Konstantin Scherbakov
Beethoven Sonata Cycle, Recital #3

Aula, Alte Kantonsschule, Zurich, 2019-11-23

4.5-star rating

2019-12-05 — Original posting


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

Outline


Introduction & Artist

On 2019-09-21, the Russian-Swiss pianist Konstantin Scherbakov 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 sonatas:


Concert and Review

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.9 in E major, op.14/1

Dedicated to Baroness Josefa von Braun (a patroness of the composer), the Sonata No.9 in E major, op.14/1 is from 1798 and has three movements.

  1. Allegro
  2. Allegretto — Trio (Maggiore)
  3. Rondo: Allegro comodo

One thing special about this sonata is that in 1801, Beethoven reworked (rather than just arranged) the sonata into a string quartet. I have written about recordings of the string quartet version in an earlier blog post.

The Performance

By now, the setting feels familiar—same hall, same piano, the same artist—but (very happy to note!) a substantially bigger audience than in the first recital of the series, the biggest so far! But what also stays the same: in his facial mimics and gestures, Konstantin Scherbakov is inconspicuous and factual—the focus is entirely on Beethoven’s music.

I. Allegro

As an “easy” sonata, this movement is sometimes heard in a moderate, “comfy” pace. Compared to such performances, Konstantin Scherbakov’s opening felt truly Allegro (joyful), almost fast, with the jolly semiquaver figures and the turns rolling along fluently. In an instant, the interpretation “pulled” the audience into the music. Wherever the opening theme returned, the artist resumed the initial, fluent tempo, e.g., after relaxing the pace towards the end of the preceding phrase. This not only kept the listener’s focus, but it also injected additional “inner life” into the music. In the same vein, the tempo in the second theme was noticeably calmer than the initial one. Of course, the exposition was repeated—a “must” for a truly classic sonata (such as this one).

The development part showed even stronger agogics than the exposition, and Konstantin Scherbakov carefully prepared the return of the opening theme (or the coda) with a subtle slow-down in the transition.

II. Allegretto — Trio (Maggiore)

Very obvious: Konstantin Scherbakov’s diligent phrasing and agogics—particularly in the way in which he connected phrases, or how he led from the slightly moody tone in the Allegretto part to the simple, serene Maggiore (C major) segment in the middle, and back to the E minor Allegretto.

III. Rondo: Allegro comodo

Clarity in structure, articulation and dynamics: not a “progressive” approach, but in its moderation it was a truly “classic” interpretation in the best sense of the word—in (near-)perfection.


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.10 in G major, op.14/2

Beethoven published this sonata (also dedicated to Baroness Josefa von Braun) together with op.14/1—and also this sonata has just three movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Scherzo: Allegro assai

The Performance

I. Allegro

Again, this Apollonian clarity in form and phrasing! Here, the pianist took the second theme (bars 26ff) a tad faster, calming down again for the closing phrase, and again for the return to the beginning. A clear, “understandable” form also here: it didn’t take looking at the score to identify the transition from the exposition to the next part.

There is one “surprise moment” in this sonata, when the development section ends in a fermata, this does not lead into the recapitulation just yet, but rather into a 32-bar cadenza culminating in a virtuosic demisemiquaver passage. The recap section only starts after a second fermata. However, even here, the fermatas serve as links between formal elements, while at the same time structural separators.

It seems to me that both this sonata, as well as the E major sonata op.14/1 are vastly underestimated. I’m sure Beethoven was really proud of these compositions. They are masterpieces of clarity and perfection in classic form, and internal, formal balance. Not a revolution, no provocation, but compositorial mastership. This first movement was exemplary in that—without ever sounding didactic or pedagogic.

II. Andante

Here, the tempo may have felt relatively fluent—however, the movement is in alla breve (split time) notation, so the tempo was (of course) just right. At this pace, the marked sf syncopes stood out as such: Konstantin Scherbakov did not present them as surprise, let alone joke or provocation: they were controlled, moderated, yet distinct and deliberately heavy, particularly the last one, which shifts the rhythm back to “normal”. There is (& was) one little surprise moment in the composition, though: at the end of the second part (where the right hand echoes the theme in semiquaver motifs), the movement seems to retract into pp—but in a little “Beethoven turn”, the piece ends in a powerful ff C major chord.

III. Scherzo: Allegro assai

Utter clarity in articulation, with very little, if any sustain pedal: not attempts to fill or cover up the rests in the Rondo theme. Yet, the pianist achieved amazing sonority—even though the instrument wasn’t “his” Steinway D-274.

Actually, even though the two sonatas op.14 are prime examples of classical architecture & “fabric”, Beethoven could in the end not resist adding a little joke (with a twinkling in his eye, I suspect): where the second movement ends in a somewhat unexpected “bang”, the final movement “sneaks out” with a little “question mark”. It’s just enough to make the inadvertent listener ask “what??”—and indeed, it took a while for the applause to set in! But needless to say: the artist didn’t skip any final note(s)!


Beethoven: Piano Sonata Sonata No.11 in B♭ major, op.22

The sonata op.22 was written in 1800, but published only in 1802. Beethoven allegedly considered it one of the best of his early sonatas. It returns to a four-movement structure:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Adagio con molta espressione
  3. Minuetto — Trio (Minore)
  4. Rondo: Allegretto

The Performance

I. Allegro con brio

This sonata brought the listeners from the serene spheres of Apollonian classic purity “down” (or rather “up”?) to “real Beethoven”. Already the annotation Allegro con brio is typical for the composer—and con brio it was! Konstantin Scherbakov played with notably more emphasis, with stronger expression, more verve and momentum, highlighting the “typical Beethoven gestures”: heroic rising to jubilant climaxes that seem to anticipate moments in the composer’s big Symphonies.

Of course, Konstantin Scherbakov again presented an exemplary classic interpretation, with the usual clarity in articulation, form and phrasing, but as always not ex cathedra, but full of life, drive and momentum—enthralling from beginning to end.

II. Adagio con molta espressione

More than a serene, expressive recitative of sorts: rather, a movement with considerable (unusual, maybe unexpected) weight and depth: pondering, reflecting. The flow never stopped, except for bar 30, where Beethoven inserted a long rest, then taking a fresh start, switching from B♭ major to G in the bass. At this point, the composer leaves the listener “in the air” about the actual tonality, for quite a while—modulating on and on. It’s a true “Beethoven mo(ve)ment”, showing a composer who moves ahead of his time. A classical avant-garde composition!

III. Minuetto — Trio (Minore)

Also here: the title Minuetto might suggest a harmless dance-like movement. However, this feels far from carefree, light Rococo music. Excellent: the dramatic & phrasing arches for both parts of the Minuetto. The Minore part was of course far more dramatic—and once more true Beethoven!

IV. Rondo: Allegretto

The Rondo might look more harmless than the Minuetto in the very beginning—it certainly isn’t! The artist was conscious and careful (but not over-cautious, of course!) already in articulating the leading three upbeat-semiquavers—and in the big gestures already in the first couplet proved that this movement is a true, exceptional masterwork, a movement of considerable compositorial weight. It’s music that one should hear several times in a row, in order to experience its full depth and formal complexity!


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.12 in A♭ major, op.26 (“With the Funeral March”)

A composition from 1800 – 1801, this sonata is dedicated to Beethoven’s patron Prince Karl von Lichnowsky (1761 – 1814). The sonata has its nickname from the third movement, a “Funeral March on the Death of a Hero”. The four movements are

  1. Andante con variazioni
  2. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio
  3. Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un eroe
  4. Allegro

The Performance

I. Andante con variazioni

Another exemplary performance: no frills, no extravaganza, but solid, considerate, well-founded already in the initial theme. Needless to say that the five variations matched the theme in weight in every bar, every motif. They kept close ties with the theme, with the agogics adjusted for the individual character of each segment. Variation 5 looks almost virtuosic with all its demisemiquaver passages. Konstantin Scherbakov devotes the same care and detail to all of the demisemiquaver motifs: nothing is ever superficial. However, he does not dissecting the phrases, rather always keeps an eye on the overall structure.

II. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio

My only regrets here: the pianist did not do the repeat in the first instance of the Scherzo. However, this is not a sonata form, and there is a repeat instance after the Trio. So, this omission is a “lesser sin”.

III. Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un eroe

Serious, grave, earnest, lots of weight—yet, I never had the feeling of excess “theater” / drama. Also here, Konstantin Scherbakov used the sustain pedal very selectively, sparingly—where Beethoven explicitly asked for it, and occasionally in order to enhance the sonority. A very descriptive, imaginative and “narrating” interpretation, evoking pictures of a brass band at a somber funeral procession!

IV. Allegro

Also the final movement is not a demonstration of “classic” art, but one that Beethoven wrote “into his own hands”, with some contrary, if not slightly perverse / adverse rhythmic features and technical challenges: a composer who didn’t care about conventions!

Lastly: I’m (usually) rather meticulous about piano tuning—I must say that here, the tuning was and remained excellent throughout the recital, and Konstantin Scherbakov is a master in creating astounding sonority from any grand piano!


Conclusions

There were some free seats on the audience. Fewer than last time, fortunately—but still: 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 will take place in the same venue, all on Saturday, starting at 11:30 a.m.:

  • 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 Tempest”)
    • No.18 in E♭ major, op.31/3 (“The Hunt”)
    • 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 (“à Thérèse“)
    • 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



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