Christoph Croisé & Oxana Shevchenko
Brahms / Stravinsky / Schubert / Chopin / Shchedrin
Zimmermannhaus, Brugg AG / Switzerland, 2016-10-29
The Artists — Again!
Over the past 1.5 years, it has been both a pleasure and a privilege to witness a number of live concerts with the two artists Christoph Croisé and Oxana Shevchenko (see my earlier post for references to past concert reviews and other, related postings). So, here was another opportunity to experience these young artists—and I’m sure it’s not going to be the last one!
Actually, nothing in this concert was new to me—all pieces in the program were featuring already in earlier concerts with these artists, particularly the one on 2016-09-25 (the one exception is Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata, which I heard on 2015-11-07). Not every new concert is about new repertoire, but it’s equally interesting to observe how Christoph Croisé’s repertoire pieces are settling, and how his interpretations grow and evolve. On the part of Oxana Shevchenko: she is one of the best, most compassionate most empathic accompanists that I have experienced, and her abilities as a pianist are astounding. So, I was sure that this concert was going to be another, both enjoyable and interesting experience!
The venue for this concert was the Zimmermannhaus in Brugg (canton of Aargau, Switzerland). Brugg is a little, medieval town (now of course grown into a fair size city) at the river Aare (just upriver from the point where it unifies with the rivers Limmat and Reuss). The medieval core of Brugg (Swiss German for “bridge”) is situated at the south shore of the river, and just across the bridge that gave the city its name, there is an old building with an impressive mansard roof—the Zimmermannhaus. This building has been renovated, and since 1984 it is both the city gallery and a small-scale concert venue, ideal for chamber music.
The concert hall itself is a small venue for just over 100 people, in the top floor, under the roof, with a view to the ancient, wooden roof construction. The hall has been acoustically and visually engineered / enhanced, by adding soft panels behind the stage and along the side walls. The stage is a mere step above the audience level, equipped with a mid-size Bösendorfer Model 225 concert grand, looking new and very shiny. Christoph Croisé played a precious cello by Mattio Goffriller, Venice, 1712. Sorry about the bad quality photo. No, this isn’t just a faint poster of the page-turner, Oxana Shevchenko, and the piano behind Christoph Croisé! I’m merely adding this in order to give an impression about the venue. I should have taken along my real camera!
A General Remark
If sections in the comments below appear mostly critical, that’s not because I felt that this concert was inferior to the previous one. Quite to the contrary: this concert did not suffer any of the acoustic restrictions of the preceding instance, and there are definitely aspects where Christoph Croisé’s interpretation has grown.
Also, as mentioned, this is the fourth concert with these artists that I’m attending within a little over a year. I’m running out of words describing the qualities in the artist’s playing (and of Christoph Croisé’s beautiful instrument!). The reader should assume that all positive comments from earlier concerts still apply!
Johannes Brahms: Sonata for Piano & Cello No.1 in E minor, op.38
The movements of the sonata:
- Allegro non troppo
- Allegretto quasi Menuetto — Trio — Menuetto da capo
- Allegro — Più Presto
I. Allegro non troppo
Already in the first bars, I noticed a fairly distinct difference to earlier performances, in the piano. Compared to a Steinway, the Bösendorfer grand had a full and round, well-balanced, but mellow and less brilliant sound. The soft start of that sonata even highlighted these features. The warmth of the tone probably was even boosted by the acoustics of the venue, which seemed to amplify the middle and low registers (at the expense of brightness and brilliance in the upper registers?). The acoustics seemed to favor the fullness of the middle and low registers in Christoph Croisé’s instrument. For example: in the Suite Italienne by Stravinsky the sound of the lower strings in 3- and 4-stop chords sometimes covered the sound of the top string.
Especially in the first part (Exposition—without repeat, as in the previous recital—and parts of the development section) I had the impression of a Brahms performance highlighting the soft, intermediate tones, the subtleties in expression. It wasn’t the Brahms of the early piano sonatas, of the big gestures, and the sometimes strong emotional eruption. But the artists gradually built up intensity and emotions in the course of the movement—though most of the movement indeed is rather intimate and subtle, and I found the coda to be really touching—as if Brahms had held back the true nature of his loving emotions up to that last part!
Unlike in the last concert, there was much less of a balance issue—if the cello sometimes seemed to dominate, this was essentially caused by the lack of brilliance with the Bösendorfer. On the other hand, the characteristics of the piano seemed most suited to expose the intimate and subtle aspects of this movement.
II. Allegretto quasi Menuetto — Trio
Also here, the Bösendorfer seemed to emphasize the restrained emotionality. The Menuetto felt melancholic (more than moody, for sure), letting emotions grow like little, hidden flowers. On the other hand, a moody side was rather exposed in the Trio: this appeared often hesitating, restrained, with strong rubato. Compared to the beginning, the piano seemed to grow, show more presence in the da capo instance of the Menuetto. To an average listener, this movement may be the hardest to “understand” / get access to—but I found this interpretation to be compelling, very coherent. And the Bösendorfer actually fit to the character of this music.
III. Allegro — Più Presto
The last movement is a fugue, where the piano markedly introduces the principal part of the theme (Latin: dux). At last, Oxana Shevchenko (and Brahms) seemed to present the full sound of the piano! However, at this point, this is limited to the almost baroque opening that felt like an organ fugue played with plain jeu: as soon as the cello took over the theme, Oxana Shevchenko (appropriately) switched to softer playing in the comes, the second part of the theme and accompaniment to the theme in the cello.
To me, the entire fugue felt well-balanced in dynamics, transparent: excellent teamwork and partnership. And at last, the music also featured some “big gestures”, so typical of Brahms! I found this a good interpretation, well-“orchestrated”, and well-coordinated: there may not always have been perfect coordination—but I think that in a romantic fugue the voices are / should be allowed some individual agogic play. I prefer this over the perfection of a clockwork.
Igor Stravinsky: Suite Italienne for Cello & Piano
The Suite Italienne for cello and piano—derived from the music to Pulcinella— has the following movements:
- Minuetto — Finale
Stravinsky knows how to capture the attention of the audience with the catchy melody of this first movement! Christoph Croisé played this with full, singing tone, yet elegantly, with swinging articulation, as playful as Oxana Shevchenko’s accompaniment, which remained light and transparent throughout this short movement.
Warm, mellow, melancholic music. The tremolos in the second part reminded me of the sound of a Cymbal. The musicians were holding back the inherent tension, building up expectations for the parts to come:
In this movement, I think that Christoph Croisé’s interpretation still has the most “space to grow”. The movement starts with strong pizzicati that accompany a trumping, vivid gesture on the piano. That latter gesture then moves on to the cello. In my opinion, that part could be more ironic, fresher, if not a little impertinent. There were some coordination issues in the middle part: Oxana Shevchenko naturally is very much “into” this music, while the cello part sometimes appeared to lack rhythmic flexibility and agility.
I felt that sometimes the movement lost momentum & drive because the cello was “playing out and enjoying itself” too much: one could feel that Oxana Shevchenko sometimes wanted to play out more vivacity, more rubato and flexibility in the tempo (she tried her best to adjust to the cello!). To me, the movement lacked a coherent, compelling overall dramaturgy (Stravinsky’s own performance of the ballet music should serve as model here!).
Compared to the last performance, the Tarantella has gained speed—though one could sense that Christoph Croisé had moved closer to the limits: there were occasional, minor superficialities, and the movement could and should be more playful. But it’s technically demanding on the cello, for sure. Overall, the faster tempo made the movement appear closer to the character of a Tarantella—perfection is far less important here than the spirit of the music.
V. Minuetto — Finale
To me, the Minuetto part felt a little too careful, slow, cautious, controlled, not really free in its expression. Only in the Finale, at last, both artists were able to “let loose”, providing a vivid, enthralling performance: like a liberating downhill experience after an elaborate ascent.
It will be interesting to see Christoph Croisé’s interpretation of the Suite Italienne grow over the coming months and years!
I should add that I also felt that in this music, the limitations with the Bösendorfer were most obvious: in my opinion, for Stravinsky, a brighter, more percussive, more brilliant instrument would be far more adequate. The warm, full sonority does not really help this music. Luckily, the second part of the recital was much better suited to expose the qualities of that instrument.
Franz Schubert: Sonata in A minor, D.821, “Arpeggione”
The Sonata in A minor, D.821, which Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) wrote in November 1824, for the Arpeggione. For more details see my earlier post from the concert on 2015-11-07. The movements of the sonata are as follows:
- Allegro moderato
This is the one composition that was not part of the preceding concert, but a work that I heard with these artists a year ago in the small hall of the Zurich Tonhalle. Back then, the performance suffered from its own set of acoustic limitations and balance issues, different from those in Schönenwerd. I have mentioned this in my earlier review: the Arpeggione sonata is a challenge to cellists. It is not written for the cello, but for a six-string instrument with guitar tuning, held horizontally, unhandy and difficult to play in itself, and with a rather queer sonority. Even prominent, famous cellists have their issues with this music, at least with the first movement. These problems include not just the uneasy fingering on the cello, but also the length of the movement, and the somewhat odd Arpeggione sonority, which seems to transpire to modern string instruments.
I. Allegro moderato
The movement started very calm, retained (certainly more moderato than allegro!), but then gradually picks up pace and momentum. Overall, I feel that the movement should be faster—but one could argue that the heavier character of the cello (compared to the Arpeggione) imposes a somewhat slower tempo. Still, the slow pace sometimes caused the movement to lack or lose its drive. Some listeners may have felt that the music “has lengths”. Yes, the movement also has its austere moments (not everything was bright in Schubert’s life, after all!). However, on the (very) bright side, there were plenty of opportunities to enjoy the beautiful cantabile on Christoph Croisé’s Goffriller cello. Is there any instrument that can sing better than (such) a cello?
Oxana Shevchenko’s accompaniment perfectly matched the interpretation on the cello in dynamics and the rubato. In the development part, Christoph Croisé’s pizzicati remained perfectly audible. Now the piano was singing—and the Bösendorfer could play out the strengths of its warm, harmonious sonority. Where the music builds up to a ff (before the initial theme appears in minor tonality), I thoroughly enjoyed the carefully articulated staccato figurations in the left hand of the accompaniment. One of Oxana Shevchenko’s particularly strengths (among many!) is in her careful articulation.
I also enjoyed the carefully crafted dynamics in the performance of this movement, which ended in an almost whispered flautando at the upper end of the finger board.
One could also argue that with a faster tempo, the cello would not be able to play out its beautiful cantilenas, which really are the strong point about playing this sonata on a cello. On the other hand, the movement is long (the artists repeated the exposition), and the tempo annotation definitely is Allegro moderato—which still makes me prefer a somewhat faster tempo.
The singing is even much stronger in this Lied movement—very eloquent and simply beautiful, very expressive and atmospheric. The audience and the artists seemed to listen into, to dive into the depths of this music. The piano was once more perfectly matching the tone of the cello, almost losing itself in the seemingly endless beauty of this music. I admired the subtlety of the p and pp segment in the last part of the movement, and how the piano built up tension towards the short cello cadenza that leads into the Allegretto.
I really liked the Allegretto: atmospheric and harmonious, also very coherent between the two artists, and showing excellent coordination in rhythm and agogics / rubato. My only (minor) criticism is that in the center, where the cello accompanies the piano with pizzicato, the movement temporarily seemed to lose momentum. Overall, I felt that both the second and the third movement received an excellent, mature interpretation.
One thing I must mention here: both for the Schubert sonata and for the subsequent Chopin piece, the Bösendorfer piano was able to demonstrate its strength in sonority. I really enjoyed its warm, harmonious sound.
Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise brillante in C major, op.3
- Introduction: Lento (1/4 = 89) — (attacca)
- Alla Polacca: Allegro con spirito (1/4 = 96)
The artists play an “enhanced” version by the American cellist Leonard Rose (1918 – 1984).
In the introduction, Oxana Shevchenko could play out the agility of her fingers, her subtle and virtuosic playing, while Christoph Croisé for sure enjoyed his nice cantilenas: beautiful music in all parts! Some cellists may think that their part is too simple and easy, compared to the accompaniment. It is definitely understandable that Christoph Croisé selected a version (by Leonard Rose, see above) with additional “features” for his instrument, such as a short, but virtuosic cello cadenza prior to the Polonaise.
Chopin being an almost exclusive piano composer, it is understandable that the primary impulses in the Polonaise are provided the piano part—but the cello quickly picks up the “grand Polonaise gestures”. I felt that the interpretation really stood out in the beauty and the fullness of its sound (particularly also the arpeggiated pizzicati on the cello, early on). The playing on both instruments was brilliant and full of momentum. Also, the coordination was excellent throughout, also in ritardando and accelerando. A coherent and compelling performance: excellent playing, well done!
Rodion Shchedrin: In the Style of Albéniz (1973)
Rodion Shchedrin (*1932) is a prolific Russian composer. “In the Style of Albéniz” was originally written for violin and piano (1973), later arranged for cello and piano. For more details see my earlier post (from a concert where the artists played this as encore).
A typical Shchedrin piece: full of humor, joking, irony—and fun! With its constant hesitations, picking up, hesitating again, etc., this is a fairly demanding piece. In the first bars, the coordination wasn’t always perfect (yet), but soon thereafter, the artists seemed to find coherence. Oxana Shevchenko rapidly and visibly seemed to liven up in this music (but the fun and the joy instantly infected the audience!). The cello presented interesting effects such as “noisy” playing sul ponticello (at the bridge). It’s a short piece only, evolving into jazzy rhythms in the piano, enthralling, fascinating; the audience was taken by this and enjoyed it!
Encore #1 — Dmitri Shostakovich: Cello Sonata in D minor, op.40: Allegro
As first encore, the artists played the second movement (Allegro) from the Cello Sonata in D minor, op.40 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) in 1934. This is a very virtuosic piece, full of rapid, often motoric repetitions, strongly rhythmic. It also features special “effects” such as sliding flageolets on the cello. It once more was fun for the artists, as well as for the audience!
Encore #2 — Camille Saint-Saëns: Le cygne
Finally, the ubiquitous No.13. “Le cygne” (The Swan) from “Le carnaval des animaux” by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921). This also was the second encore in the preceding recital (see there for additional information); maybe this is too ubiquitous? Well, it still is nice music, calming down one’s mind after the excitements of the pieces by Shchedrin and Shostakovich—and the cello repertoire is not all that big. And, after all, it was a better fit than a movement from a cello suite by Bach.
The review may appear critical in parts (I explained this above)—but let me assure: I thoroughly enjoyed that concert; thanks to both artists for this experience! And: I envy the city of Brugg for such a nice, atmospheric concert venue!
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.