Konstantin Scherbakov
Beethoven Sonata Cycle, Recital #2

Aula, Alte Kantonsschule, Zurich, 2019-10-26

4.5-star rating

2019-10-30 — Original posting


Konstantin Scherbakov @ Zurich University, 2019-05-21 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Konstantin Scherbakov @ Zurich University, 2019-05-21 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Outline


Introduction

On 2019-09-21, the Russian-Swiss pianist Konstantin Scherbakov (born 1963 in Barnaul, Siberia) started his series of eight recitals covering all piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), on the occasion of the composer’s 250th birthday in December 2020. These recitals are organized by Musik an ETHZ und UZH (Music at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and at the University of Zurich). The performances take place in the small Aula of the Alte Kantonsschule Zürich (Rämistraße 59, 8001 Zürich), a beautifully restored, compact (rectangular) hall in the center of Zurich, ideal for solo recitals and chamber music events.

For general information, as well as additional details on venue, context, and artist see my report on the first of these recitals on 2019-09-21. At the bottom of this posting you find references (dates and program) of upcoming recitals in the series, as well as the same information (including links to the corresponding concert reports) on past recitals within this series of sonata recitals.


Program

Most of these Beethoven recitals feature 4 (3 – 5) sonatas, see the lists in the bottom. In this recital, the program listed the following piano sonatas:


Concert and Review

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.5 in C minor, op.10/1

The composer wrote the three sonatas op.10 in the years 1796 – 1798. Beethoven dedicated these works to Anna Margarete von Browne, the wife of one of Beethoven’s patrons, a Russian diplomat in Vienna. The first sonata in C minor has only three movements:

  1. Allegro molto e con brio
  2. Adagio molto
  3. Finale: Prestissimo

The Performance

As indicated above, I see this concert report (as well as the upcoming ones) as a continuation of the one on the first recital. So, in order to avoid duplication, I’ll try limiting the text to specifics of the sonatas in this recital. This may make the text look somewhat sketchy.

I. Allegro molto e con brio

Compared to a performance on historic instruments, this was definitely a “modern” performance. It was virile, “strong”, well-rounded in the articulation (“classic” in the best sense of the word) and in the big dynamic arches. Thereby, the modern piano reinforced / emphasized the legato aspects of the articulation, the singing in motifs / cantilenas. Especially of course in the second theme, starting in bar 32.

One detail caught my attention: in bar 192, after the fp mark in the preceding bar (left hand only?), and again in bar 196, there was a notable accent / emphasis in the first crotchet in motif in the right hand (ascending sixth). In my memory from other performances this sounded almost like an upbeat. However, the two crotchets are on beats 2 and 3, so it’s not an upbeat! Plus, the first note at the same time is the first half note of the second voice, which explains the “extra weight”.
★★★★½

II. Adagio molto

The right hand is rich in ornamentation. This makes it tempting to neglect the small notes, and to focus on the melody line. Here, however, right from the first bar, I found it remarkable how much care Konstantin Scherbakov devoted to the “small” notes, starting with the turns in bars 1 and 3. Nothing was superficial, none of the turns, the trills, the acciaccaturas, the punctuations, the demisemiquaver and hemidemisemiquaver passages. Quite to the contrary! The right hand was so rich and detailed in dynamic and agogic shaping—amazing!

At the same time, the accompaniment in the left hand was kept extremely subtle, caring. And it was typically one or two dynamic levels below the right hand, often all pp . The dominant, expressive, actively shaping (“male”??) right hand versus the supportive, gentle, soft (“female”??) left hand.

In the transition to the coda (up to bar 91), the artist did an artful ritardando. Thereafter, the coda turned into an infinitely gentle, caring romance, filled with memories. In its character, it was somewhat melancholic, finally retracting into the finest pp and below. So beautiful and touching!
★★★★★

III. Finale: Prestissimo

A gripping performance, with attack, truly prestissimo, pulling forward. However, there was no hasting, nor rushing, but always diligent, rich agogics—exemplary! While listening to this performance, the term “titanic premonitions” passed my mind. I also liked how Konstantin Scherbakov made the transition to the closing bars (bars 105 — 113. In particular the first two of these bars, up to the first fermata) sounded like a cadenza. In sum, a masterful transition.

I have mentioned artist’s restricted use of the sustain pedal before. This could be observed here as well. Konstantin Scherbakov articulates with the fingers, not with the pedal. The latter is merely used selectively, to enhance the sonority. Consequently, one rarely sees the pedal fully depressed. Often, if not most of the time, Konstantin Scherbakov merely subtly seems to caress the pedal with the often nervous tip of his foot, depressing it by millimeters only. Needless to say that I was delighted to see how the artist avoided “burying Beethoven in the grand sonority of the modern piano”—especially in view of the characteristics, the sonority of historic instruments (fortepianos).
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.6 in F major, op.10/2

Just like the first one, also the second sonata in op.10, the Sonata No.6 in F major, has only three movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Allegretto
  3. Presto

The Performance

The artist just briefly accepted the applause, then continued on to the next sonata.

I. Allegro

This movement (the entire sonata?) struck me as the most Mozartian in character among the ones in the series so far. Sure, the pianistic textures are Beethovenian. However, the composer’s character appeared mostly veiled, momentarily flashing up. And it sounded like mere premonitions of things to come. No, it was not Rococo style. However, despite the modern instrument, the music sounded delicate, carefully articulated (and equally subtle / refined in the pedaling, see above), as usual. The repeat of the exposition, especially the beginning, appeared even more gentle—a reflection of (or a comment on) the first pass?

In the development part, I noted the subtle switching in the role characters of the two hands. Also, the distinct change in atmosphere with the D major insert (bars 118ff) was not a surprise, but a gentle glimpse into a serene scenery. Konstantin Scherbakov highlighted the melodic aspects of the movement, down to smallest motifs. And he observed both repeats.
★★★★½

II. Allegretto

Artful changes in character, from the menacing F minor beginning to warmth in the first 8 bars (repeated), from the growing urge in the right-hand dialog / canon to earnest, reflective mood in the second F minor segment (also repeated, of course).

The central segment is in contrasting D♭ major. It starts as a Lied, almost like a folk song. Later, though, it evolves into a dialog with the contrasting bass voice. It’s an interplay between determined / authoritative and lyrical / gentle / reflective characters (almost like Robert Schumann’s Eusebius and Florestan characters!). The transition back to F minor had tension, plasticity, almost like parts of a stage drama: excellent!
★★★★★

III. Presto

Among all the movements in the early sonatas that we heard in the first two recitals so far, this (to me) seemed the one which would have profited the most from a performance on a historic fortepiano. Yes, Konstantin Scherbakov’s playing was fast, agile—but the heavier, modern piano mechanics defeat some of the light, witty character of this piece. They add too much blurring to the fast semiquaver figures. It almost made them sound superficial.

Beethoven wrote repeat signs not only around the exposition, but also for the longer second part (development & recap). Was it just my impression that for a very short moment during the final fermata, Konstantin Scherbakov was contemplating whether he should do the second repeat, but then decided against it?? In view of the somewhat inadequate means / instrument, I can support that decision. It was the only repeat that Konstantin Scherbakov omitted in this recital.
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.7 in D major, op.10/3

The last one of the three sonatas op.10 returns to a four-movement structure:

  1. Presto
  2. Largo e mesto
  3. Menuetto: Allegro — Trio
  4. Rondo: Allegro

The Performance

I. Presto

Here, Konstantin Scherbakov did not “dissect” the phrases with dry staccato or highlighting meticulous details in Beethoven’s motifs. The Presto annotation actually precludes this. Rather, the artist’s focus was on the expression, the overall flow and on the “big” gestures.

One detail: in bars 53ff (and the equivalent passage in the recap section, bars 233ff), he treated the small notes as acciaccaturas. In “baroque syntax”, these would definitely be appoggiaturas. In fact, many pianists perform these motifs as sequence of descending quavers. Scherbakov’s reading makes sense to me. At this tempo, the inégale timing is the only way to “translate” Beethoven’s writing for the listener. Just shifting the weight to the second note (as in an appoggiatura) would go unnoticed.

Konstantin Scherbakov’s sense for structure was evident. For example, in the way he singled out the 8 transition bars after the exposition, then giving the development part (C major) a powerful, fresh start, dramatic, full of expression. Similarly, the recap section (back in D major) had a clear, distinct start. Also the transition to the coda (and the coda itself) was discernible from the performance alone. But of course, Beethoven’s writing is instrumental in achieving such clarity. “Classic” sonata form at its best!
★★★★½

II. Largo e mesto

Also here, the pianist used the pedals (both sustain and una corda) very consciously. Here, however (unlike in fast movements), they were an essential means of articulation and phrasing. The beginning was mysterious. It was merely the introduction (or later an “orchestral intermezzo”) for what turns into a long, expressive recitative with a veritable cadenza in bars 40 – 43. The artist devoted an outstanding amount of care to shaping dynamics and articulation, into the expressive arches in melodies, cantilenas.

With this, the movement turned into a sequence of stage scenes. It felt like a reflected, earnest tale with drama and emotions, with different, contrasting figures / actors / characters. And the big arch culminated in the hemidemisemiquavers of the ƒƒ climax in bar 71. Thereafter, the movement calms down. Finally, the last bars felt like summarizing wisdom. In its attitude, the ending reminded me of “Der Dichter spricht“, the No.13 from Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, op.15
★★★★★

III. Menuetto: Allegro — Trio

After the “emotional heavyweight” of the slow movement, the first part of the Menuetto, annotated dolce, felt contemplative, almost harmless. The more dramatic and expressive climax in the second part corrects this.

The Trio with its rolling quaver triplets and the left-hand jumps added contrast. At the same time, it felt “bigger”, more dramatic and expressive than the Menuetto.
★★★★½

IV. Rondo: Allegro

The Rondo ritornel was a hesitant sequence of short eruptions. This strongly contrasted with the outbreak rapid flow of semiquavers in the intermezzos. Those fast figures of course remained accompaniment to the melodic or expressive part in the other hand. Each of the intermezzos ended with a nice, short fioritura / cadenza, and the movement has an almost ghastly ending.

Even though not nearly as revolutionary or rebelling as later sonatas, this is clearly the most Beethovenian, the most progressive among the sonatas in op.10.
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, op.13, “Pathétique

As with the first four sonatas (opp.2 & 7, see the first of these recitals), after the publication of a group of the three sonatas op.10, the next one, the Grande sonate pathétique in C minor, op.13 from 1798 stands out. Not in size, however, and not necessarily in structural complexity, but in its strength of expression. To this day, it remains one of Beethoven’s most famous sonatas. The op.13, which Beethoven dedicated to his friend Prince Karl von Lichnowsky (1761 – 18145) comes with three movement only:

  1. Grave — Allegro di molto e con brio
  2. Adagio cantabile
  3. Rondo: Allegro

The Performance

Even though the op.13 is only three movements, the pianist took a few moments of reflection before continuing. With this, he seemed to “change gears p” from the lighter sonatas in op.10 to the rebelling, expressive and emotional masterpiece of op.13:

I. Grave — Allegro di molto e con brio

I liked how Konstantin Scherbakov was able to maintain the flow in the introduction. Rhythmically, he stayed close to the notation. At the same time, he still applied agogics. And he did not try to hide or play over the ruptures in Beethoven’s score. That literal reading was exemplary in the transition to the Allegro. The sf fermata on the last quaver only applied to the one note (a punctuated semiquaver) over which the fermata sign is placed. The final demisemiquaver turned into an upbeat quaver to the subsequent Allegro di molto e con brio in split time (alla breve).

The Allegro di molto e con brio was fast, fluent, without exaggerations, excessive sf accents. Yet, it was still and always clear, dramatic. A true, virtuosic, Beethovenian surprise! Rebelling, unruly, emotionally explosive, truly revolutionary. That’s stunning for the time of its creation. And I think one could sense how this must have felt to the composer’s contemporary audiences!
★★★★½

II. Adagio cantabile

Excellent tempo, contemplative, beautifully singing, not too slow, nor with an excess of drama or sadness. I don’t think Beethoven intended to cause ladies to reach out for a handkerchief. Still, in its calm, the music is exceptionally emotional. It alternated between drama and serene, idyllic scenery in Apollonian balance / equilibrium. The artist played this (mostly) una corda, but full of warm sonority.
★★★★★

III. Rondo: Allegro

The final movement felt neither as light, extroverted virtuosity / pianistic artistry, nor as a joking or surprising (let alone shocking) finale. Still, the artist presented this as a compositorial masterpiece. The music alternated between moderated, controlled eruptions and more lyrical segments. The latter maybe echoed the lyrical aspects of the middle movement? It was interesting to realize how the pianist used poignant agogics (short stringendi) to emphasize the highlights around the climax. Thereafter, the movement seems to come to a subtle, calm ending. The latter of course isn’t, as Beethoven ended with a short ff outbreak.
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Conclusions

There were some free seats on the audience. However, I was happy to see a substantially bigger audience than in the first recital: the “Pathétique effect”?

I can only repeat myself: 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!


Upcoming Recitals in This Series

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

  • 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

Past Recitals in the Series

  • 2019-09-21Recital I: Piano Sonatas #1 – #4
    • No.1 in F minor, op.2/1
    • No.2 in A major, op.2/2
    • No.3 in C major, op.2/3
    • No.4 in E♭ major, op.7
  • 2019-10-26Recital II: Piano Sonatas #2 – #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


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