Tamar Beraia, Alina Bercu, Herbert Schuch, Werner Bärtschi
Klavierissimo 2020 — Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 1 – 4

KZO, Wetzikon ZH, 2020-01-28


2020-02-16 — Original posting


Alina Bercu @ Klavierissimo Festival, Wetzikon ZH, 2020-01-28 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Alina Bercu @ Klavierissimo Festival, Wetzikon ZH, 2020-01-28 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Outline


Introduction

The Klavierissimo Festival is an annual event that takes place in the main convention hall of the regional high school (KZO, Kantonsschule Zürcher Oberland) in Wetzikon ZH (close to Zurich). The organizer of the Klavierissimo Festival is Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland.

Naturally, in the year of the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), the Festival featured concerts with works by Beethoven exclusively. Concrete: this year’s festival consisted of 8 piano recitals, featuring all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, all within 5 successive days.

To Go or Not 2 Go?

I pondered whether to visit this Festival. Yes, of course, Beethoven’s piano sonatas are worth hearing at any time. However, 7 or 8 concerts in a week is a lot—plus, I’m already attending a recitals series covering all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, in Zurich. On top of that, I already had promised to review a concert on the day after the Festival. Moreover, there were three string quartet recitals in Lugano in exactly the same days that I would have loved attending, plus I had to decline an invitation to a Schubert piano recital in Winterthur, also the day after the Festival … It all was rather overwhelming, frankly. Particularly because I have set myself the rule of writing about every concert that I go to, whenever possible.

So, What of It?

In the end, I decided to attend the Klavierissimo Festival anyway (dropping Lugano and Winterthur), as this also allowed me to meet one of the artists. However, I decided to make an exception to my own rule, i.e., not to write full reviews. Rather, I would take my camera along and try documenting the recitals with pictures. I did take the scores along anyway, and I took some scarce notes during the recitals, just in case. This would later help me remembering details about the performance.

Below, you find my “review” of the first of the Klavierissimo Beethoven recitals. As indicated above, my “comment” mostly consists of a picture gallery, and of very scarce comments on the performances. In this first report, I’m also presenting the artists, and I include some general remarks. Both these aspects will be missing from the subsequent reports—I will merely refer to this one. Also, my work introductions will be even shorter than in the recent reports—a simple reference to an existing blog post, and/or to Wikipedia will do.


The Festival Concept

As stated, the Festival consisted of 8 recitals on five days. Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas were performed strictly in the order of their opus number. In addition, there were teaching sessions with pupils (“Young Talents”), plus public discussions, neither of which I attended. Here’s the outline of the recital part in this Klavierissimo Festival:

I attended all of these recitals, with the exception of #5, which was performed by the pupils who were receiving lessons during the week before.

The Artists

Each the seven “main” recitals listed above featured 3 – 6 sonatas, as indicated. These were performed by five artists, who would alternate with every sonata. An artist would perform at most two sonatas in any given recital. Therefore, each of the recitals featured between 3 and 5 artists.

Werner Bärtschi

Werner Bärtschi (*1950 in Zurich, see Wikipedia for more information) is the artistic director of Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland, the organizer of the Festival. In past blog posts, I have written about a solo recital with this artist (Zurich, 2018-09-18), and about another concert in Uster (2018-09-21), where he performed both as soloist and as conductor. In this Festival, Werner Bärtschi performed the following sonatas:

  • No.4 in E♭ major, op.7
  • No.10 in G major, op.14/2
  • No.11 in B♭ major, op.22
  • No.13 in E♭ major, op.27/1
  • No.27 in E minor, op.90
  • No.31 in A♭ major, op.110

Tamar Beraia

Tamar Beraia (*1987 in Tbilisi, see also the French Wikipedia) is a Swiss-Georgian pianist. She now resides in Bern, Switzerland. In this Festival, Tamar Beraia performed five of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas:

  • No.1 in F minor, op.2/1
  • No.9 in E major, op.14/1
  • No.17 in D minor, op.31/2 (“The Tempest”)
  • No.24 in F♯ major, op.78 (“à Thérèse“)
  • No.29 in B♭ major, op.106 (“Hammerklavier Sonata”)

Alina Bercu

This Festival was my second encounter with the Romanian pianist Alina Bercu (*1990 in Câmpina, Prahova, see also Wikipedia)—she already performed at last year’s Klavierissimo Festival, on 2019-02-01. This year, we heard her with the following Beethoven Sonatas:

  • No.2 in A major, op.2/2
  • No.7 in D major, op.10/3
  • No.12 in A♭ major, op.26 (“With the Funeral March”)
  • No.21 in C major, op.53 (“Waldstein Sonata”)
  • No.26 in E♭ major, op.81a (“Les Adieux“)
  • No.32 in C minor, op.111

Cristian Budu

It’s the first time that I heard Cristian Budu (a Brazilian pianist with Romanian origin, now living in Berlin, see also the Portuguese Wikipedia) in concert. He has performed at the Klavierissimo Festival 2018, though. This year, he played the Sonatas

  • No.5 in C minor, op.10/1
  • No.8 in C minor, op.13, “Pathétique
  • No.14 in C♯ minor, op.27/2 (“Moonlight Sonata”)
  • No.18 in E♭ major, op.31/3 (“The Hunt”)
  • No.23 in F minor, op.57 (“Appassionata“)
  • No.30 in E major, op.109

Herbert Schuch

Herbert Schuch (*1979 in Timișoara, Romania, see also the German Wikipedia) is a Romanian pianist. Since 1988, the artist lives in Germany. In this year’s Klavierissimo Festival, he performed the following Beethoven Sonatas:

  • No.3 in C major, op.2/3
  • No.6 in F major, op.10/2
  • No.15 in D major, op.28 (“Pastoral”)
  • No.16 in G major, op.31/1
  • No.22 in F major, op.54
  • No.28 in A major, op.101

Program

This first Recital featured Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No.1 up to No.4:

Setting, etc.

Based on earlier concerts in this venue, I took a seat in the right-hand side block, ideal for taking pictures. I did the same in all other recitals, with the one exception of the Recital #4 on Friday, 2020-01-31. The concerts were all well-attended. The venue is actually too big for this type of event (there were many empty seats)—however, with the semi-circular, strongly ascending audience, the hall is ideal for piano recitals, and all seats offer excellent acoustics.


General Remarks

I felt that I need to start with some general comments before writing about these “mixed” Beethoven recitals:

Chronological, Mixed Recitals, a Good Idea?

I see several (potential) problems with the approach chosen in this Festival, i.e., to stick to the “opus chronology”, and to switch to a different artist with every sonata:

The Listener’s Perspective

I don’t categorically say that mixed recitals are a bad idea. However, there are potential shortcomings and pitfalls with this scheme. Primarily, it has to do with the differences in experience and playing level between the artists. Definitely, in that festival, these differences were substantial: young vs. senior & experienced, technically excellent / motivated vs. rather questionable performances (possibly an artist having issues?). That is inevitable and can hardly be avoided: there are only very few people on this planet who are in a position to perform all Beethoven sonatas within 5 days.

The performances in this Festival were definitely riddled with substantial variations in performance level. In my view, this defeated the observation of short term evolutions in Beethoven’s oeuvre—such as in this particular recital. I can say this because I have witnessed a recital with exactly these same sonatas, but one single artist. Here, I felt that the differences in the performance level exceeded or obscured the evolution, the variation in mastership on the part of the composer.

The Artist’s Perspective

For an artist, it is typically easier to perform a full recital, as opposed to participating in a series of recitals with other artist, even if these artists are all friendly and cooperative. There is no “preparative piece” that would allow the artist to gain focus at the beginning. Rather, the artist needs to build that focus rapidly, and again for every sonata (s)he plays.

Then, invariably, this leads to a kind of “competition”, in that listeners will compare performances and levels. For excellent artists in good shape, this may work out to their advantage (and to the disadvantage of others). If an artist performs an entire recital, and it doesn’t go that well, this will be far less obvious to the average listener. And if the listener notices, (s)he may attribute this to the artist having a bad day, the damage is minimal. In the chosen scheme, however, a weaker performance will be far more obvious, and it may make that artist look bad relative to the others. This causes extra stress to the artist.

The Reviewer’s Perspective

If a review is produced from such a mixed recital, and especially, if the reviewer is rating the performances (as I usually do), this even reinforces the “competition aspect”, possibly causing unnecessary upsetting. I’m talking from experience as reviewer. It doesn’t help if all performances are at least “good” (★★★) or better—★★★ always looks worse than ★★★½, let alone ★★★★ or higher. In order to mitigate such irritations, I have decided not to rate some of the performances.

Alternatives?

In the absence of an artist who would be willing and capable to performing all sonatas within five days, I would still find it preferable to have artists perform entire recitals, i.e., to “unmix” the recitals, artist-wise. I see two alternatives for this, and I concede that both have disadvantages, too:

  • Stick with the chronology: how would a pianist feel who “only” gets to play early or “minor” sonatas, relative to others who can perform the big masterworks of the middle and the late periods? It would be hard to get this sorted out. It may work if there were 4 artists for 8 recitals, which would allow every artist to perform one “minor” and one “major” recital.
  • Do away with the chronology, i.e., have a selection of early, middle, and late works in every recital. This is the easiest option to “balance the load”, while giving every artist his/her own recital(s). This defeats observing the composer’s progress from one work to the next. However, it may still be possible to make useful comparisons, i.e., “large scale” correlations across Beethoven’s oeuvre as a whole. This might also offer added benefits, i.e., insights that are hard to grasp across a five-day recital series.

Concert & Review

As indicated above, my performance remarks are scarce: it’s not an in-depth review! Rather, I’m sticking to my sketchy notes, and I may also choose not to comment on some movements. Select any image for a full size view of all pictures.

Sonata No.1 in F minor, op.2/1 — Tamar Beraia

For information on the composition see also earlier posts, such as from a recital on 2019-09-21. The movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio
  4. Prestissimo

The Performance

I. Allegro

As one might guess, the moments of opening a 5-day festival may feel strenuous for the artist. And, as not all of the artists were attending each other’s performances, they all may have felt this way in their first appearances. It may well be because of this that my impression from the first bars were those of a controlled, not overly impulsive performance. However, some of this may also have been in Beethoven’s composition, as the second theme (especially from the f in bar 18 onwards) definitely felt more expressive, had more emphasis. I liked the sf marks in the development part—clear, pronounced, but not excessive, let alone harsh.

II. Adagio

Serene, relaxed, clean, not “overstressing” punctuations. For my taste, in the center of the movement, where the two hands perform 6 vs. 4 and 6 vs. 8 beats, the two voices might have been a little more independent, less “strictly metric”?

III. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio

The tempo choice here is a little tricky, Menuetto being a relaxed dance, Allegretto (“a little joyful”) on the other hand indicating a (perhaps) slightly more forward-moving pace. Tamar Beraia focused on the Menuetto character, which (to me) made this feel rather tamed, a little too comfy? The ff was certainly followed in the Menuetto—however, the ff climax in the Trio (in Beethoven’s writing) felt much softer than expected.

IV. Prestissimo

Good, maybe not extraordinary—maybe lacking a bit of personality? Even though Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) is the dedicatee of the sonatas op.2, I feel that this should be more than “Haydn-like” (and Haydn himself wasn’t really the “Papa Haydn” that many people have in mind!), probably more wild, if not a little ferocious, considering the Prestissimo annotation?

The “mixed recital” setup implies that the artists have little time to get acquainted with the instrument and the acoustics. I felt that the touch in this sonata occasionally was a little hard. Certainly, Tamar Beraia left no doubt that she has no technical issues with the sonata whatsoever—there were no insecurities in her interpretation.

Still, I meant to sense some of the “opening struggle”, particularly in the number of minor mishaps in the last movement, such the rare missed keys in dramatic passages. These were hardly noticeable, though, and did not affect the overall impression. The artist of course performed by heart, and she observed all repeat marks—thanks!

Rating: ★★★


Sonata No.2 in A major, op.2/2 — Alina Bercu

For information on the composition see also earlier posts, such as from a recital on 2019-09-21. The movements:

  1. Allegro vivace
  2. Largo appassionato
  3. Scherzo: Allegretto — Trio
  4. Rondo: Grazioso

The Performance

I. Allegro vivace

I noted the artist’s excellent, subtle agogics—not just the rallentando where the composer asks for it, but also these little hold-ups / ritenuti prior to key notes. In bars 47ff, where the two hands appear to complement each other, forming a continuous quaver line, Alina Bercu made the passage sound like a dialog between the two hands. Her playing had momentum and verve (e.g., the sf accents in the second theme, or at the beginning of the development part), sadly, she did not repeat the exposition (always makes me miss something!). A technically very clean, excellent performance—in a movement that is not devoid of technical challenges! ★★★

II. Largo appassionato

The challenges in this movement are not so much in technique, but in controlling the pace, maintaining the tension, avoiding inadvertent changes in the pace. The first part was excellent in that respect. I did note a slight drop in tension in bars 20ff, and an occasional, ever so slight tendency to accelerate when the music got more intense, and especially in transitions between themes (moments which deserve special attention!). ★★★

III. Scherzo: Allegretto — Trio

Excellent, swift, agile, and again very differentiated in agogics: I noted the deliberate little hold-up in bar 18, with the empty first beat (in both passes, as well as in the da capo instance). In the minore part, I liked the subtle highlighting of “hidden” middle voices. ★★★½

IV. Rondo: Grazioso

Technically excellent—maybe occasionally a little (too) gentle? And again, I noted Alina Bercu’s decent agogics, the excellent staccato: she clearly “owns” this interpretation, and among the movements, this one felt the most personal of the four. ★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★½


Sonata No.3 in C major, op.2/3 — Herbert Schuch

For information on the composition see also earlier posts, such as from a recital on 2019-09-21. The movements:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Adagio
  3. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio
  4. Allegro assai

The Performance

Herbert Schuch did not perform from sheet music, but he did have a little “cheat sheet” in front of him—maybe a sonata that he just learned / “acquired” for this recital?

I. Allegro con brio

Impulsive, even explosive in some of the sf accents—however, fast passages (semiquaver upbeats, etc.) tended to be superficial (lacking rhythmic control?). Decent agogics in general. However, occasionally, Herbert Schuch leaned towards loud, if not gross, coarse playing. To me, that was “too much modern concert grand”—the sound here was far, far away from what Beethoven could possibly have imagined on his fortepiano at the time of the composition.

II. Adagio

Better! Differentiated dynamics and agogics, careful, lyrical, singing. Only the ff passages (bars 26/27, 29/30 32/33, even more so 53/54) felt almost rude, gross (see above).

III. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

Technically excellent, detailed and careful in the articulation.

IV. Allegro assai

Again technically excellent—and of course tailored to the modern concert grand. The semiquaver segment starting in bar 96 felt excessively blurred through sustain pedal—why? I felt the same about the passages bars 217ff and 228ff with the semiquaver figures in the left hand.

Rating: ★★★


Sonata No.4 in E♭ major, op.7 (“Grande Sonate“) — Werner Bärtschi

For information on the composition see also earlier posts, such as from a recital on 2019-09-21. The movements:

  1. Allegro molto e con brio
  2. Largo, con gran espressione
  3. Allegro — Minore — Allegro
  4. Rondo: Poco Allegretto e grazioso

The Performance

In all his performances in this cycle, Werner Bärtschi performed from sheet music. Here, Alina Bercu did the page turning for him.

I. Allegro molto e con brio

Werner Bärtschi’s performance was barely Allegro molto (very joyful), maybe also lacked brio (momentum). Rather, the movement felt considerate, careful especially in the agogics. However, the extra care in motif details were sometimes affecting the flow—as were occasional hesitations and alterations in the tempo. This also caused a loss in tension. It led to a performance that wasn’t really compelling, nor entirely consistent. The experience was further affected by a number of missed keys.

II. Largo, con gran espressione

Far better & more coherent, careful in articulation and pedaling. Clearly the best movement in this performance—not the least because this allowed Werner Bärtschi to play out & exploit the warm, full sonority of the Steinway D-274 (Gebrüder Bachmann, Wetzikon).

III. Allegro — Minore — Allegro

OK, though suffering from some slight tempo instabilities and subtle disruptions in the flow. In my view, the Minore part was somewhat overpedalized. On a fortepiano, using the sustain pedal for entire bars may make sense (there are no pedal annotations), but on the modern grand, this causes excessive blurring, making parts of the movement sound like unstructured murmuring / rumbling.

IV. Rondo: Poco Allegretto e grazioso

Sadly, that movement was again affected by a number of mishaps, such as missed keys, if not failed motifs. Some of the excess pedaling may have been an (inadvertent?) attempt to smoothen the performance. Too bad for this great movement—but the “Grande Sonate” is not only a masterpiece as a composition, but it also includes serious technical challenges. The composer (one of the foremost piano virtuosos of his time) sure was very proud of this masterwork!


Conclusions

A wide variety of performance levels, both between the artists, as well as within individual performances. Nevertheless, even if not everything was perfect—it was an interesting, promising start of the festival!



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