Konstantin Scherbakov
Beethoven Sonata Cycle, Recital #5

Aula, Alte Kantonsschule, Zurich, 2020-01-25

4.5-star rating

2020-02-07 — Original posting


Konstantin Scherbakov, Aula, Alte Kantonsschule, Zurich, 2020-01-25 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Konstantin Scherbakov, Aula, Alte Kantonsschule, Zurich, 2020-01-25 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Outline


Introduction & Artist

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 one 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 & Review

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor, op.31/2 (“The Tempest”)

The D minor sonata op.31/2 (1801/1802) bears the surname “The Tempest”—though this is not the composer’s attribution. In German, it’s “Der Sturm”—which some may read as “The (Thunder-)Storm”. That attribution, however, is certainly incorrect. Rather, in a conversation about how to interpret this sonata or the one in F minor, op.53, “Appassionata“, Beethoven suggested reading “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616). That linkage (if it refers to this sonata at all) should not be taken too literal. Other than in the obvious way, of course: the first movement reminds of stage drama, with its recitative segments, the dramatic atmosphere in general. This sonata has three movements:

  1. Largo – Allegro
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegretto

The Performance

Let me start with a general remark: I have been approached by people in the audience stating that the piano sounds “metallic”, “loud”, and the like. I don’t mean to pretend that I didn’t hear this. Quite obviously, this is not the artist’s favorite instrument, a Steinway D-274, but a smaller grand. Konstantin Scherbakov has done his piano studies in Russia, at a time when the pianos there were often badly maintained, if not in a really poor state (especially in the regulation, the mechanics). So, as most Russian pianists of his (or older) generation(s), he knows very well how to handle sub-standard pianos. And in fact, in the first recitals in this series, I found that he managed the instrument amazingly well (and his favorite tuner did his very best to bring the instrument into shape).

The organizer, Musical Discovery, made serious efforts to have the cycle performed on a more suitable instrument. Sadly, this failed due to administrative obstacles (such as the availability of alternative University facilities for these recitals). Konstantin Scherbakov told me early on that he wasn’t quite sure yet how he would manage playing the late sonatas on the instrument at hand (the CD recordings are of course being done in a studio with a proper Steinway D-274). In fact, I did find that in this recital, the instrument was approaching its limits: occasionally (rarely), the descant did indeed sound somewhat “metallic”, and for the first time in this series, the tuning occasionally felt less than ideal. However, I don’t want to (and cannot) blame the artist for these circumstances: this is not a recording session, and I’m focusing on the interpretation, not on occasional (understandable) shortcomings of the instrument.

I. Largo – Allegro

The most striking feature in his opening movement isn’t in the Allegro parts, but in the recitative-like bars: two short segments at the beginning of the exposition, one at the opening of the development part, and an extended one (with a short Allegro interjection) at the beginning of the recap section. This is particularly true for Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation. Already the opening is highly reflective / pensive, retained, careful, the fermatas pronounced.

The Allegro wasn’t storming forward (no tempest just yet!), rather controlled, though still boiling of inner emotion. The attributes “careful” and “diligent” particularly apply to the (pronounced) agogics & tempo. The transitions were entirely natural, harmonious, if not even hardly noticeable. I did notice, though, that the artist took the p at bars 41ff (third theme) a tad faster. Conversely, the second theme (bars 21ff) was ever so slightly heavier: a classic case of the exposition as presentation of the different characters (one per theme) in a drama—and the recitatives underlined the treatrical aspects in this movement.

In the recitative after the exposition, time seemed to stand still. All the more, the flow in the development part expressed growing urgency, breaking off after the climax, into five grave bars that lead into the last recitative section. There, every single note seemed loaded with meaning, expression. A movement filled with drama in the true sense of the word!

II. Adagio

Initially, the drama continued: this was definitely more than just a serene scenery with bird calls, but rather “reflective drama”, if not pondering, with the left hand tremolos reminding the listener of the dramatic aspect, keeping the emerging joy in the descant at bay. Only in bars 30ff, Konstantin Scherbakov let the serene, peaceful atmosphere take over for an intermezzo: memories, beauty? It didn’t stay that way, as throughout the movement, there were episodes of deeper thoughts, arches of urgency and “emotional density”. In a way, the artist let the movement end with a distinct pause after the surprising move from B (major) to A (half-cadence to F major)—the remaining 11 bars merely served transition to the final Allegretto.

III. Allegretto

No “storm” here either—but definitely drama, with waves of urgency; no superficialities anywhere! Rather, Konstantin Scherbakov was momentarily (and ever so subtly and carefully) holding back the pace, for phrasing and structural clarity (e.g., in the diminuendo in bar 48). A well-balanced performance throughout, devoid of unnecessary exaggerations.


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.18 in E♭ major, op.31/3 (“The Hunt”)

In Anglosaxon countries, the Sonata No.18 in E♭ major, op.31/3 from 1802 bears the nickname “The Hunt”, as one of the themes (the punctuated motif at the very beginning? Or rather the Scherzo theme?) allegedly reminds of horn calls. Unusually, this sonata lacks a slow movement, but rather features both a Scherzo, as well as a Menuetto:

  1. Allegro
  2. Scherzo: Allegretto vivace
  3. Menuetto: Moderato e grazioso — Trio
  4. Presto con fuoco

The Performance

I. Allegro

From my notes: after the hesitant beginning with two strong ritardandi (as specified by the composer), Konstantin Scherbakov performs with a fairly fluent pace, playful, virtuosic, but never extroverted. Poignant agogics mark transitions, such as in bar 77, where the closing phrase in the exposition begins, or bars 81/82, and in the harmonious transition back to the beginning (the artist of course repeated all expositions, throughout the recital), or on to the next part:

This beginning of the development part! Scherbakov’s interpretation (following Beethoven’s notation, of course) made the listener realize how “modern”, if not avantgarde-like / revolutionary this must have sounded to the composer’s contemporaries! Not only that: the music is technically controlled, but emotionally wild, very lively / alive / living—an excellent combination of technical control / mastership and musical / emotional outbursts! Last, but not least: as mentioned for earlier recitals, Konstantin Scherbakov uses the sustain pedal sparingly, very consciously—in line with his technical mastership. There is of course no need whatsoever to cover anything with extra pedaling!

II. Scherzo: Allegretto vivace

This movement was an even better example for the artist’s technical excellence, in the clean staccato, the stark dynamic contrasts, the controlled ff explosions every now and there. Despite the staccato running almost throughout, the movement alternated between motoric and playful, if not reflective segments.

III. Menuetto: Moderato e grazioso — Trio

Peaceful, but very reflective, with poignant rhythmic swaying / agogics. The interpretation was even more thoughtful in the Trio, with very considerate and careful dynamics, and equally prominent local tempo variations / agogics. Finally, the return instance of the Menuetto appeared to have picked up more of the reflective mood from the Trio—as if the latter had triggered extra thoughts and reflection. Or was this just the listener’s impression, i.e., did the Trio alter the listener’s perception of the Menuetto?

IV. Presto con fuoco

Virtuosic—Beethoven’s showpiece! However, the performance was never even a bit superficial, masterful, with full control of all technical details / aspects (without a “didactic note”, of course!), at the same time highly lively dynamics and agogics.


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.19 in G minor, op.49/1

The two sonatas op.49 (No.19 in G minor, op.49/1 and No.20 in G major, op.49/2, see below) are compositions from 1795 – 1798, i.e., prior to the Sonata No.8 in C minor, op.13, “Pathétique: the higher opus number indicates the late publication date. Both these sonatas have just two movements:

  1. Andante
  2. Rondo: Allegro

The Performance

I. Andante

With its simple texture, the easy theme, the beginning of the sonata felt a bit “homeless”, seeking. Only in the second theme (with the semiquavers in the left hand), the movement appeared to take shape—happy, but still harmless. However, that of course is the composition, not the interpretation! As for the latter: it was instantly clear that Konstantin Scherbakov devoted just as much care and attention to this piece, as to the “big” and famous sonatas. Careful not only touch, articulation, and dynamics, but also the agogics, which may have been even more pronounced here!

After the double bar (and the repeat of the exposition), the development part, instantly changes to a more dramatic, more substantial atmosphere. Here and in the recap segment, the artist seemed to re-double his effort in care and attention—but of course without exaggeration. It’s just that in this interpretation, one realized that also Beethoven’s “little” sonatas are far from insignificant, rather little, often underrated gems!

II. Rondo: Allegro

Jolly, capricious (with some reflective moments, though)—and certainly not a beginner’s sonata! In Konstantin Scherbakov’s hands, this movement sometimes felt like an improvisation, with its sudden fermatas, followed by a fresh start—as if the composer had been seeking a “way out”! Only in the harmonious coda, the music turned more peaceful, redeeming.


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.20 in G major, op.49/2

See above for explanations about the two sonatas op.49: both are creations of 1795 – 1798 and feature just two movements:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo
  2. Tempo di Menuetto

The Performance

I. Allegro ma non troppo

All of what I stated above about the performance of Sonata No.19 in G minor, op.49/1 also applies here: I particularly noted the both reflected and reflecting agogics. Sure, for a full appreciation of the value of this composition, its position in the cycle should not be in the publishing sequence, but rather following the chronology of their creation, i.e., between the three sonatas op.2 and the “Grand Sonata No.4 in E♭ major, op.7“. On the other hand, the publishing order gives insight into the composer’s progress between the mid-1790’s and 1804.

II. Tempo di Menuetto

Also this appeared as reflected piece, especially in the intermezzi—each a considerate, pensive interval, even the C major segment with its affirmative beginning. An exemplary performance!


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.21 in C major, op.53 (“Waldstein Sonata”)

The by-name of the Sonata No.21 in C major, op.53 from 1804, is that of its dedicatee and Beethoven’s patron, Count Ferdinand Ernst Joseph Gabriel von Waldstein und Wartenberg (1762 – 1823). The well-known sonata is a cornerstone in the piano repertoire and a highlight in Beethoven’s middle period. There are three movements:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Introduzione: Adagio molto
  3. Rondo: Allegretto moderato — Prestissimo

The Performance

I. Allegro con brio

Agile, careful and detailed in the dynamics again—and as fluent as the piano mechanics permitted in avoiding superficialities. The sheer size / dimension of the exposition demonstrated the huge difference / amount of evolution between the early sonatas op.49 and this one—let alone the extended development part! There, the lively passing of motifs between voices (all in the right hand) felt like an agitated discussion between two characters. At the fermata in bar 282—the end of the recap section—two glissando-like falling scales formed a strong contrast to the pensive, reflective beginning of the coda. After-thoughts about the dramatic, lively events that just unfolded in this large, substantial movement?

II. Introduzione: Adagio molto

To me as a listener, Konstantin Scherbakov’s performance—pensive, reflective, an extended recitative—was only affected by the tuning of the instrument, which appeared to have degraded noticeably in the course of the recital. The movement seemed to end as a big question mark with an extended fermata

III. Rondo: Allegretto moderato — Prestissimo

This wasn’t just an answer to the pondering Adagio molto. Rather, it felt like instant relief: serene beauty and pure joy in a movement out of one single mold, with beautiful phrasing arches, keeping the tension up to the very end: a brilliant, virtuosic movement in an excellent performance!


Final Remarks

I was really delighted to see that Konstantin Scherbakov was very happy, in a tidy mood when I met him after the recital: this confirmed that my impressions from the recital were correct. He was of course greeted by (probably most of) his pupils from the conservatory, who came to congratulate. The artist jokingly exclaimed how difficult, tricky it is to perform in front of one’s complete class, knowing that these pupils are all performing the very same sonatas as well!


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.:

  • 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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