Piano Recital: Joseph-Maurice Weder
Giger / Janáček / Dubugnon / Liszt
Semper-Aula / ETH, Zurich, 2019-01-15
Back to the ETH in Zurich, for another piano recital in the series “Musik an ETH und UZH”, in the venerable Semper-Aula at the ETH in Zurich (the last recital that I attended in this venue was the one with Claire Huangci on 2018-11-20). To me, this recital brought the first encounter with an artist that I haven’t heard previously: the young Swiss pianist Joseph-Maurice Weder, born 1988 in Basel.
The artist presents his biography at his Web site. I don’t want to reproduce that entire text here; let me just quote a short excerpt:
Since launching his international career with winning the prestigious Swiss Ambassador’s Award in London and his debut recital at London’s Wigmore Hall in 2013, Joseph-Maurice Weder has continued to capture the attention of critics and audiences.
The Web site complements this with the usual history of appearances on international concert stages, prominent musicians that he has played chamber music with, as well as statements from critiques and fellow musicians, etc.
It is hard to judge a musician from such biographies—though details of interest include his education:
- starting 2000 at the Music University in Basel, studying with Adrian Oetiker, Bachelor diploma with distinction in 2011
- 2011 – 2015 continued studies with Filippo Gamba (*1968), concluding with concert and soloist diplomas, again with distinction
- Master classes with Dmitry Alexeev (*1947), Piotr Anderszewski (*1969), Louis Lortie (*1959), Gérard Wyss (*1944), Homero Francesch (*1947)
Joseph-Maurice Weder now is principal piano teacher at the High School (Gymnasium) in Aarau. His international appearances include concerts with orchestra and solo recitals, and he is also a keen chamber musician.
Joseph-Maurice Weder’s recital program underwent several changes since the initial announcement some 6 months ago: the initial version called for three contemporary pieces. Two of these remained in the final program, as also the Liszt sonata. The original plan also included Johannes Brahms’ Sonata No.3 in F minor, op.5—clearly overloading the recital. The Brahms Sonata then fell out, along with one of the contemporary pieces. The latter intermediately changed into Schumann’s Kinderszenen, op.15, and the Brahms sonata changed into Janáček’s “Sonata 1.X.1905”. That latter felt rather depressing as recital closure, with or without the motto for the evening, “To Be or Not To Be”.
In the end, and in a final change, the Janáček moved between the two remaining contemporary pieces, while the Liszt sonata formed the second half of the recital:
- Jannik Giger (*1985): Accelerated for Piano (2017)
- Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928): Sonata 1.X.1905
- Richard Dubugnon (*1968): Sonata V, op.82 (2018)
- Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886): Sonata in B minor, S.178
The event sold fairly well in this small venue (capacity: 99 people). The piano—as usual here—was a Steinway model D-274 concert grand in excellent shape. My seat was at the left-side edge of row 3. In order to retain a neutral view, I did not view any videos or listen to audio recordings with the artist, prior to attending this recital. I also did not know the two contemporary pieces in the recital—my comments therefore are mostly descriptive, my qualitative remarks (rating) reflect both the composition, and how well the artist was able to convey the piece to me as a listener. However, without a score, I can’t assess how truthfully the artist reproduced the composer’s intent.
Before he started playing, the artist gave some short explanations on the program (I’m referring to these remarks in the comments below). Too bad he did this while sitting at the piano: even in row 3, he was very hard to understand. I’m sure the people in the back had no clue what he was talking about.
Jannik Giger (*1985): Accelerated for Piano (2017)
For information on the composer’s biography see my earlier report on a concert in Basel, on 2016-09-24. That first encounter had been with an orchestral composition, in itself referring back to a composition by Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945). This now was a short work for piano—and the title very much describes what is happening in the composition.
The acceleration isn’t so much in the tempo, but rather at the level of motifs, short sequences. The composition begins with brief, ascending, crescending, and accelerating figures, short scales, starting in the bass, like rebelling, grumbling exclamations. The momentary acceleration lead into a short fermata on the last note(s), waiting for the next instance / accelerando. The ascending motifs reappear at different levels and forms, soon in parallel, initially just in the lower half of the keyboard. Where initially they end in fermatas on single tones, this grows into pure intervals (thirds, sixths, tenths). Stuttering on single tones, hesitating, then gradually evolving into polyphony, working its way up in complexity—and up on the keyboard.
Throughout the piece, ascending and accelerating figures dominate, altering their shape, alternating with sudden fermatas, rests, holding periods. The complexity gradually evolves, goes through a short, virtuosic climax, but there is no continuous flow over longer periods. Momentarily, the composition evokes piano music by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), an Étude by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) briefly lights up, then the music calms down, “dilutes itself” by lengthening the time between the still accelerating motifs, finally fades away into a terminating staccato.
Joseph-Maurice Weder performed the 5-minute piece from the score—flawlessly, firm, convincingly. I liked the music: it is short, not overly complex, harmonious, witty, multifaceted within this short timescale—an interesting invention! The key element consists of motifs, rather than melodies, themes, or persistent rhythmic structures: the ascending, “grumbling” motif is the only catchy, recurring element. As I don’t have a point-of-reference (nor a score), I can’t really judge the performance. An interesting recital start, nevertheless.
Janáček: Piano Sonata “1 X 1905”
Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928) wrote his Piano Sonata “1 X 1905” in memory of a workman who got killed on 1905-10-01, during manifestations for the Czech University in Brno. It consists of only two movements (5 and 7-8 minutes). The movement titles give the “program” for the sonata:
- Foreboding (Předtucha) – Con moto
- Death (Smrt) – Adagio
In his initial explanations, Joseph-Maurice Weder mentioned Janáček’s sonata as “a piece about life and death”, presumable referring to the title of his recital, “To Be or Not To Be”. However, the way I have experienced this music in the past, that is a gross simplification. Sure, the second movement is about death—directly and explicitly. To claim that the first movement is about life sounds rather odd to me. The title “Foreboding” is totally appropriate, as the music is about premonition of what happens in the second part: death. That music is so full of sad, touching moments: at best it talks about life in the form of poignant, wistful memories, embedded in the alarming sensation of an impending tragedy. Life in the past tense at best!
After a short break for the applause, without further ado, the artist continued with the next piece. The Janáček sonata is not overly complex in its texture, the two movements fill 9 pages in the score. So, I wondered why the pianist kept reading from sheet music (with the subsequent world premiere, that was of course a different story). As long as the result, the outcome is OK, though, I would not mind…
I. Foreboding (Předtucha) – Con moto
The beginning left me somewhat clueless: con moto to me implies movement—maybe not regular and continuous, but still motion. It is true that Janáček’s music is full of hesitations, especially in this sonata—however, these hesitations are composed. In the first bars, Weder seemed to “double this up” with strong rubato, almost in every single bar. Certainly, he expressed the emerging boiling emotions in the exposition (with repeat, thankfully). He did well in the expressive, emotional turmoil, these occasional cries for help, cries of despair.
What I missed, though, was the immense, infinite melancholy and sadness in the calmer segments, the paralyzing scare of the imminent tragedy. In this interpretation, the movement seemed dominated by turmoil. The score has “Ped.” annotations, but the composer wasn’t specific at how long to hold the sustain pedal. It is possible that the acoustics in this small venue contributed to the impression that the use of the sustain pedal was at or slightly above the limit.
II. Death (Smrt) – Adagio
In the principal motif, the punctuations on the demisemiquavers were noticeably softened, almost to triplets, and at the f in bar 7f, the punctuations seemed almost absent. Did the artist deliberately intend to blur the rhythmic structure, keep it nebulous? This persisted throughout the movement.
I could see the artist’s concept, focusing on the overall, big arch over the entire movement, with the strong turmoil at its climax. However, I somehow failed to “enter” the movement, the performance left me “outside”—in this music, which I remember being so infinitely moving, touching: is this not Weder’s world, perhaps?
Dubugnon: Sonata V for solo piano, op.82 (2018)
Richard Dubugnon, born 1968 in Lausanne, grew up in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. He studied history in Montpellier. At the same time he studied composition and playing the double bass. After only two years he was accepted to the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique de Paris. He then moved to London for seven years, where in 1997 he obtained the Master degree in composition from the Royal Academy of Music.
1997 – 2002 Richard Dubugnon was teaching composition at the Purcell School, and in 2003 he moved back to Paris, rapidly gaining reputation as a composer. He has received various prizes for his work. Dubugnon was Composer in Residence with the Orchestre de chambre de Lausanne (2013/2014) and with the Musikkollegium Winterthur (2016/2017).
This information mostly is from the French section of Wikipedia.
The Sonata V for solo piano, op.82 is a new composition, from 2018. The composer dedicated the sonata to Joseph-Maurice Weder. According to the composer’s Website the performance was the “World premiere of Sonata V for solo piano, by Joseph Maurice Weder, commissioned by MusiKa, with the help of Pro Helvetia and SUISA.” Sadly, neither the artist’s introductory explanations, nor the concert handout gave any description on the composition—not even information on the movements and their annotations: the listener remained “in the air”. From the performance, I figured that there are three movements, though I may be mistaken on this.
Movement I: Late Romantic Virtuosity?
In the beginning, rolling tremolos and arpeggiated chords in the bass dominate—a spooky atmosphere. The movement reminds of music by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) and/or Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953). Without being excessively dissonant, there is no recognizable tonality. The rolling, grumbling basses raise up to glittering fireworks in the descant: virtuosic dense, complex textures at the climax, exploiting the full sonority of the concert grand. Romantic chord sequences, intermittent rapid glitter above continuous rolling basses, impressive dynamic waves and volume, cascades of repeated chords over the entire keyboard.
Movement II: Baroque Topoi?
The next segment (attacca) seemed to start with baroque textures, an atonal, highly virtuosic fugato with at least two themes, with occasional, “pure baroque” sprinklings. With the growing technical demand, the music also momentarily reminded of Beethoven’s late polyphony—then seemed to return to the dense, late-romantic artistry of the first part: virtuosic finger acrobatics.
Movement III: Song Without Words?
Again without interruption, the music then turned reflective, even cantabile—a kind of Lied ohne Worte (Song without words), though with an atmosphere that strongly reminded of Préludes by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918). It almost seemed as if the piece were to end on long, resting moderately dissonant chords—though Dubugnon added a short eruption into chord cascades prior to the sudden ending.
Being the dedicatee of the piece, Joseph-Maurice Weder certainly invested considerable care and effort into a technically impressive performance. The music is equally impressive, dramatic, compelling, confirming Dubugnon’s excellent reputation as a composer: more of this, please!
Liszt: Sonata in B minor, S.178
This is not the first time that I listened to the Sonata in B minor, S.178 by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886); for earlier concert performances and information on the sonata see my postings about a recital at ETH Zurich, 2017-02-07, the recital at Lucerne’s Lukaskirche on 2017-11-24, and, more recently, another recital at Lucerne’s Lukaskirche, on 2018-11-21. The sonata has the following tempo annotations and time signatures:
- Lento assai (4/4) —
- Allegro energico (2/2) —
- Grandioso (3/2 — 4/4) —
- Recitativo (3/2 — 2/2) —
- Andante sostenuto (3/4) —
- Quasi Adagio (4/4 — 3/4) —
- Allegro energico (2/2) —
- Più mosso (2/2 — 3/2) —
- Cantando espress., senza slentare (4/4) —
- Stretta quasi Presto —
- Presto —
- Prestissimo (4/4 — 3/2) —
- Andante sostenuto (3/4) —
- Allegro moderato (4/4) —
- Lento assai
As the artist explained in his initial remarks, he regarded Liszt’s sonata to be the center of the program—a work that he has recorded on CD, and which he allegedly has worked with intensely over the past 10 years. Needless to say that this boosted the listener’s expectations.
However—let me say this upfront: I was instantly disappointed to see that Weder performed this from the score. First, this could hardly conform with 10 years of intense work with this music. Weder not only read the score, he also turned the pages himself. Inevitably, this kept parts of the artist’s attention busy with the “logistics”. And it made it impossible perform freely, to control the overall dramaturgy of this monstrous sonata structure (a single movement of around 30 minutes), let alone to take inspiration from the audience, the venue, the acoustics, to allow for any spontaneity!
True, there are notable artists, even with decades of experience, such as the late Sviatoslav Richter (1915 – 1997) in his later years, who gave highly impressive performances with the score—but Richter had somebody turn the pages, and he only did this in reaction to unexpected memory lapses that occurred somewhere at the height of his career. With such rare exceptions, everybody for sure would expect this sonata to be presented by heart—certainly after 10 years (!) of study, but even already at the end of a pianist’s education, in exams, etc.
Sincerely: I tried hard not to let the score reading distract my attention, affect my musical impression from the performance. For a while, I even avoided looking at the pianist, in order to retain a neutral view. To no avail. My primary impressions about the performance: often loud, sometimes superficial in details (rapid figures), devoid of spontaneous, “speaking” rubato / agogics, lacking a compelling narrative in the dramatic development. Not unexpectedly, the artist sometimes seemed caught in the challenges of moment.
No, he did not appear to face major technical obstacles (ignoring a few, occasional, missed keys in the virtuosic segments)—nevertheless, I did not get the impression of a freely shaped interpretation, irrespective of the occasional, elegant gestures with a free hand. Show elements?
Did Weder try to avert any risks of failure by relying on the score? I may be exaggerating slightly here: this might have been a suitable, technical demonstration to pupils, but was nowhere near an enthralling concert performance. The pianist ignored a fundamental rule that other, famous artists have put forth: a truly impressive, moving (and truthful) performance is impossible without the artist taking substantial technical and emotional risks!
Encore 1 — Chopin: Prélude No.6 in B minor, op.28/6, CT 171
As encore, Joseph-Maurice Weder selected a short piece by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849): the Prélude No.6 in B minor (Lento assai) from the 24 Préludes, op.28. Do I need to mention that even for the 26 bars of this short Prélude, the pianist relied on the sheet music? Enough said…