Jonas Iten & Andriy Dragan
Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Ravel

Zurich, St.Anton, 2016-05-25

3-star rating


2016-05-27 — Original posting
2016-10-13 — Brushed up for better readability

Introduction

Concert Venue & Organization

For once, a concert not in one of Zurich’s big venues, but in the festive hall of a church community building (Church Community St.Anton, near Kreuzplatz, south-east of the center of town). This is a venue holding some 120 people, with a spacious podium, certainly big enough for a Steinway grand (model D) and a cellist. The event was organized by the social club “Allegro con brio”. It was somewhat of an unusual concert, the first half being a recital for cello solo, the second half a pure piano recital. “Two half-concerts in one” in a way, though with a duo surprise encore at the end.

The Artists

The first artist that evening was the cellist Jonas Iten, born 1972 in Zug in Central Switzerland. He studied cello (master degree) at the music Conservatory in Winterthur, now part of the ZHdK (Zürcher Hochschule der Künste). Iten then finished his official education in Lucerne, with the soloist diploma. The artist completed his education through a series of master classes in Switzerland and in London. He has since won several prizes, such as from the Rahn Competition in Zurich. Jonas Iten now teaches at the music school in Zug. He is a member of various ensembles, where he also explores Jazz and musical avant-garde. Since 1995 Jonas Iten is solo cellist of the Camerata Zurich, and in 2001 he also became a member of the Festival Strings Lucerne. On top of that, he also plays in chamber music formations.

The other half of the concert featured the pianist Andriy Dragan, born 1986 in Lwiw, Ukraine, where he also started his piano education. He continued his studies at the Music Academy in Basel. Dragan attended numerous master classes. Now he still is inscribed as a student at the International Music Academy in the Principality of Liechtenstein. Andriy Dragan is participating in a variety of chamber music formations. He has been successful in numerous competitions. Now he is pursuing a concert career all over Europe. As part of this he has participated in various festivals.

Notes on the Review Below

I attended that recital partly because I helped the organizer by writing the work descriptions in the handout. So, in the text below, I have taken a “shortcut” by simply translating those work descriptions. The artist’s biography is an excerpt from the information provided by the organizer. In the text below, I marked my comments on the actual recital with light blue background color.

Bach: Cello Suite No.3 in C major, BWV 1009

History, Context

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) composed his Cello Suites (BWV 1007 – 1012) between 1717 and 1723. At that time he was “Capellmeister” (chapel master) in Cöthen. The only available manuscript is a copy of the original text, written by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, carrying the title “6 Suites a Violoncello Solo senza Basso composées par M. J. S. Bach, Maitre de Capelle” (6 Suites for cello solo without bass, composed by Mr. J.S. Bach, Chapel Master). Some researchers started speculating that Anna Magdalena Bach may have been the actual author of the suites. However, this claim met vehement opposition by the vast majority of musicologists.

After Bach’s death, the suites were essentially no longer played. The available score contains very little annotation, such as slurs, bowing instructions. Therefore, people took them for studies. This only changed once the young Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973) ran into an old copy of the suites in an antiquarian bookstore. Casals studied the score and started performing the suites in public. He only recorded them when he was 60. After this pioneering initiative, the suites grew into a central / key position in the entire cello repertoire. Numerous cellists have since recorded them. Today’s concert life is unimaginable without the suites—and be it only in encores, i.e., single movements.

Bach’s Cello Suites

All suites follow the baroque Suite scheme with the four dance movements Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. In the case of the cello suites, these are preceded by a prelude, and supplemented by an “extra”, also sometimes called “Galanteries“:

Prélude — Allemande — Courante — Sarabande — (Galanteries) — Gigue

A pair of dance movements (“Galanteries“, I – II – I) is inserted between the Sarabande and the Gigue: two Menuets in the case of Suites No.1 and 2, two Bourrées in Suites No.3 and 4, and two Gavottes in Suites No.5 and 6. In comparison to the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the cello suites feature a simpler texture. It is adapted to what the cello can do, technically. There are no complex fugues, and double-stops are used only for (scarce) harmonization. This does not mean that all music in the suites is for single voice only. Several movements feature monotonous motifs (sometimes melodic, sometimes arpeggiando, i.e, broken chords), whereby the focal notes in each bar form hidden melodies (hidden polyphony). It pays to watch out for such extra “voices”.

Cello Suite No.3 — The Composition

The Prélude in these suites is the movement that is written with the most formal freedom. In Cello Suite No.3 in C major, BWV 1009, it is in 3/4 time and starts with its characteristic introductory theme with scales in C major. These are taken up again towards the end of the movement. The extended central part of the movement is arpeggiated.

The Allemande is a solid, even-timed dance, though filled with small note values which should not obscure the slow walking pace of the movement. A contrast is formed by the Courante in 3/4 time. This is consequently using a single voice, yet forms a kind of dialog between motifs in high voice and interspersed low-pitch notes.

Originally (in its Spanish origins), the Sarabande was a fast movement in triple time; in baroque time, this has changed into a slow, solemn piece. Here it appears with a richly ornamented top voice and an “accompaniment” / harmonization through multiple-stop chords. The two Bourrées are even-timed (alla breve) and full of momentum / dancing “swing”, whereby the second Bourrée is in G minor. The final Gigue is in triple time (3/8). It’s a fast, virtuosic closure, full of momentum.

The Performance

What a nice way to start a concert, with that descending C major scale! Jonas Iten (who arrived late due to a traffic jam) started his recital engaged, with lots of momentum, a fresh tempo, culminating in a cadenza-like final section in the Prélude. The initial scale facilitates opening such a recital, which otherwise for a lonely cellist might feel shaky.

I. Prélude

Indeed one should not underestimate the challenges in these solo suites: most of the movements sound catchy, clear, maybe even easy, there is no other instrument to be “in tune with”. Yet, the purity of the melody line acts like a magnifying glass for intonation issues, particularly if the artist uses limited vibrato (and the days of the strong & fast vibrato seem to be over, luckily). However, Jonas Iten did well in that Suite: for the first minutes, he probably needed to adjust himself to the acoustics, the venue; the fresh tempo helped the artist and the audience in getting into the music, the intonation was very good, even though initially one might occasionally (rarely) have sensed the inherent difficulties in this composition.

II. Allemande

The artist took the Allemande unusually fast. To me, it was too fast for an Allemande, in my opinion, but it certainly made up for an entertaining movement, showing Jonas Iten’s virtuosity, though also making proper intonation unnecessarily challenging.

III. Courante

The Courante appeared as a fast, swinging, virtuosic movement: delightful music, presented with careful and detailed articulation. In both these movements (as well as later in the Gigue), the second part was not repeated, maybe due to time constraints?

IV. Sarabande

In the Sarabande, extra ornaments appeared already in the first instance of the two repeated parts, richer ornamentation was applied in the second pass: my personal preference would have been to leave the first pass “as is”.

V. Bourrées

Also the second Bourrée offered opportunities for extra ornamentation. I may be overly critical here because I know these Suites inside out? This draws the attention to any extra the artist adds, and so: I have no basic objection against the extra ornaments, even in the first pass (even though we don’t know how this was really handled in baroque times, it is generally now seen as part of baroque practice), but in my view such extra ornaments should have the flavor of being improvised, being added “as the artist feels”. For this, at least in the Bourrée, the ornaments were slightly too predictable, rather than coming as little, pleasant surprises.

VI. Gigue

Finally, the Gigue came with lots of momentum, vivid, expressive, narrative. It was maybe a tad fast, causing occasional hiccups / superficialities in the articulation. However, needless to say: Bach’s wonderful music prevailed over minor imperfections in the live performance.

Bach: Cello Suite No.4 in E♭ major, BWV 1010

The Composition

In Cello Suite No.4 in E♭ major, BWV 1010, the Prélude is in 4/4 time, the first half exclusively consisting of wide-ranging broken chords, without melodic component. These continue in the second part, interrupted by cadenzas featuring lively scales. The following movements follow the scheme of Suite No.3: the structure of the Allemande is slightly simpler. It uses a jumping motif (almost as if taken from the Prélude), linked by a busy series of semiquaver scales and figures. The dominating motif in the Courante is again related to the broken chords from the Prélude. However, the rhythm is enriched through triplet figures and virtuosic semiquaver passages.

Despite the slow tempo in the Sarabande, one can still feel the swinging dance atmosphere, thanks to the punctuated melody line. Among the two Bourrées, the shorter second one stands out: not in tonality, but in its somewhat heavy, almost clumsy peasant-dance atmosphere. The closing Gigue is in 12/8 time, play- and joyful, in 4 x 3/8 rhythm throughout.

The Performance

The tonality in the C major suite is very natural and easy on the cello. In contrast, the E♭ major in the fourth suite is a “beast” not only for the cellist’s left hand, but also because it lacks the extra resonance (and help in intonation) from the empty strings (C-G-D-A). Jonas Iten mastered the intricacies of the tonality without problems. Exceptions were maybe in the Sarabande and in the second part of the Prélude, where I could feel the hardship of playing E♭ major on the cello.

I. Prélude

The opening Prélude was played staccato, except for the lowest notes, forming a slowly evolving bass line, which were played portato. The artist played the semiquaver scales in this movement very freely, like cadenzas. This compensated for some of the inherent stiffness in the movement with its constant broken chords.

II. Allemande

The Allemande is one of the movements with detailed articulation in the notation; Jonas Iten read this with considerable freedom (at a fairly fluent tempo). Was this just to be different? Also, there wasn’t too much dance character in this Allemande.

III. Courante

In the Courante, the ornaments in my opinion were again far too predictable. They also partly obstructed the dance character of this—usually swinging—movement.

IV. Sarabande

The Sarabande was one of the best movements in this interpretation, both in terms of atmosphere and of ornamentation—even though one could often feel how tricky the intonation is in this piece.

V. Bourrées

The Bourrée I was fairly fast, resulting in occasional superficiality in the articulation; the Bourrée II on the other hand profited from a fluent tempo, which avoided some of its clumsy peasant-dance character.

VI. Gigue

Finally, the Gigue was again at the upper limit in terms of tempo, forcing the artist to slow down gradually for some passages.

Summary

Jonas Iten’s performance was very well-received by the audience. I was particularly pleased with the full, well-projecting sound of his cello (Giovanni Pistucci, Naples, 1900). The volume came almost a surprise to me, as I had the impression that it’s an instrument with a relatively small body.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.21 in C major, op.53, “Waldstein

History, Context

In his early piano sonatas, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), gradually detached himself from Joseph Haydn as a role model, developing his own style, with experimental sonatas such as the Sonata in C♯ minor, op.27/2 (“Moonlight” ), which are often free fantasias, written down in the aftermath. Beethoven also progressed towards dramatic sonatas, such as the Sonata in C minor, op.13 (“Pathétique“). In his middle period as composer, Beethoven’s sonata oeuvre culminates in “heroic” masterworks such as the “Waldstein” Sonata (op.53), and the Sonata in F minor, op.57, “Appassionata“.

With these sonatas, the composer wanted to position himself as soloist and piano virtuoso—even though they were dedicated to pupils, friends and patrons. Beethoven made a living by teaching pupils in the houses of nobility, through donations by friendly patrons, through occasional concerts, and by publishing his compositions. Hereby, patrons often provided what now would be called “kickstart financing”, in the form of a generous subscription.

The Composition

Beethoven dedicated his Piano Sonata No.21 in C major, op.53, “Waldstein (completed 1804) to Count Waldstein. It is so well-known that no detailed introduction is needed here. The sonata consists of two major movements, with a short middle movement in-between. The latter can also be seen as mere introduction to the last movement. It even bears the title Introduzione:

  1. Allegro con brio (4/4, this follows the classic sonata movement form, with repeated exposition)
  2. Introduzione: Adagio molto (6/8, F major — a free-form transition / introduction)
  3. Rondo: Allegretto moderato — Prestissimo (2/4)

The Rondo is played attacca, i.e., it follows the Adagio molto without interruption. The last movement in particular is technically very demanding, especially with the relatively heavy action of a modern concert grand. Fortepianos from the time of the composition featured a much lighter action, with greater agility.

The Performance

The second half of the concert was devoted to the piano, with Andriy Dragan.

I. Allegro con brio

The artist showed no insecurities in this sonata, particularly in its first movement, which he articulated very carefully. Maybe some of the pp in the exposition was a tad too loud? Also, I don’t see why the artist accelerated towards the end of the exposition. I suspect he got carried away by the enthralling flow of the music? Occasionally, I felt a slight tendency towards an excess in sustain pedal. Beethoven did not include pedaling instructions for this movement, so the occasional “al fresco” effect was likely intended. Some of the syncopated sf accents were hardly noticeable.

II. Introduzione: Adagio molto

In the slow movement, I definitely felt some excess use of the sustain pedal, obscuring some of the staccati. This also sometimes shortened rests, hereby giving away parts of the tension. I wished for a slower tempo, also for letting tension build up during general rests. Giving in to the suspense by moving forward defeats some of that tension to the listener.

III. Rondo: Allegretto moderato — Prestissimo

In the last movement, however, Beethoven added extensive pedaling instructions, as he wanted the sustain pedal to be down for major parts of the movement, creating a deliberate “al fresco blurring” (though on historical instruments this is hardly comparable to how it sounds on  modern Steinway D).

As mentioned above, one should not underestimate this sonata—particularly the Rondo. Next to the upcoming Ravel (see below), this music may sound easy. However, Beethoven was one of the leading virtuosi on the piano at his time. This could be felt by the number of little mishaps, and by the fact that interpretation did not always feel entirely free. There was an occasional loss of momentum. I found it a pity that Andriy Dragan accelerated prior to the fermata that precedes the “attacca subito il Prestissimo” at the end of the movement (there is no accelerando mark in the score), which defeated the build-up of tension prior to the final part.

Schubert: Impromptu No.3 in G♭ major, D.899

History, Context

Compared to Beethoven, Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) had much more of a struggle in making a living: he did not concertize in big venues; he gave music lessons, but primarily, he worked as teacher in primary school for major parts of his life. His circle of friends was not a lucrative source of income, but at least if provided an environment that stimulated his productivity in composing Lieder and chamber music. Schubert wrote his big piano sonatas in the last years of his life only. Also the eight Impromptus were written in 1827 only. Among the latter, only four appeared in print during the composer’s life time, as op.90. The others were published after Schubert’s death only, as op.142.

The Impromptu No.3 in G♭ major from the Four Impromptus op.90, D.899 is written in 4/2 time; in the first printed edition, 30 years later, the editor transposed the work to G major and changed it to 4/4 time, presumably with the hope for bigger commercial success. Today, most pianists prefer the original version. It’s a very lyrical composition—really a “Lied ohne Worte“, with its wonderful, longing and melancholic cantilena. For a short period in the middle part, the atmosphere turns more dramatic, only to return to the contemplative Lied atmosphere again very soon.

The Performance

Andriy Dragan‘s interpretation really felt like a Lied ohne Worte. It sounded serene, lucid, and it explored the nice sonority of the Steinway D. Maybe it was sometimes a bit harmless for one of Schubert’s late compositions. I expected a more contemplative, thoughtful piece, maybe a tad slower, more reflective, exposing the hidden tragic aspects in this piece. Still, the playing was careful in articulation, dynamics and agogics, with well-controlled keyboard touch, really showing the beauty of Schubert’s music!

Ravel: Miroirs — 4. “Alborada del gracioso”

History, Context

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) composed his “Miroirs1905. This is a set of five technically highly demanding pieces. Many consider No.4, “Alborada del gracioso” (“The fool’s morning song”) the most challenging for the artist. It features rapid tone repetitions, intricate rhythms, and slick, almost constant staccato articulation. The latter mercilessly reveals any rhythmic insecurity or lack of tempo control. But the strong dynamic contrasts and the glissandi make up for a very catchy and entertaining piece—despite its frequent dissonances.

The Performance

Pianists obviously know about the challenges in this piece. Therefore this was definitely well-prepared! To me, it was clearly the best piano performance in this recital. I found it to be virtuosic, expressive, and entertaining—sparkling fireworks!

Conclusion, Encore

The conclusion of the concert—and a reward for the lively applause on the last piece above—finally was a duo for cello and piano. The artists played an arrangement of Le Grand Tango by Astor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992). This is a very nice tango in popular style, written by a true master of this type of music—and very well played by the two artists.

Interestingly—and somewhat sadly—the cello (very expressively and emotionally played) appeared to dominate over the piano (contrary to my expectation!), which weakened the rhythmic foundation and limited the effect of the syncopated rhythms: at least in the first part, the partnership appeared quite uneven. Only towards the end, where the accompaniment turns more jazzy, the piano seemed to “wake up to the level of the cello”. I suspect that this was an unfortunate consequence of the pianist’s late arrival, making it impossible to fine-tune the dynamics in this piece. However, this wasn’t that big of an issue, in that Piazzolla’s music did not fail to enthrall and impress the audience: it was an excellent conclusion for the concert—and extremely entertaining overall!



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