Narek Hakhnazaryan & Oxana Shevchenko
Beethoven, Shostakovich / Auerbach, Rachmaninoff
Lucerne, Marianischer Saal, 2016-03-06
2016-03-08 — Original posting
2016-10-01 — Brushed up for better readability
The Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan was born 1988 in Yerevan. He took his initial cello lessons at the Sayat Nova Music School in his home town. At age 11, he moved to Moscow with his mother, where he joined the Moscow Conservatory. He was mentored by Mstislav Rostropovich, and obtained an Artist Diploma at the New England Conservatory. Narek Hakhnazaryan has won several prizes (2006: Aram Khachaturian International Competition in Armenia; 2008: First Prize at the Johansen International Competition for Young String Players and First Prize at the International Auditions of the Young Concert Artists). Soon thereafter, he made his debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and at Kennedy Center, Washington, DC.
His career breakthrough came in 2011, when he won the Cello First Prize and Gold Medal at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition. Narek has since pursued a concert career all over the world (Europe, U.S., Russia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand), both as soloist and as chamber musician.
I don’t need to introduce the Kazakh pianist Oxana Shevchenko. I was fortunate enough to attend several concerts of hers over the past 7 months: 2015-08-27 in Lucerne and 2016-11-07 in Zurich (both times with the cellist Christoph Croisé), 2015-12-04 in Lausanne (soloist in the piano concerto by Aloÿs Fornerod), and in a private recital near Zurich on 2016-01-16. Oxana Shevchenko has been accompanying Narek Hakhnazaryan in concert on numerous occasions over the past 8 – 10 years.
Concert & Venue
This was a concert organized by the Lucerne Chamber Music Society (Gesellschaft für Kammermusik Marianischer Saal, Luzern), It was the 5th concert in their “20th Chamber Music Cycle 2015/2016“. The concert venue is called “Marianischer Saal” (Bahnhofstrasse 18, CH-6003 Lucerne), a small venue for an audience of 200 people. It is located in the 4th floor of an ancient building (1729, renovated) near the city center of Lucerne. The building otherwise is housing the Department of Education and Culture within the administration of the Canton of Lucerne. For this concert (starting 5 p.m.), the venue was not sold out, but well-filled.
In the concert, I found the room to be supportive of both instruments. It was acoustically well-balanced and equilibrated (no over-enhancement of bass notes or the like). It’s an excellent venue for chamber music, indeed! The piano was a Steinway A-188, the lid fully open, the cellist was sitting to the left of the piano. The piano tuning showed some minor imperfections.
Beethoven: Cello Sonata No.3 in A major, op.69
For the first composition in the program, the Sonata for Piano and Cello in A major, op.69 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), I have written a detailed posting comparing 12 CD recordings featuring a description of the composition. I’ll therefore refrain from repeating myself here. I’m just adding a list of the movements in op.69:
- Allegro, ma non tanto (2/2)
- Scherzo: Allegro molto (3/4)
- Adagio cantabile (2/4) — Allegro vivace (2/2, alla breve)
How best to describe the two artist’s playing in this popular sonata? Let me first write about the cellist: I found his appearance modest, his playing smooth and unpretentious, often introverted (but not shy), devoid of show effects (not trying to show off a giant bass volume or the like). Narek is perfect in the intonation; his vibrato is natural, largely inconspicuous and well-controlled. Often, he didn’t use vibrato at all: I particularly liked that in the transition to the recapitulation section. Narek Hakhnazaryan plays a modern cello. An instrument maybe not with the biggest tone, but well-balanced, smooth and clean-sounding over the entire range. It has a wonderful, singing descant. Certainly, it is more than adequate for a venue like this one. Hearing Narek’s pizzicati through the piano accompaniment posed no problem at all.
I. Allegro, ma non tanto
Oxana Shevchenko was the perfect accompanist to Narek Hakhnazaryan. Her playing was smooth, unpretentious and unobtrusive. She was not trying to dominate, unless of course the score gives here the primary role. It’s “no frills” playing: no unnecessary arpeggiated articulation, or the like. I enjoyed her perfectly smooth scale in the introduction to the first movement. She is not facing any technical challenges, neither here nor in the subsequent pieces. And she is a very attentive partner: the result was excellent duo playing, overall! I would characterize the first movement in this interpretation as often more intimate than extroverted, nuanced. It was well-balanced playing with subtle dynamics, well-coordinated also in the dramatic parts in development section: actually very well-adapted to the size of the venue.
II. Scherzo: Allegro molto
The next movement is a capricious piece, somewhat moody in the Scherzo parts, rhythmically tricky in the syncopated sections. Narek Hakhnazaryan and Oxana Shevchenko two artists took this at a rather brisk (but not pushed) tempo. It was close to the point where the acciaccaturas were in danger of sounding slightly superficial. But apart from that, both artists appeared to be relaxed, presenting this in a playful manner, not trying to exaggerate the moody humor in this music. In the Trio parts (with the cello playing parallel sixths and thirds) I sometimes wished for a slightly slower tempo: the movement reached its ghastly ending rather soon!
The one detail that I missed was that in the syncopated Scherzo theme in the right hand (tied pairs of crotchets) of the piano part. The composer wrote explicit fingering onto both tied crotchets, i.e., a finger change in these pairs of notes. Many pianists simply ignore this annotation, playing plain syncopated half notes—as did Oxana Shevchenko, as far as I could tell from watching her hands. However, others (especially in historically informed playing) consequently play the second crotchet as an echo, if not even almost as strongly as the first note.
My personal view here is that this may sound slightly odd, but must have been the composer’s intent: why otherwise would he have cared about annotating explicit fingering? The one thing one can add to the pianist’s excuse is that playing these echoes might have required a slightly slower pace.
III. Adagio cantabile — Allegro vivace
The Adagio cantabile introduction to the last movement was simply beautiful, marvelous, intimate, with very subtle & decent agogics. I liked those brief hold-ups at some of the bar lines! The interpretation featured very expressive singing, particularly (of course) by Narek Hakhnazaryan. Despite the agogics, the introduction formed one single, long phrase. The cadenza that leads into the Allegro vivace made me feel like sitting on needles, from all the tension that Narek Hakhnazaryan was building up in that single bar!
The subsequent Allegro vivace was again a tad on the fast side, at the upper tempo limit, close to the point where it became difficult for the listener to follow some the semiquaver figures. Still, the playing remained precise, very virtuosic, even elegant. After all, Beethoven for sure wanted to impress with virtuosity here. One should keep in mind that with the pianos that were available to the composer, such fast playing was actually easier than on a modern concert grand.
The exposition was repeated both in the first as well as in the last movement. Overall, I would call this a very good, “no frills” / “classic” interpretation.
Shostakovich: Preludes for Piano, op.34, arranged for Cello & Piano by Lera Auerbach
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) composed his 24 Preludes for Piano, op.34 in 1932/1933, at the time of his first marriage. This was prior to his first denunciation (as a result of his Opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”). In these Preludes, the composer “digested” both the 24 Préludes, op.28 by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849), as well as (in a way) the two collections of preludes and fugues in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Both these composers covered every major and minor tonality, in the case of Bach this was one of the pioneering tasks, as (then) newer forms of tuning only just allowed playing every tonality without re-tuning (see my earlier posting on this topic). In the case of Chopin this may have been more of a technical “follow-up challenge” (both pianistic as well as for the composer).
Shostakovich took up this idea twice in his career. The first approach was in his 24 Preludes op.34. His second approach was even closer to Bach’s concept of the Well-Tempered Clavier: the 24 Preludes and Fugues, op.87, again through all major and minor tonalities (see my earlier post with a “mini-comparison” on this). Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes op.34 are of course closer to Chopin, pianistically / technically, but in terms of spirit / clarity, I can also see ties to Bach’s preludes. These are short pieces of 0.5 to 3 minutes each. Some are quite atmospheric, particularly in the first half, others feature sparkling virtuosity. All of the Preludes are tonal, but clearly expressions of Shostakovich’s personal style at that time.
Lera Auerbach’s Transcriptions
The NDR (North German Radio / Norddeutscher Rundfunk Hamburg), the New Orleans Friends of Music and three private persons committed the Russian composer Lera Auerbach (*1973) to rework Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes, op.34 for cello and piano. She completed this work in 2008. In this concert, Narek Hakhnazaryan and Oxana Shevchenko selected 11 of the transcribed Preludes, see below.
Lera Auerbach’s approach to the transcription varies from piece to piece. Mostly, she would let the piano start with Shostakovich’s original score, then let the cello participate more and more, often by initially assigning it one of the voices, later digressing into an “illustrative accompaniment”. The cello part often uses tremolando, playing sul ponticello, flageolet, up to whistling in the area of “eternal snow”, beyond the fingerboard. In other pieces, the cello plays the introduction and is then joined by the piano.
In most of the pieces selected here, the composition starts as “more or less pure Shostakovich”, towards the end the tonality is often lost or hidden, the music becomes “mostly Lera Auerbach’s”. However, even where it is hard to sense the (hidden) tonality, the music isn’t hard to understand & enjoy, and it’s very entertaining, too! As these pieces will not be known to many of my readers, I’ll focus on describing the music.
I. Moderato (C major)
In Shostakovich’s original, the beginning of the series feels almost mystical, or religious (reminding me of Pärt or Górecki). Here, the cello joins first with pizzicato, as a canon-like additional voice with double note values, but then adds a humorous, somewhat melancholic component, very melodic, here and there adding a dissonant “third” voice as “Lera Auerbach’s signature”;
II. Allegretto (a minor)
Here, Auerbach doesn’t that much alter the harmony, but she adds additional voices, either in the cello, or (if the cello plays one of Shostakovich’s piano voices) on the piano: a witty, virtuosic piece, much more busy than the original;
IV. Moderato (E minor)
This is a beautiful piece that starts as a 3-voice canon; Auerbach left the first half almost unchanged, having the cello add sonority and warmth in the leading voice. Towards the end, additional voices are added in, enriching the piece, while mostly staying in the given tonality. A beautiful piece!
V. Allegro vivace (D major)
In the original, this is a short, both playful and virtuosic piece with articulative challenges. Lera Auerbach lets the cello take over the virtuosic semiquaver runs in the right hand, making the piece compete with “the flight of the bumblebee”. The piano sets the accents in the accompaniment, sometimes adding in contrapuntal interjections — challenging, but real fun!
VI. Allegretto (B minor)
Here, Auerbach doesn’t just let the cello play one of the voices, but she very much expands the tonality. The cello is often playing two voices, often dissonant. Auerbach is also adding distortions such as playing sul ponticello, or making the cello sound rough, grainy. The piano sets the rhythmic accents, adds color and drive, especially towards the folklorist ending: enthralling!
X. Moderato non troppo (C♯ minor)
Shostakovich’s original is a moody, melancholic piece. Auerbach lets the cello take over the melancholic melody voice, letting the piano accompany discreetly and playfully. Her version is both more expressive and more atmospheric.
XIII. Moderato (F♯ major)
Shostakovich’s original is a calm, but playful piece in folklorist tone, almost reminding of pieces from Schumann’s “Kinderszenen”. Auerbach enriches this prelude both in rhythm, making it full of heavy syncopes, like a moody peasant dance. The enrichment also is in the sound (with tremolando / sul ponticello playing). She is adding an almost tumultuous climax in the second part, prior to an almost ghastly ending. The next prelude was played attacca:
XIV. Adagio (E♭ minor)
The original is a somber, dramatic, dark scene. Auerbach makes the expression even stronger, more dramatic, showing feelings of utter pain and suffering, despair and resignation in the end. It’s a very impressive, even grandiose and emotional piece, indeed, and very demanding in the intonation on the cello; beautiful music!
XV. Allegretto (D♭ major)
Shostakovich’s prelude No.15 is a witty, concise miniature, full of rapid staccati in the right hand, with the melody mostly in the in the left hand. Auerbach leaves the substance of the piece mostly as is, but has the melody played (largely) by the cello. This takes away much of the conciseness in the character, but adds a pleasant folk tone: quite different in character, but equally entertaining.
XVII. Largo (E♭ major)
With this, Shostakovich almost wrote a Chopin Nocturne, or a slow waltz: a beautiful, atmospheric piece! Once more, Lera Auerbach added more of a folk tone, with the cello adding arabesques in wide-spanning, beautifully melancholic, dreamy melody lines. This was an atmospheric highlight of the selection played here!
XXIV. Allegretto (D minor)
Shostakovich concludes with a moody, jumping, virtuosic piece. In Lera Auerbach’s “translation”, this is somewhat slower, heavier, now tomboyish, close to a clumsy peasant dance in the outer parts, very virtuosic for the cello in the climax, full of fun and humor throughout!
Overall, I felt that these preludes are “more Auerbach than Shostakovich”. I do not see them as caricatures, but as (slightly popularizing) enrichment / expansion of the original. They are widening the spectrum of expression and colors, and and they are as much entertaining, worth listening to and enjoyable as Shostakovich’s original! Should that not be obvious from the above comments: even without access to the sheet music, I would claim that the playing of the two artists left very little, if anything to wish for. Both artists for sure had as much fun with this music as the audience!
Rachmaninoff: Cello Sonata in G minor, op.19
The Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, op.19 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) has been discussed at length on the occasion of a short CD comparison in an earlier blog post. I’ll therefore refrain from repeating myself here, but just list the movements:
- Lento, 3/4 (1/4 = 48) — Allegro moderato, 4/4 (1/4 = 112) — Con moto (1/4 = 132) — Moderato (1/4 = 92) — Allegro molto (1/4 = 144)
- Allegro scherzando, 12/8 (3/4 = 88) — 4/4 (3/4 = 1/2) — 12/8 (1/2 = 3/4)
- Andante, 4/4 (1/4 = 46)
- Allegro mosso, 4/4 (1/4 = 144) — Moderato (1/4 = 100) — Tempo I — Meno mosso (1/4 = 92) — Tempo I — Moderato — Più vivo — Meno mosso — Vivace (1/4 = 160)
This is the fourth time that I heard this sonata in concert (see below for reports from previous recitals). It’s one of the top highlights of the entire cello repertoire—not only popular, but also really beautiful music!
I. Lento — Allegro moderato — Con moto — Moderato — Allegro molto
The first movement starts very soft and subtle, with a tone that is “sneaking in” on the cello, followed by long, resting notes that catch the listener’s attention, undisturbed by the very subtle piano accompaniment. Only in bar 8, the volume changes to mf, for the rest of the Lento introduction. At that point, it felt as if Narek Hakhnazaryan produced more volume. Was this Rachmaninoff’s insightful disposition or the fact that the Shostakovich / Auerbach Preludes did (often) not allow the cellist to sing that much (at least not without major “contributions” by the piano)? The tempo in the Allegro moderato was quite fluent (fast, but still natural, not too fast); here (throughout the movement) I really enjoyed the very decent, distinct agogics, the rubato (maybe, some of the “poco rit.” were a bit on the strong side?).
Overall, it was an interpretation with lots of intermediate tones and detail, even with intimate moments. It was careful, with light articulation, sometimes almost sounding like a Kammerspiel. For the most part, Oxana Shevchenko seemed to focus on her role as accompanist. Especially in the exposition (not repeated here) I sometimes wished for a little more contours on the piano part. I think that Rachmaninoff’s disposition takes the piano as at least equal partner, the composer being such an accomplished pianist himself.
It took until well into the development part for the piano to gain more (well-deserved) contours. I know from previous concerts that Oxana Shevchenko can play with more volume and firmness! Maybe even a bigger piano would have been more appropriate for this sonata? But then, of course, it is entirely legitimate to present a more intimate interpretation of this sonata. There isn’t a single, “right” view, and Oxana’s accompaniment was still excellent.
II. Allegro scherzando
The Allegro scherzando is playful, but rhythmically tricky for the cello with its syncopated interjections over Oxana Shevchenko’s concise, both grumbling and marcato accompaniment. Even accomplished cellists resort to playing “defensively” here. None of this with Narek Hakhnazaryan: he played this naturally, relaxed, yet accurately and attentively, not trying to trump in the Scherzo parts. The interpretation remained elegant. It made the listener forget about the technical challenges, never turned bulky in any way. The “Trio” part formed a strong emotional contrast, with its warm, beautifully singing cello line.
What a deep pleasure and joy the Andante was! Already the piano introduction featured clear, lucid melody lines, with wonderfully evolving dynamics and phrasing. The cello turned this definitely into an expressive serenade! The interpretation avoided hard contours, often rather stayed in mf than being too loud. One of the most moving moments to me was after the climax, 9 bars from the end, in the transition to p for the Coda. Here, this was a transition with a little, but essential (un-written) “mini-fermata“: agogics at its best! I found this to be the highlight of this sonata, maybe of the entire evening. The long, absolute silence after this movement indicated that the audience captured the beauty of this music!
IV. Allegro mosso — Moderato — Meno mosso — Più vivo — Vivace
The last movement features a very virtuosic (typical Rachmaninoff) piano part. It was here, especially in the recapitulation, where Oxana Shevchenko could (and did) at last play out strength, virtuosity, and contours. And she did display her excellent command of the keyboard. I particularly liked her ability to expose the hidden secondary voice(s) in the second theme (Moderato). In this movement, it was Narek Hakhnazaryan who periodically added lyrical aspects, but for the most parts, also the cello could expose its volume, the singing tone. It was an excellent, virtuosic interpretation overall, with again excellent duo playing.
Maybe there were some short moments (e.g., the bars preceding to the repeated allargando chords in the piano) where the tension, the drive dropped a tiny bit (or was this just my lack of attention?).
One detail (just a remark, not criticism): Narek Hakhnazaryan played the Meno mosso prior to the final Vivace all pp, as written in the printed score: Steven Isserlis reported from a secure source (his grandfather, a pianist who played this sonata with the dedicatee of the sonata, Anatoliy Brandukov, 1858 – 1930), that after publishing , the composer (verbally) changed that to ff. I have heard both the ff as well as the pp versions. That ff revision indeed seems to make sense to me. But the absence of that revision does by no means diminish the achievement in this excellent interpretation!
In response to the strong applause (with the artist’s strong fan community in the back of the hall, apparently!), Narek Hakhnazaryan announced the “Vocalise“, No.14 from the 14 Romances, op.34 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. That’s a popular, well-known, but not over-used piece. It was excellent, reflective, almost meditative music for closing this intense duo recital, with “endless” melodies and long, very harmonic phrases: another piece of beautiful music. Thanks to the two excellent artists, Narek Hakhnazaryan and Oxana Shevchenko, for this concert experience!
Earlier reviews from concerts featuring the Cello Sonata in G minor, op.19 by Rachmaninoff include
- Wigmore Hall on 2012-04-28, with Han-Na Chang and Finghin Collins
- Zurich Tonhalle on 2014-09-14, with Thomas Grossenbacher and Yuja Wang
- Arosa on 2016-02-25, with Christoph Croisé and Oliver Schnyder (and Meta Fajdiga)