Konstantin Scherbakov
Beethoven Sonata Cycle, Recital #1

Aula, Alte Kantonsschule, Zurich, 2019-09-21

4.5-star rating

2019-09-23 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

The 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) is approaching rapidly (2020-12-16 or 2020-12-17), and it is foreseeable that there will be myriads of events (concerts, festivals, etc.) honoring (or profiting from) that celebration. Undoubtedly, there will also be tons of recordings brought to the market, or recovered from the archives on this occasion.

This is not necessarily a bad thing—quite to the contrary: as a listener and consumer, one will be able to select from a wealth of concerts, recordings and literature, and without any doubt, there will be many highlights from present and past, including numerous discoveries and rediscoveries, new recordings, as well as restored past treasures to explore, with known, as well as lesser known, world famous, as well as emerging artists and talents.

In fact, the celebrations and associated events have already started, over one year prior to Beethoven’s birthday. We will see performances of entire cycles, such as all of Beethoven’s symphonies, or all of his string quartets. The same holds true for Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. There, the sheer volume typically makes a pianist spread a complete sonata cycle over many months. And so, we have seen several pianists start such cycles already this year (e.e., at the Lucerne Festival).

Konstantin Scherbakov

The Russian-Swiss pianist Konstantin Scherbakov (born 1963 in Barnaul, Siberia) is not only an excellent pianist, but also a highly successful teacher at the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts, Zürcher Hochschule der Künste). Since 1992, Konstantin Scherbakov lives in Switzerland, though he spends a lot of time also in Russia and in Spain. Scherbakov’s most successful pupil is Yulianna Avdeeva (*1985) with her phenomenal success at the 2010 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw—which is what originally drew my attention to Konstantin Scherbakov. I have since attended a fair number of recitals with this artist (see my last review from the recital on 2019-05-21). I also have many of his recordings on CD, some of which I have discussed in my blog.

To me, Konstantin Scherbakov has several key strengths. He of course is intimately familiar with the “big Russian repertoire”: he was the winner of the first Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition in 1983, among other pieces, he then performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, op.40. A key aspect in Scherbakov’s playing is his technical mastership, which allows him to tackle and master the most difficult parts of the piano repertoire: he is about to complete his recording of the entire solo piano oeuvre by Leopold Godowsky (1870 – 1938), and he has performed and recorded all of Beethoven’s Symphonies, transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886).

Konstantin Scherbakov and Beethoven

However, in his recitals, Konstantin Scherbakov also fascinates with his excellent performances of Beethoven’s original piano works. In this, he does not aim for glittery virtuosity and flashy perfection, but he moves with deep musicality, his warm tone, and well-rounded articulation and phrasing.

And I’m delighted to learn that he plans on recording all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas by fall 2020. In preparation for this recording, the artist is presenting the 32 sonatas in strict chronological (opus number) sequence, in 8 solo recitals (3 – 5 sonatas each) between this concert and the last one in May 2020 (see the list at the bottom). In the first recital discussed here, Scherbakov presented the three early sonatas op.2, as well as the Grande Sonate in E♭ major, op.7:

How to Walk Through Beethoven’s Sonatas?

The chronological sequence (by opus number) has the advantage of allowing to follow Beethoven’s evolution as a composer. Other pianists may try mixing sonatas from different periods in Beethoven’s oeuvre. That would appear to give a bigger variety, for a richer experience in every single recital. However, it also would make it more difficult to appreciate the value and the quality in the early sonatas, i.e., it tends to belittle the early works. Conversely, it may make the late sonatas harder to grasp and understand.

Not that the rehearsal nature of these concerts implies that one cannot and should not take my comments as full anticipation of a possible review of the upcoming CD release of Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation, due out in around a year from now.


Setting and Venue

This recital is part of the concert offering by Musik an ETHZ und UZH (Music at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and at the University of Zurich). Typically, the concerts in their series occur either in the venerable Semper-Aula of the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), or in the Aula of the University of Zurich (UZH). Due to the absence of sponsoring, the Beethoven recitals take place in the small Aula of the Alte Kantonsschule Zürich (Rämistraße 59, 8001 Zürich). That is a building from 1839 – 1842, built for and shared by the University of Zurich, as well as the old regional high school (Kantonsschule). After careful restoration, the building is now used by the University of Zurich exclusively.

The small Aula is a room that offering around 100 seats, i.e., it is of similar size as the Semper-Aula at the ETH, though more compact, more sqare-shaped. Walls and ceiling feature rich, beautifully restored, classicist decoration (see the pictures above). The walls have been equipped with inconspicuous sound panels that void over-reverberating acoustics. And indeed, this concert proved that this room is ideal for (small-scale) piano recitals. The small Aula is in the first floor and faces south-west, i.e., towards the Kunsthaus (Zurich Museum of Arts) and the lake.

Scherbakov’s Beethoven Sonata Recitals in this Blog

Eight piano recitals, all by the same artist, in the same venue, one and the same composer throughout: that bears the danger of feeling repetitive, i.e., monotonous. To avoid this:

  • I have decided to give the above, detailed introduction only in this first post / review. Future reviews from the series will refer to this one, with a minimal introduction only.
  • As the repertoire is all very well-known, I’ll limit work descriptions to an absolute minimum.
  • The performance reviews originate from notes that I take during the recitals. I’ll try to be terse and avoiding duplication there, too—time will tell how well I succeed in this.

Concert and Review

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.1 in F minor, op.2/1

In 1795, Beethoven wrote his second “opus” (official, published work), consisting of three piano sonatas, which he dedicated to Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809). The first one is in F minor and features the following four movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio
  3. Menuetto: AllegrettoTrio
  4. Prestissimo

The Performance

I. Allegro

Striking right at the beginning: the careful, considerate tempo, never hasted, not storming forward or pushing as in many Sturm und Drang views that might view Beethoven’s early sonatas in succession to early classics. The artist is equally careful and detailed in dynamics, agogics, expression, articulation and phrasing. Well-rounded and expressive, never harsh. And of course, Konstantin Scherbakov observed the repeat in the exposition, he even repeated the second part of this opening movement, which reflects how close this sonata is to those by Joseph Haydn. An excellent start!
★★★★★

II. Adagio

Pensive, considerate, contemplative, very rich in agogic play, dynamics and expressive detail, though never even hinting at larmoyance or sadness. I noted how the artist held back the pace, expanded motifs at the peak of a phrase (using agogics rather than excessive dynamics, or agogics to help dynamics). Nothing is hasted also here, everything is shaped down to the details, the little motifs; never there was a loss in intensity. And this calm in the left hand, e.g., in bars 36ff… an exemplary performance!
★★★★★

III. Menuetto: AllegrettoTrio

Also here, as expected: no rushing, no pushing in this minuet. Rather, the pianist shaped each of the repeated segments (both in the Menuetto and in the Trio) into a compelling, dramatic arch. The pace in the Trio was slightly more fluent.
★★★★½

IV. Prestissimo

Powerful in the f outbreaks, strong in dynamic contrasts, rich in agogics. I’m a staunch fan of performances on historic instruments (particularly fortepianos); while in the first movements I did not miss much in terms of historic sound, here, I missed much of the richness in colors, the wildness, particularly in the left hand—especially in a Prestissimo, the modern piano simply can’t compete here—it smoothens and equalizes the rapid figures. However, I can’t blame this on the artist: he used the instrument to the best of its capabilities. I did note, though, that Konstantin Scherbakov operated the sustain pedal very sparingly—merely to enhance the resonance on longer notes, not to produce a legato, and not to try generating / exploiting the sound of a modern, huge concert grand. Yet, in his hands, the piano is singing beautifully!
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.2 in A major, op.2/2

Within Beethoven’s op.2, the second sonata is in A major and also features four movements:

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

The Performance

I. Allegro vivace

Here now, Konstantin Scherbakov’s playing was more moving forward (as appropriate for this movement). I noted that both themes were kept light in the articulation, agile in agogics and dynamics. The intermediate phrases, though (such as the transition to the second theme, or the closing phrase in the exposition), the pianist consciously and noticeably was holding back in pace and dynamics, picking up the fast pace again at the beginning of each theme—so good for the listener to be able to “read” the structure! I also note the careful balance between the voices.

This was not the only movement in this recital where often I did not get the impression of a performance that was consciously circled off and perfected down to the smallest of details. Rather, there were moments where the interpretation felt as if it was shaped out of the spirit of the moment—without ever feeling arbitrary, of course.
★★★★½

II. Largo appassionato

So careful and diligent in articulation, agogics and dynamics, in building up sonority through dramatic arches, keeping pace (not stubbornly, of course) and tension. Only towards the end, at the transition to the closing phrase / coda, the artist allowed for a subtle, slight and momentary acceleration, before turning into the serene ending. Another masterpiece and highlight!
★★★★★

III. Scherzo: Allegretto — Trio

In the Scherzo: a rapid interplay between the jolly, light semiquaver motifs and the staccato crotchets that close each phrase, where Konstantin Scherbakov was almost unnoticeably holding back the pace. And more moments with distinct (and interesting) ex improviso flavor—e.g., in rests that were taken a tiny bit longer than expected.

The Trio followed the Scherzo in the pace, though started gently, also in the sf accents, the only / main highlight being the one prior to return to the Scherzo part.
★★★★

IV. Rondo: Grazioso

Also here, I noted the careful, diligent agogics at the end of the Rondo theme. And again, occasional moments with an improvisatory note.
★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.3 in C major, op.2/3

Finally, the third, longest, and most virtuosic sonata in op.2 is in C major. It again has four movements:

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

The Performance

After the intermission (less than 15 minutes), Konstantin Scherbakov took his place at the piano again, as calm and relaxed as during the entire first half: there never appears to be any tension in his body, arms, forearms, hands, even fingers. Sometimes, one could get the impression that is just resting his hands on the keyboard. He shows minimal body movements, as well as minimal facial mimics while playing: he never seeks eye contact with the audience. Rather, he either looks onto the keyboard, into the instrument, or up into the open lid—and I’m pretty sure that none of this is conscious: his mind is busy unfolding and re-assembling the memorized music, shaping it into the bigger picture of an interpretation.

Actually, if there is anything nervous or a tad restless in Konstantin Scherbakov’s playing, then it’s (occasionally) the tip of his feet, as they hint at operating the pedals…

I. Allegro con brio

Here now, the tempo is fairly fluent (full of brio, obviously), moving forward: the music is full of verve, momentum. As in the previous sonatas, Konstantin Scherbakov was holding back pace and dynamics in the transitions, the more lyrical quaver segments between the themes—just to take up the momentum, the drive again and instantly at the next f or ff outbreak.

In the multi-faceted development segment, there are even more such transitions, and Konstantin Scherbakov’s “improvising / extemporizing attitude”, the changes between “push” and “pull” made the listener (well, me, at least) feel as if the composer sat at the piano, playing with thoughts and ideas, mixing them into a stream of music “quasi una fantasia”, almost at random, finally culminating in a veritable cadenza. Wild music, and no attempt to tame it, or to make it feel like an orderly construct, an artful, well-thought-out movement in whatever formal principle. An excellent interpretation in how it reveals the unruly nature of this movement.
★★★★½

II. Adagio

The introductory 10 bars were hesitant, faltering between the short, half-bar motifs—each of which was beautifully singing with its own agogics, up to the next rest. The subsequent section with the demisemiquaver motifs is more fluent, flowing (from the composition), and forming a long arch, growing more and more expressive—and then gradually seems to lose its goal, delving in fantasy, meandering in search of a goal, seemingly losing track (or itself)—the composer’s mind seeking, improvising, more and more subtle, gentle—a short, indignant or angry exclamation (as if the composer had been upset about the movement—seemingly—leading nowhere), then calming down again (or resigning?)… brilliant, in Konstantin Scherbakov’s reproduction!
★★★★★

III. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

Some artists are storming forward in this movement—Konstantin Scherbakov takes it at a controlled pace, rather shaping the dynamics carefully. For once, the Trio is more wild and unruly in its rolling quaver triplets than the Scherzo. In the latter, the pianist avoided over-accentuating the sf syncopes.
★★★★

IV. Allegro assai

Virtuosic, brilliant, both as composition, as well as performance! A multi-faceted movement, often feeling like vivid, agitated discourse (if not sometimes a fight) between contrasting characters—and yet, the artist manages to shape compelling dramatic arches: excellent!
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.4 in E♭ major, op.7 (“Grande Sonate“)

The E♭ major sonata, op.7 was written one year after op.2. It is referred to as Grande Sonate and indeed is a huge step forward / upward in terms of complexity and artfulness. Beethoven dedicated it to his pupil, Countess Babette Keglevics (Ana Luiza Barbara Keglević, 1780 – 1813). The movements are

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

The Performance

I. Allegro molto e con brio

Konstantin Scherbakov didn’t spend much time contemplating after sitting down (far less than with the sonatas in op.2), beginning almost instantly. And it didn’t take long for the attentive listener to realize the giant leap between the sonatas op.2 and this one—only one year apart: a sheer miracle! After the unruly and wild movements in op.2, this one shines as a mature masterwork. Of course, it’s still the same composer, and so, also this sonata is alternating between serene segments and eruptions to big gestures.
★★★★½

II. Largo, con gran espressione

And again, the slow movement is the true highlight: Calm, with almost ghastly pauses, silence—little eternities, really! A miracle movement with intellectual serenity—”great philosophical thoughts”, a pondering mind. And then—are the composer’s thoughts wandering out into nature, with these intermittent bird calls? A movement like a big question mark—and an open ending, holding off…
★★★★★

III. Allegro — Minore — Allegro

No, after that open ending, there can’t be any lightweight, carefree continuation! The beginning seems to carry on thoughtfully with the Largo‘s hesitations—up to the sudden impetus in bar 16. And after the double bar, the movement appears to move towards serenity of mind & souls. However, also here, there are sudden pauses, new hesitations, and contrasting “minute rebelling moments”.

Beethoven refrained from using a true Scherzo movement (let alone a Menuetto!). Similarly, there is no Trio, but a Minore segment filled with rolling, grumbling quaver triplets: not a serene middle-segment, no resolution; the Allegro brings back the pauses, the hesitations.

Within this sonata, maybe over the entire recital, this Minore part is the one which would have profited the most from the use of a fortepiano: the modern piano comes nowhere near the specific sound, the richness of colors if the instruments at Beethoven’s time.
★★★★½

IV. Rondo: Poco Allegretto e grazioso

Also the final movement is full of lively agogics, an interplay between push and pull, all within large, dramatic gestures and waves, up to those rebelling, angrily rolling demisemiquavers. And then, these transitions back into, and again out of the Rondo theme—little miracles, masterful! I must say: in this movement, I did not miss the fortepiano at all!
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Conclusions

There were some free seats on the audience: those who were absent missed out on the rare opportunity to attend and witness the evolution of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in excellent performances. Konstantin Scherbakov’s moving interpretation of Beethoven’s sonata oeuvre is something that one should not leave out!


The Upcoming Recitals in This Series

All remaining recitals of Konstantin Scherbakov’s Beethoven Sonata series (all of which I plan on attending) will take place in the same venue, all on Saturday, starting at 11:30 a.m.:

  • 2019-10-26Recital II: Piano Sonatas #5 – #8
    • No.5 in C minor, op.10/1
    • No.6 in F major, op.10/2
    • No.7 in D major, op.10/3
    • No.8 in C minor, op.13, “Pathétique
  • 2019-11-23Recital III: Piano Sonatas #9 – #12
    • No.9 in E major, op.14/1
    • No.10 in G major, op.14/2
    • No.11 in B♭ major, op.22
    • No.12 in A♭ major, op.26 (“With the Funeral March”)
  • 2019-12-21Recital IV: Piano Sonatas #13 – #16
    • No.13 in E♭ major, op.27/1
    • No.14 in C♯ minor, op.27/2 (“Moonlight Sonata”)
    • No.15 in D major, op.28 (“Pastoral”)
    • No.16 in G major, op.31/1
  • 2020-01-25Recital V: Piano Sonatas #17 – #21
    • No.17 in D minor, op.31/2 (“The Storm”)
    • No.18 in E♭ major, op.31/3
    • No.19 in G minor, op.49/1
    • No.20 in G major, op.49/2
    • No.21 in C major, op.53 (“Waldstein Sonata”)
  • 2020-03-21Recital VI: Piano Sonatas #22 – #26
    • No.22 in F major, op.54
    • No.23 in F minor, op.57 (“Appassionata“)
    • No.24 in F♯ major, op.78
    • No.25 in G major, op.79
    • No.26 in E♭ major, op.81a (“Les Adieux“)
  • 2020-04-25Recital VII: Piano Sonatas #27 – #29
    • No.27 in E minor, op.90
    • No.28 in A major, op.101
    • No.29 in B♭ major, op.106 (“Hammerklavier Sonata”)
  • 2020-05-23Recital VIII: Piano Sonatas #30 – #32
    • No.30 in E major, op.109
    • No.31 in A♭ major, op.110
    • No.32 in C minor, op.111


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