Christoph Croisé & Oxana Shevchenko
Bartók / Debussy / Schubert / Ginastera

Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-11-07

4-star rating


2015-11-11 — Original posting
2015-11-19 — Added link to YouTube playlist
2015-11-29 — YouTube playlist now includes the Schubert Sonata
2016-08-14 — Brushed up for better readability


Introduction

Ten weeks ago, on 2015-08-27, I had a chance to meet the Swiss cellist Christoph Croisé (*1993) and the pianist Oxana Shevchenko (born 1987 in Almaty, Kazakhstan) in a concert at Lukaskirche in Lucerne. This was Christoph Croisé’s debut concert at Lucerne Festival (Oxana Shevchenko had accompanied another cellist, Narek Hakhnazaryan, in his debut concert at the same venue, back in 2014). As far as I can tell (i.e., the way I experienced it) it was extremely successful. In fact, it was one of the best and most impressive concert experiences for me — ever.

Now, on 2015-11-07, I was ever so happy to be able to hear these two artists in concert again, this time in the small hall of the Tonhalle in Zurich, and with a mostly different program. It was clear to me that repeating the success in Lucerne would be very challenging. I was anxious to see whether the two artists would meet the very high expectations resulting from their performance in the previous concert.

My blog post on the concert in Lucerne included some notes on the biography of the two artists. I won’t repeat those here. So, let’s move on to this concert:

Béla Bartók: Rhapsody No.1 for Cello and Piano, Sz.88 / BB 94

In 1928Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) wrote his Rhapsody No.1 (Sz.86 / BB 94a) for violin and piano. He dedicated it to his friend, the violinist Joseph Szigeti, who also premiered the piece. In the following year, he reworked the composition for violin and orchestra (Sz.87 / BB 94b). Also in 1929, he added the version for Cello and piano (Sz.88 / BB 94) that we heard in this concert.

This Rhapsody is in two parts. Each is using a popular Hungarian folk dance: “Lassú” and “Friss”. The first part, “Lassú” is annotated Moderato — a rather slow, somewhat heavy dance. It reminds me of a “bear’s dance”.

The second part, “Friss”, is an Allegretto moderato. It starts with a terse introduction on the piano, full of tension. But thereafter, it is catchy, full of humor, often playful (especially on the cello), also poetic at times, often very virtuosic.

The Performance

The artists played the movement with lots of energy, and (I think) very well capturing the character of this music. I particularly liked the very well-coordinated “Hungarian” accelerandi and ritardandi and the very impressive climax. On the part of the piano, it was a pleasure to feel the rhythmic impulsiveness, the playful, little highlights, the sparks of the peak notes. Neither of the musicians appears to know problems with technique or coordination! In the second part, the playing must have felt well-balanced on stage. Strangely, particularly in the “Lassú” segment, I found that acoustically, the venue supported the piano (Steinway D, lid half-open) more than the cello (Mattio Goffriller, 1712).

However, the subsequent pieces proved that the source for this apparent imbalance (for the listener) must be in Bartók’s composition, his somewhat unwieldy, rarely cantabile writing for the cello. One should keep in mind that Bartók originally wrote this for violin and piano. Also, I definitely didn’t feel that Christoph Croisé first needed to “clear his throat”, i.e., get acquainted to the acoustics of the venue with audience.

Claude Debussy: Cello Sonata in D minor, L.135

The Cello Sonata in D minor, written 1915 by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) is the only piece in this program that the artists also played in the concert in Lucerne on 2015-08-27. The basic characteristics of their interpretation haven’t changed. So, for general comments on this piece and its interpretation by these artists please see my post on that concert.

The piece didn’t “feel” quite the same as in Lucerne. A comparison between the two concerts may be a little unfair, but still, to me, the concert in Lucerne was perfect, everything seemed to fit:

  • the weather
  • the atmosphere in the venue (lighting through the stained glass windows behind the artists, the full, large audience, etc.)
  • the open, clear acoustics that seemed to be ideal especially for the cello
  • the program (starting with the very impressive sonata by Prokofiev), and everything fitting into the overall theme “humor”; the popularity of the music in general, including several “hit pieces”
  • the artists were in top shape and highest spirits that carried over to the audience —

Repeating a Stellar Moment?

Clearly, it was hard to repeat, let alone exceed the success from the Lucerne concert. In the case of the Debussy sonata, I felt several differences:

  • In Lucerne, the artists seemed to be “in tune for humor”. Particularly the second movement put forward the witty, humorous aspects (or was this just my impression?). In Zurich, for the entire piece, the Zurich performance seemed to focus on the impressionist character of the music. It was more atmospheric than humorous. Here, the second movement to me evoked the atmosphere of a hot summer afternoon.
  • In comparison to the performance in Lucerne, in the second movement (Sérénade: Modérément animé — Vivace) with its tricky exchange of pizzicati & staccati, the coordination / timing in general did not always sound quite as perfect & flawless. This may have been hardly noticeable if one didn’t clearly remember the Lucerne performance (which I certainly do!). I can’t imagine that this was a lack of attention on the part of the artists. But the acoustics of the venue in Zurich may have been slightly less favorable, either for this particular piece, or for the interaction between the two artists?

The Performance

By no means I would state that this performance was bad or insufficient in any way. I really liked it, but it was (maybe) a tad less perfect than the same piece in Lucerne — not really relevant overall. Irrespective of the comparison: I found the interpretation really compelling, particularly in the rubato in the final movement (Finale: Animé — Lento — 1er Mouvement).

The entire sonata also (instantly) clarified the question of the acoustic balance. Christoph Croisé could really play out the full, marvelously warm tone of his instrument without ever covering Oxana Shevchenko’s delicate piano accompaniment. Conversely, the dynamics of the accompaniment were always carefully attuned to the cello part. It was duo playing at a very high level. One final remark: should listeners have wondered about occasional, whirring tones from the cello: that’s not a mishap, but the composers intent. In these passages, the score reads “sur le chevalet“, i.e., one must play this. at or on the bridge.

Franz Schubert: Sonata in A minor, D.821, “Arpeggione”

The name “Arpeggione” for the Sonata in A minor, D.821, which Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) wrote in November 1824, is more than just a surname. That sonata is the only surviving composition for the Arpeggione. This instrument was a new invention. It featured a guitar-like body and six strings in guitar tuning (fourths and thirds; E-A-D-G-B-E).Like the guitar, the instrument had a fretted finger board. This limited the use of vibrato, may have prevented it altogether. The Arpeggione was played with a bow. It was held either vertically, like a cello, or possibly horizontally, in front of the player’s chest.

The invention disappeared soon after Schubert’s death. That’s not just because of the fierce competition from regular / traditional string instruments, but also because of its meager / thin, nasal sound. On top of that, it was really tricky to play. Bridge and finger board had very little curvature. Therefore, it was hard not to hit two strings instead of just one. There are a few Arpeggiones still in existence, along with reconstructions. But their use in concert is extremely rare, to say the least.

“Playing Arpeggione on a Cello”?

From the tonal range, the Arpeggione Sonata is entirely playable on a cello, or, transposed by an octave, on a viola. The only exceptions are the final 5- and 6-part chords, which one can simplify to four parts. However, both the cello and the viola are tuned in fifths and have four strings only. This forces the musician to use high(er) positions, odd finger spans, etc. — it definitely does not feel comfortable on these instruments. Overall, it is harder to play than it may sound!

Within the interpretations on the cello, one can hear performances that try imitating the sound characteristics of the Arpeggione (e.g., by using a minimum of vibrato, if any, at least in the fast movements). Others play out the full sonority of the cello, with full tone and possibly lots of vibrato everywhere. In the outer movements, Christoph Croisé opted for a “healthy compromise”, i.e., one that does not “upset the ear” of the average listener, nor (too much) that of purists in historically informed playing. General information on the Arpeggione and on this sonata can be found here.

The Performance

After the preceding compositions, as a listener in the audience one needed to re-adjust ear and mind to Schubert’s simpler textures and the more modest dynamic span in this music.

I. Allegro moderato

The introductory movement sometimes appeared almost playful, like a folk tune — even though it did not leave the basic, rather melancholic mood in this piece. The music sounds popular, almost Lied-like. But one should keep in mind that Schubert composed this at a time when he already felt the symptoms of syphilis. He suffered frequent depressions. This music is not simple, one should not take it lightly.

Despite this: the movement is annotated Allegro moderato. The initial tempo to me was too slow, rather Andante. On the other hand, the artists left out the repetition of the exposition. That repeat would definitely have caused the movement to feel “lengthy”. Of course, one should keep in mind that this music is not as easy to play as it sounds, especially on the cello. The intonation is particularly tricky, even though, when listening to Christoph Croisé, it was hard to get a sense for the technical difficulties. His intonation throughout the concert was flawless, without signs of insecurity. Both musicians convinced with good, well-coordinated phrasing and the “right” amount of rubato.

II. Adagio

In the Adagio, it is probably impossible for a cellist not to indulge in the wonderful cantilenas. The melodies vary between contemplation, flourishing beauty, longing and pain: very touching music in a touching interpretation. It was also fascinating, even compelling to see how the two musicians managed to keep the tension in the calando towards the end. That tension lasted up to the cadenza that leads into the last segment, where the musical flow appears to freeze, almost die away.

III. Allegretto

The Allegretto starts like a folk tune. We heard very nice playing with excellent accompaniment, featuring subtly interspersed syncopes, while the bass line formed a contrasting dialog with the cello voice. The artists played all repeats, the tempo felt natural. I found the entire movement very convincing. It was perfectly in-tune, both in agogics and dynamics, also and especially towards the end. There, the piano takes over the melody, while the cello now plays the accompaniment with clearly audible, but never enforced pizzicati.

Alberto Ginastera: Pampeana No.2 (1950)

Alberto Ginastera (1916 – 1983) was one of the most important composers of the 20th century in the Americas. He was born to an Italian mother and a Catalan father. Grown up in Argentina, he spent some time studying in the U.S. with Aaron Copland. He then returned to Argentina. In 1968 he moved to the States again. Finally, in 1970, he turned to Europe, where he spent the rest of his life. He died in Geneva. Ginastera (he preferred the Italian pronunciation) wrote three Pampeanas. These are pieces in which the composer expressed his sentiments when observing the course of the day in the Argentinean Pampa (flatlands). In the fast movements he also included characteristics of the popular music that the people in this landscape were playing.

The Pampeanas appeared over a period of 8 years:

  • Pampeana No.1 for Violin and Piano, op.16, from 1947,
  • Pampeana No.2, Rhapsody for Cello and Piano, op.21, composed 1950, and
  • the orchestral Pampeana No.3 appeared in 1954.

The Performance

In the first part of Pampeana No.2, Christoph Croisé used the opportunity to play out the full sonority of his beautiful instrument across the entire tonal range, up into the “eternal snow” (at the end of the finger board, where the strings turn white from the rosin). The piano is contrasting with enthralling, jazzy rhythms, feasted on with visible joy and pleasure by Oxana Shevchenko. It was a compelling interpretation with its rhythmic clarity and the excellent balance in dynamics.

To me, the middle part describes the paralyzing heat around noon. This received an excellent interpretation, with subtle, but clearly syncopated rhythms in the piano. The picture that this evoked may be one of paralysis, a scene lacking all movement. Yet, the artists managed to keep up the tension, as if they were sitting at the front edge of the chair, awaiting the beginning of the final part.

The last part of the composition is very virtuosic for both instruments, enthralling, with lots of momentum, carried equally by both artists.

Encores — Sulkhan Tsintsadze: Sachidao

This was an excellent conclusion for the concert, calling for lots of applause. The artists responded by repeating the last part of Ginastera’s Pampeana No.2. As this didn’t seem enough for the enthusiastic audience, Christoph Croisé and Oxana Shevchenko ended the concert with a second encore. they selected the “Sachidao” by the Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925 – 1991). The artists had also played this at the concert in Lucerne on 2015-08-27, both as part of the regular program and as encore.

Conclusions

I mentioned this above: the previous concert in Lucerne (2015-08-27) had been perfect. It was impossible to repeat or match that experience in Zurich, even though I would still rate this concert as really excellent. It did not fall behind my high expectations: my sincere congratulations to the two artists!

The “slightly less perfect” outcome wasn’t because the pieces in Zurich were more “modern”: I think they weren’t, overall. However, the program may have lacked a stringent, overall unifying “bracket”, such as the motto “humor” in Lucerne. Also, the scarce(r) sonority in the Bartók Rhapsody may not be ideal for a piece to start a concert.

Even in the Schubert sonata, the inherent problems with the Arpeggione as designated instrument, and/or with playing that piece on a cello may have had its subtle effect on the concert. Finally, the softer, “closer” acoustics of the venue may have lacked some clarity / transparency. They may have been less supportive to the music and the instruments played, compared to the concert in Lucerne. But all these are minor points. Even the best artists can’t make every concert a perfect experience. Fortunately: how boring would life be if this was the case!


Addendum 1:

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.


Addendum 2:

The above concert has been recorded on video. The pieces by Bartók, Schubert, and Ginastera are now available on YouTube. The Debussy Sonata is available through the recording from the concert in Lucerne on 2015-08-27, and so is the encore, the “Sachidao” by Tsintsadze. Therefore all pieces from the Zürich concert are now available online. With this, you have a chance to attend the concert again, as YouTube playlist:



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