Narek Hakhnazaryan & Oxana Shevchenko
Schumann / Brahms / Tsintsadze / Albéniz / Shchedrin / Massenet / Cassadó
Wigmore Hall, London, 2018-04-02
Normally, I would barely consider traveling to London for a concert. This one was an exception, for several reasons:
- There was no doubt in my mind that this duo recital would be excellent, based on an earlier one, that I attended with the same two artists, back on 2016-03-06, in Lucerne.
- I have been to Wigmore Hall in London before an know that it is an excellent venue for chamber music and piano recitals.
- Based on this, I had recommended this concert to a colleague from my former professional life. He did indeed purchase a ticket. And he mentioned that he would be happy to see and meet me at the concert. So…
- Over the past 3 years, I have interacted with the Kazakh pianist Oxana Shevchenko a lot. I really appreciate her playing (as can easily be seen from a fair number of blog postings), be it in solo recitals, as duo partner / chamber musician, or as soloist in orchestral performances. Hearing her in concert is always a real pleasure.
- Last, but not least: my daughter Deborah had planned for a trip to London around exactly that time anyway, so I happily joined her for a few days in this city.
Wigmore Hall was fairly full in that concert, my daughter and I were sitting in row 5, fairly close to the stage, slightly off from the middle, on the left side.
As indicated, I don’t need to introduce Oxana Shevchenko (*1987) here. Information on the Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan (*1988) can also be found in my blog post on the concert in Lucerne on 2016-03-06. There is one important update, that I need to mention, though. Narek now is playing on a 1707 cello by Giuseppe Giovanni Battista Guarneri “filius Andreae” (1666 – c.1740). The instrument is known as “ex-Kingman”. Formerly, Joel Krosnick of the Juilliard Quartet played on this instrument, as did Janos Starker (1924 – 2013).
Oxana’s instrument was a Steinway D-274 concert grand, with fully open lid.
Schumann: Adagio and Allegro in A♭ major, op.70
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote his Adagio and Allegro in A♭ major, op.70 in 1849. The composition was primarily written / intended for piano and French horn. However, already prior the first publication, Schumann planned to allow for the cello or a violin as alternative to the horn. The cello now is likely the most popular alternative, followed by the horn—at least, in the number of performances. Personally, I haven’t listened to this piece too often. On a few instances I heard it played on the horn. From this, at least the Allegro is burned into my memory as a “horn piece”.
Instantly, Narek’s intense, singing tone, with its harmonious, widely swaying vibrato caught the listener’s ear: a wonder- and soulful cantilena in calm serenity!
And equally stunning for me: the acoustic balance! Duo playing with a fully open lid on the concert grand very often, almost inevitably, turned out to be problematic, if not even close to a disaster for the balance. I often wondered whether in these cases it was the pianist insisting in playing with open lid (because it sounds better, or because the pianist did not want to “subordinate” to the duo partner?), or whether the other instrument felt “strong enough to withstand a concert grand with open lid”?
However: the balance was not an issue here, and throughout the concert! It felt like a miracle to me. Undoubtedly, it was Oxana’s careful, prudent playing that made this possible. This even persisted when Narek was playing softly! Of course, Oxana wasn’t just suffocating the sound with the soft (shift) pedal, and some of the tribute also goes to the composer’s diligent disposition.
There was a gentle, harmonious exchange of motifs and phrases between the cello and the piano. The music seemed to depict two souls (or three, if the bass line is counted as a “personality on its own”) interacting in an intimate dialog. A wonderful start into the concert!
The cello’s warm, singing tone, its beautiful sonority even intensified in the Allegro’s “catchy horn tune”: a happy, joyful melody, with occasional moody undertones. It’s so typical of Schumann! The harmonious interplay between the two artists continued from the Adagio. Actually, this movement is much more of a challenge, as the piano part is considerably more complex. Yet again, Oxana never let the cello drown in the sound of the concert grand. Actually, quite to the contrary: there were moments when I felt that the piano could have been a tad stronger! It was a novel experience in duo performance, to me—I’m still amazed at this! Actually, also within the piano part, the dynamic balance between the hands / voices, Oxana’s subtlety in highlighting motifs and key voices was astounding.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote this sonata in 1886; it was published a year later. The sonata has four movements:
- Allegro vivace
- Adagio affettuoso
- Allegro passionato
- Allegro molto
I. Allegro vivace
Brahms’ wide-spanning, full-handed piano score must be even more of a challenge in keeping the balance with the cello. It is too tempting to fall into rhapsodic playing, as if this was one of the composer’s piano concertos. Amazingly, Oxana continued to keep the balance as perfectly as in the Schumann piece. And for sure: this wasn’t “just a woman’s soft hand”! Rather, it was masterful dynamic control on the part of the pianist. I have heard Oxana often enough to know that she can also play with plenty of power. And she did here, too: e.g., in bars 56ff, where in a moment of emotional turmoil the piano takes the lead, while the cello assumes the accompanying role with excited, nervous tremoli.
Throughout the movement (and the sonata), it was astounding & fascinating to see how well the two artists are “in tune” in terms of dynamics, engagement and emotions, and how well they worked in synchrony in shaping the big arches, the big phrases. An enthralling performance—and of course an equally fascinating masterwork as a composition! I wasn’t astonished to see spontaneous applause break out after this movement!
II. Adagio affettuoso
After all the emotions in the first movement, Narek tackled this movement with absolute calm. Yet, he was shaping long tension arches, letting the instrument sing in smooth, intense, dense tone. The melody reached out to the listener’s mind and heart. The initial pizzicato was so calm, so well-sounding! After the emotional excursion of the middle part, Narek almost instantly re-gained the calm of the first bars. Also the coda started with the same, calm pizzicato. In a sudden rubato, emotions seemed to break out—but then, the movement returned to calm, soft serenity.
Even in this Adagio affettuoso, the piano part could be seen as temptation to fall into rhapsodic, “grand” playing. Yet, Oxana maintained her excellent dynamic control. In the first part she formed a gentle accompaniment, with an intimacy that so far I have never heard in this music. Throughout the movement, I felt that the cellist was entirely free in the lyrical expression, in the emotional shaping of his part. Yet, I never had the feeling that one of the musicians was ever dominating over the other. It was duo partnership at the highest possible level! A goosebump movement, for sure!
III. Allegro passionato
A movement full of tension and suspense, even dramatic in the outer parts. In the segment after bar 60, the piano is given an opportunity for “typical Brahmsian” full-handed forte playing. Oxana did this very well, while still keeping the dynamics in control, making sure she did not cover the cello. The mastership of the two artists also showed in how they coherently shaped the big, dramatic arches, always keeping an eye on the overall structure.
The central Trio part is more song-like, allowing the cello to expose its singing qualities, at times forming a song duet, in intimate partnership with the piano.
IV. Allegro molto
This is a rondo with a catchy, song-like refrain. The artists made the rhythmic shifts in the couplets (especially the fist one) sound so natural that they almost went unnoticed. I also noted the subtle agogics in their playing, especially at transitions between refrain and couplets, and vice versa.
The second half of the duo recital (after the intermission) switched from the “big form” to smaller pieces. Most of them are based on folk music themes. However, this by no means implied a “descent”! Yes, it’s not Brahms’ big sonata. However, these pieces have different qualities, are all very interesting—and they impose different challenges on the artists:
Tsintsadze: Five pieces on Folk Themes
The Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925 – 1991) wrote five miniatures, based on Georgian folk dances:
As Armenian (a passionate Armenian, as he declared himself), Narek Hakhnazaryan is intimately familiar with the folk music, not only from the Armenian community, but from the entire region. Who would be better able to perform this music than someone from that area? As this is mostly / largely unknown music, I’ll focus on describing (rather than qualifying) the listening experience.
Loneliness, pensive, moody, elegiac, with sad moments / aspects, very atmospheric. Intensely singing, with characteristic harmonies / tonality—distinctly different from Western-European music of any time. It’s certainly tonal music—but not tonal in the traditional, Western sense.
A highly virtuosic, lively, jazzy, syncopated pizzicato orgy for the cello alone, featuring multi-stop, polyrhythmic pizzicato, even pizzicato flageolet: enthralling, both folksy and artful—masterful, altogether, bravo!
The Sachidao is the one piece from this small collection that I have heard previously, several times. This was always with Oxana at the piano, but not with Narek at the cello. In the past, I have perceived this as a folksy, but mostly fun piece. To a large degree, this also applied to the version for violin and orchestra that I have on CD, as No.6 of Tsintsadze’s “6 Miniatures”.
However, Narek and Oxana now demonstrated that this is more than mere fun. Their interpretation filled this music with life, with folk spirit (Georgian folk spirit, most likely). At the same time, the performance was highly virtuosic, full of syncopes and tension. I liked the enthralling multi-stop playing with “emotional intonation” (yes, that’s allowed here!). A very interesting segment features a mix of spiccato and pizzicato playing on the cello, combined with jazzy syncopes on the piano. And there were these sudden melody fragments emerging from the center of the piano part. Both artists lived within this music, really and obviously enjoyed playing it. So did the audience: fascinating!
Longing, elegiac, melancholic, intensifying though double-stop playing, all with mute—yet with excellent sonority on this instrument!. Pizzicato and staccato (on the piano) created an almost ghastly atmosphere—loneliness, a night scene in nature?
More than playful—a boisterous folk dance, a whirlwind full of syncopes and enthralling rhythms—rhythmically both intricate and subtle, especially on the piano. If this wasn’t fun, what is? The audience was thrilled!
Albéniz: Suite Española, op.47 — 5. Asturias (Leyenda)
Isaac Albéniz (1860 – 1909) originally composed this piece as “Preludio”, as part of a suite called “Chants d’Espagne”. It was only after the composer’s death that a publisher added this to the existing collection “Suite española”, op.47. There, it was given the title Asturias—even though, as Narek explained, it has nothing to do with the music from the region of Asturias, in the North of Spain. Instead, it is full of Flamenco and gipsy rhythms pertinent to the region of Valencia. The original is for piano, it is also known in transcriptions for the guitar, and—obviously—also exists in a version for cello and piano.
To me, this feels like a genuine guitar piece, at least in its fast, virtuosic parts, with its very rapid tone repetitions and intermittent “swept” multi-finger arpeggios as rhythmic cornerstones. In the piano version, the severe challenge is in the instant switching between rapid tone repetition sequences and intermittent, sudden jumping to full-fingered chords, while maintaining the illusion of not interrupting the relentless sequence of repeated notes.
In the virtuosic segments, piano and cello shared the tone repetitions (with pizzicato on the cello). Then, the cello did the tone repetitions with heavy tremolo, while the piano set the accents by playing mainly the sudden chords. With this, the piece retained all of the rhythmic intricacies, but remained just as enthralling. It didn’t have the “switching strain” of throwing the hands into those chords, as in the piano-only version. It’s probably a little easier to play this way, but it actually remained just as attractive: I indeed enjoyed this version more than the “strained” piano-only version.
In the lyrical middle segment, the cello & piano version had the definitive advantage of the cello really being able to sing. In that, this is superior to any other version that I heard so far!
Shchedrin: In the Style of Albéniz
Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin (*1932) wrote “In the Style of Albéniz” in 1973, originally for violin and piano. It is also referred to as “Imitating Albéniz”. In this recital, it logically followed after the piece by Albéniz—however, it does of course not imitate “Asturias”. Some might have expected that from reading the program.
This was just as enthralling as Tsintsadze’s Sachidao and Plyasovaya. At the same time, it was/is totally different, both provoking and fun. It’s a piece with (sort of) jazzy rhythms, but with constant stop-and-go through extreme rubato, sudden (almost explosive, at times) swelling. Equally suddenly it turned restrained again, with extreme, “wavy”, expressive vibrato, and “very emotional glissando” across the range. And there were these mystery moments that brought to mind what I remember as “Kriminal-Tango“. Both excellent and interesting music, for sure!
Also this, like Tsintsadze’s Sachidao, I have heard before, and also with Oxana at the piano: in those earlier performances, she was clearly driving the performance, whereas here, I would claim that both artists equally shared the responsibility, the control—and the fun! One could feel that Oxana was living out this piece. However, she kept herself fully under control, closely coordinating with Narek. It definitely was more than just fun. In this performance, I saw this as provoking, coquettish parody—a true kaleidoscope in sound effects and rhythm.
Massenet: Méditation, from Thaïs, from the Opera Thaïs
Narek pointed out that most people, even musicians, are not aware of what is happening in “Thaïs”. Even less so, people know what the Méditation means in the context of the opera. The cellist briefly outlined the situation in the libretto. It is reassuring to know that he was doing proper research in order to provide an adequate interpretation for this popular piece! In essence, he meant to point out that this music is much more than sheer beauty and serenity.
Indeed, in Narek’s (& Oxana’s) interpretation one could feel a microcosm of emotions, very deep emotionality, ups and downs of thoughts and feelings, culminating in emotional turmoil even—but also with touching, subtle and serene moments when the positive thoughts prevail, especially in the final, liberating outlook. A little opera in itself, and so much deeper, more touching than how this music is usually presented and perceived. Thanks a lot for these insights: a true revelation!
Gaspar Cassadó (1897 – 1966) was a Catalan cellist and composer. The bulk of his oeuvre is for cello (a concerto, solo works, cello & piano, some works for guitar, a piano trio, and 3 string quartets). The program notes call Requiebros his best-known piece, stating that the title means “flirtatious compliments”.
I experienced this music (which I didn’t know beforehand) as very close to Spanish (rather Catalan, most likely) folk music. It does sound familiar / popular. At the same time it is highly artful, at least it was, in the interpretation by these two artists. To me, this performance was a masterpiece in agogics, full of moments loaded with local / momentary tension. There is sudden relaxing / restraining, then it again turned playful, then moody, seemingly serious, thoughtful—just to make it all look like pure pretense in the end, full of irony and disguise—theater, really. It’s brilliant music in its own way. And the performance, the interpretation definitely was brilliant!
A Word on Narek’s Guarneri Cello
How to characterize the sound of Narek’s Guarneri “filius Andreae” cello? Based on this duo recital, I would define it as bright and intensely singing in the descant, full and sonorous in the bass. It was never ever dull, nor excessively dark, devoid of nasal qualities, and very clear through the entire range.
How much of this is the instrument, how much was it Narek’s playing? Hard to say! It takes many months (sometimes years) for an artist to be able to explore the possibilities of a newly acquired instrument, to exploit its full power. This happens by (conscious and sub-conscious) adjusting the playing to the instrument. Some say that the instrument is “adjusting to the artist”. As a scientist I would rather claim that the adjustment happens on the part of the artist.
Encores — Edvard Baghdasaryan: Nocturne
Expectedly, the applause was long and enthusiastic. Narek, as a devoted Armenian, explained that after having played Georgian and Russian music, he could not really end the evening without playing Armenian music, too. About half the pieces after the intermission had been transcriptions of compositions for the violin. So, he would continue on that path. Therefore, the encore was one of his favorite Armenian pieces, a Nocturne (originally for violin) by Edvard A. Baghdarsaryan (Էդուարդ Բաղդասարյան, 1922 – 1987).
Once more we could enjoy the wonderfully singing tone of the Guarneri “filius Andreae” cello. The Nocturne is a serene, mostly reflective piece with a calm, stepping piano accompaniment and gently swaying agogics. In the middle part, the music gradually livens up from the piano part, turns more expressive, evolves into a short, emotional climax, then returns to the initial cantilena. It made me wonder whether this is music that Armenians would actually sing?
In any case, this ended a stellar concert. Thanks, Narek, and thanks, Oxana, for all that excellent music, and for the pleasure to hear the two of you play again!