with blue skies, mild weather. The church was full, the sun shining through the stained glass window in the church choir: the circumstances alone set the expectations for this concert very high!

At the center of this duo recital was the young Swiss cellist Christoph Croisé (*1993), an artist who is rapidly gaining high reputation. He has already appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York. His debut at the Zurich Tonhalle was in 2013. Christoph received initial training in Zurich, with Alexander Neustroev, assistant principal cellist at the Tonhalle Orchestra. Now he is finishing his education with Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt at the University of the Arts in Berlin. At the same time, his career as soloist is rapidly picking up momentum.

Over the past months, Christoph Croisé has engaged in a duo partnership with Oxana Shevchenko. The two artists have recorded a CD which includes two of the compositions that we also heard in this concert, see below.

Oxana Shevchenko

Oxana was born in 1987 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where she started her piano studies. She graduated from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where she studied piano (Elena Kuznetsova, Sergey Kuznetsov), chamber music (Tigran Alikhanov), and accompaniment (Irina Kirillova). In 2013, she finished her studies at the Royal College of Music (Dmitri Alexeev). In May 2013, she was offered a Swiss Governmental Scholarship. This allowed her to perform Master studies at the Haute École de Musique in Lausanne, with Jean-François Antonioli.

In 2014, Oxana has already once appeared in the Lucerne Festival, also in the framework of the “Debut” series, then accompanying cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. Over the coming year, she is giving concerts throughout Europe, both as a soloist and as chamber musician with various partners and formations: chamber music forms a substantial part of her activities.

The Program

The concert in Lucerne was sold out. It featured the following compositions:

  • Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953): Cello Sonata in C major, op.119 (1949)
  • Rodion Shchedrin (*1932): Quadrille from the Opera “Not Love Alone” (1961, transcribed for cello and piano by Grigori Singer)
  • Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918): Cello Sonata in D minor (1915)
  • Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849): Introduction et Polonaise Brillante, op.3 (1829)
  • Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925 – 1991): “Sachidao” from “5 Pieces for Cello and Piano” (1950)
  • Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840): Variations on a theme from Rossini’s “Mosè in Egitto” (1819, arranged for cello and piano by Pierre Fournier)

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953): Cello Sonata in C major, op.119

The Composition

Sergei Prokofiev heard Mstislav Rostropovich playing Nikolai Myaskovsky‘s Cello Sonata No.2 op.81. He was so impressed by the cellist’s playing that he immediately set off to compose his own sonata for this artist. 1950, his Cello Sonata in C major, op.119 received a first performance in Moscow, by Mstislav Rostropovich and Svjatoslav Richter.

This was in a difficult time for the composer, following a period in which several of his works had been banned by the regime. This time he wanted to make sure to avoid “formalism”. Still, according to Svjatoslav Richter’s memoirs, it took almost a year until he and Rostropovich were given permission by the Composer’s Union and the Radio Committee to perform this in public. But at least, the piece was an instant success and applauded by Myaskovsky. This piece opened the concert — and what an opening it was!

Christoph Croisé

I had looked at press pictures Christoph Croisé and expected a modest, silent character, maybe rather introverted. When he entered the stage, he did not appear shy or nervous, though. As soon as the bow touched the strings, my initial impression instantly vanished. I experienced a musician whose expressive playing wasn’t just in the music, but equally present in his facial expression and body language. There wasn’t any sign of insecurity, no hesitation, just true mastership, leaving no doubt that he knew all pieces inside out, and he lived through that music!

Actually, before that impression even settled in, what startled me the most in the first solo notes was the beautiful, full and warm tone of Christoph Croisé’s cello (an instrument by Mattio Goffriller, Venice, 1712). It was a tone so big that it seemed to fill every corner of the venue (a fairly big church). When the piano set in, my first thought was “why did they not use a Steinway D, but just the model B?”, as the cello seemed to dominate the piano.

Accompaniment

However, that latter impression was clearly wrong and deceptive. For one, the score notes piena voce for the cello, but p for the piano. Plus, the impression did not account for Oxana Shevchenko‘s diligent accompaniment. Her playing was so congenial, in perfect partnership, never inappropriately pushing herself into the foreground. Unless a composer gave the piano a temporary lead role, of course. Oxana played with perfectly tuned dynamics, and equally well-tuned in expression, rhythm and agogics. It was perfect accompaniment in the best sense, with virtually flawless coordination. I remember maybe one single moment in the entire concert where Oxana was a tiny bit more impulsive, a tad ahead of the cello — hardly noticeable at all.

Also, it was refreshing to watch the technical lightness of Oxana’s playing, her open facial expression, the relaxed, free movement of her arms, the resonating movements of her body, and the constant attention that she paid to the part of the cello. She was always alert, but never trying to dominate the scene with excess activity.

Starting a Program with Prokofiev

But back to the program: the decision to start the concert with a “compositional heavy weight” (as opposed to a lighter “warm-up piece”) may sound adventurous. Often, key pieces are placed in the center, if not at the end. In the aftermath, however, it all made perfect sense. The Prokofiev sonata was the biggest / longest piece in this recital. But with its largely romantic (& neo-classical) language, it has no problem reaching out to today’s audiences. As a listener, one immediately felt “pulled into” this music, preparation or a “warm-up” was really not needed — neither for the musicians, nor for the listener.

The Music and its Interpretation

Prokofiev’s sonata is in a friendly C major, very harmonious and melodic in the first movement. It features episodes alluding to folk / dance music. And it offers ample space for the cello to sing, to play out its sonority. The middle part has segments that evoke Prokofiev’s first violin sonata: more serious, with wild expressivity and a few dissonant outbreaks. But the music always returns to the beautiful melodies of the beginning, with a peaceful closure.

In the second movement, the motto “Humor” of this year’s Lucerne Festival came to full bearing. There are melodies that remind of children’s songs, jokingly commented on by pizzicati and broken chords in the cello part: “Peter and the Wolf” came to mind. It’s very entertaining, and surely fun to play! The middle section of the movement switches to a yearning, serene love song, expressive, but without excessive romanticism. Pizzicati indicate a return to the initial, humorous tone, now even enriched with giggling flageolet passages. The audience could not resist the temptation to applaud the first two movements. These interruptions turned out not to be disruptive — quite to the contrary! They established a “family atmosphere” and ties between the artists and the audience. Plus, the piece is robust enough!

The Rondo-like last movement features a ritornello with joyful, wide-spanning melodies that seemed to tell stories. It is more virtuosic than the preceding parts, but also with humorous aspects in its syncopated pizzicato accents. It was fascinating to watch the two artists perform agogics through staccati and pizzicati, alternating between the instruments, in perfect / harmonious timing. The middle part was very cantabile – until virtuosity takes over again, up to the jubilant, brilliant final bars. It’s very, very nice music, in an excellent, impressive interpretation!

Rodion Shchedrin (*1932): Quadrille from the Opera “Not Love Alone”

Rodion Shchedrin (*1932) is one of the most prominent second-generation Soviet composers. His Quadrille is a popular dance number from the Opera “Not Love Alone, first performed 1961 in Moscow, under the direction of Yevgeny Svetlanov. The Quadrille is also heard in a version for cello and orchestra. Here, the artists played Grigori Singer’s adaptation for cello and piano.

The Quadrille begins with an elegiac, expressive cello solo. Christoph Croisé could play out the full, singing tone of his instrument. When the piano joined in, the scene appeared to change to an elephant’s dance. This was soon joined by clownesque flageolet, glissando and pizzicato interjections by the cello, evoking a real circus scenery. It was fascinating to watch the body language of the two artists, not just through facial expressions. Oxana Shevchenko seemed to send impulses, energy from her entire body into the keyboard. It was obvious that not just the audience enjoyed the piece immensely: also both artists had tremendous fun playing it!

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918): Cello Sonata in D minor, L.135

Claude Debussy’s Cello Sonata in D minor was written in 1915. It’s a demanding, late work by this composer. In preparation for the concert I listened to this composition in an interpretation with prominent artists (that I’m not going to mention here). I must confess that I simply was not able to “connect to the piece”, despite technically excellent, if not brilliant playing: as if the artists were missing some aspect of Debussy’s composition. To my delight, in this concert, the piece suddenly made sense to me! It wasn’t played with “cold precision and virtuosity”, but with a warm, soft tone, expressive, with rich agogics in the Prologue. This interpretation turned it into an atmospheric piece. It seemed to display an intense fight between urging and hesitating moods.

The main part is characterized by a vast amount of rubato, often played with pizzicato, alternating with staccato chords in the piano. It’s very demanding on the artists, as this not only requires excellent coordination in general, but perfect “mental fine-tuning” between the players. Despite its title Sérénade, it is not a typical serenade in the classic sense: rather a humorous, if not joking piece. This again fits the motto of the festival. The last movement adds technical brilliance and demand for both instruments to the characteristics of the preceding section. It was played expressively, with verve. All the advanced cello techniques in this music did not appear to be a serious challenge to Christoph Croisé.

Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849): Introduction et Polonaise Brillante, op.3

In stark contrast, Frédéric Chopin’s “Introduction et Polonaise Brillante“, op.3 (composed in 1829) is not only almost 90 years older, it is also one of Chopin’s first published compositions. As expected for an early composition, it is emotionally simpler than the Debussy. But on the other hand, Chopin had already developed much of the singing style, the technical brilliance and demands that we know from his later oeuvre.

It was fascinating to watch how relaxed, with what ease Oxana Shevchenko played all the rapid scales, runs and passages in this work. Sure, that’s “her business as a pianist”, and she mastered it “single-handedly”. But at the same time, she was constantly watching, following and adjusting to Christoph Croisé’s epressive playing, rich in rubato and agogics. Already the Introduction was a firework in virtuosity, ending in a sparkling, short cadenza. The Polonaise Brillante fulfills what the title promises: technical brilliance, a real showpiece, with passionate virtuosity and enthralling rhythm. And with melodies that we know and love from the composer’s later, more famous Polonaises. In this concert, we heard an interpretation that might have focused less on exposing every tiny detail of the intricate passagework — but it was full of emotion, gripping: fascinating, throughout!

Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925 – 1991): “Sachidao” from “5 Pieces for Cello and Piano”

Sachidao” by the Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925 – 1991) is one of several miniatures, based on Georgian folk dances. “Sachidao” was part of his first composition, for string quartet. It was an immediate success. Tsintsadze subsequently published it as part of five miniatures for cello and piano. If it was hard to imagine a piece more enthralling than Chopin’s Polonaise Brillante — but this piece did it!

Oxana Shevchenko may not be Georgian, but nevertheless, she is intimately familiar with the heavily syncopated Slavonic rhythms in these folk dances. While Christoph Croisé’s cello seemed to imitate a hurdy-gurdy, the piano part passed by like a whirlwind, at mind-boggling speed, so fast that it was hard to follow individual notes / figurations. Yet, this evoked pictures of rapid folk dancers. Oxana Shevchenko managed to highlight the syncopated notes of melodies hidden in the passagework, and after just over 2 minutes — hush — it was all over: a dream or reality?

Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840): Variations on a theme from Rossini’s “Mosè in Egitto”

Can one play anything after such a gripping piece? Yes — the artists found a solution! Gioacchino Rossini‘s Opera “Mosè in Egitto” premiered in 1819. Within this composition, the prayer-aria “Dal tuo stellato soglio” must have been a stellar hit. Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840) decided to write a set of variations on that theme, for violin (on a single string!) and piano. It may be thanks to Paganini’s variations that this aria has survived in concert life until today.

Virtuosic Violin — on the Cello

As if Paganini’s variations weren’t challenging enough on the violin, several attempts were made to arrange the variations for cello and piano (or orchestra). I have even seen recordings where this is played on a double bass. Among the arrangements for cello, the one by Pierre Fournier (1906 – 1986) must be the most popular one. It exploits and brings forward the specific strengths of the cello, such as its ability for highest flageolet and flautando. OK, one doesn’t get to enjoy the full sound of the bass register, as the piece is exclusively played on the A string. But even with this restriction, there’s more than enough to watch and hear in these entertaining transformations of Rossini’s melody. It’s a real hit to this day, maybe with some potential to turn into an ear-worm?

So, we once more got to enjoy Christoph Croisé’s (and his cello’s) wonderful, singing tone! The melody extends through the highest notes, “up in the eternal snow”, as cellists use to call it (well above the finger board, where the strings are white from the rosin). As if another proof was needed, Christoph showed that the tone of his instrument is not just strong in the lower range, but equally singing and projecting up to the very top end. For once, the piano limited itself to a supporting / accompaniment role, leaving the field to Christoph Croisé, for the closure of his successful debut in Lucerne

Encore, Conclusion

It was almost the closure for the concert, as the persistent applause was honored with an encore: a repeat of Tsintsadze’s Sachidao served as the “last dance” — very much to the enjoyment of the audience.

When I congratulated the artists after the concert, Oxana assured me that they both enjoyed it very much. I replied that this joy and pleasure was felt and reflected by the audience. What more could I say? Congratulations to Christoph Croisé for a successful debut concert, best wishes for his ongoing career. The same wishes of course go to Oxana Shevchenko, hoping that she also gets plenty of opportunity also to appear as a soloist. Thank you both so much for such a fabulous experience!


Featured CD: “Visions”

Visions — Christoph Croisé / Oxana Shevchenko; CD coverVisions — Compositions by Prokofiev, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Paganini, and Popper

Christoph Croisé (cello), Oxana Shevchenko (piano)

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 can now be purchased from JPC.de


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The two artists have just released a CD featuring two (***) of the compositions played in the concert in Lucerne

  • 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”]

Videos from the Concert — Enjoy!

I have collected all available YouTube videos from this concert in a single list, allowing you to follow (most of) the concert in proper sequence. At this point, the Chopin sonata is still missing, and the Tsintsadze is the recording from the encore, hence placed at the end of the list.



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