Piano Recital: Konstantin Scherbakov
P.I. Tchaikovsky / S.M. Lyapunov
Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2017-04-11
2017-04-18 — Original posting
This was another, exciting opportunity to hear Konstantin Scherbakov (Константин Александрович Щербаков, *1963, see also Wikipedia for information) in a solo recital, in his “home turf”: in the city in which he lives and teaches. A venue (Semper-Aula at the ETH in Zurich) that he knows well. And on an instrument (Steinway D) that he is familiar with. I don’t need to introduce Konstantin Scherbakov. I have written about several of his recitals, such as on 2015-03-24 (ETH Zurich / Beethoven), on 2015-12-12 (Tonhalle Zurich / Beethoven), as well as on 2016-04-19 (ETH Zurich / Godowsky).
This recital was again organized by Musical Discovery, in the context of their series “Musik an der ETH“. This time, the repertoire was all Russian, with works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and by Sergei Mikhailovich Lyapunov. The program was very diligently set up, with two introductory Morceaux by Tchaikovsky. This was followed by the Grand Sonata in G by the same composer. That’s a rarely played, virtuosic masterwork. After the intermission, Konstantin Scherbakov played an ascendingly challenging sequence of studies by Lyapunov, culminating in the horribly difficult “Lesghinka“. An unusual concert program, for sure! And one that creates very high expectations!
Tchaikovsky: 18 Morceaux, op.72
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) completed his 18 Morceaux, op.72 in 1893. These Morceaux (pieces) are Tchaikovsky’s last music for piano solo. And they are the last piano music that was published during the composer’s lifetime. The Piano Sonata No.2 in C♯ minor, op.80 is from 1865 and was published posthumously only.
Here’s the list of pieces in op.72 (the artist’s selection for this recital is shown in bold):
- Impromptu: Allegro moderato e giocoso (F minor).
- Berceuse: Andante mosso (A♭ major).
- Tendres reproches: Allegro non tanto ed agitato (C♯ minor).
- Danse caractéristique: Allegro giusto (D major).
- Méditation: Andante mosso (D major).
- Mazurque pour danser: Tempo di Mazurka (B♭ major).
- Polacca de concert: Tempo di Polacca (E♭ major).
- Dialogue: Allegro moderato (B major).
- Un poco di Schumann: Moderato mosso (D♭ major).
- Scherzo-fantaisie: Vivace assai (E♭ minor).
- Valse-bluette: Tempo di Valse (E♭ major).
- L’espiègle: Allegro moderato (E major).
- Echo rustique: Allegro non troppo (E♭ major).
- Chant élégiaque: Adagio — Più mosso moderato assai (D♭ major).
- Un poco di Chopin: Tempo di Mazurka (C♯ minor).
- Valse à cinq temps: Vivace (D major).
- Passé lontain: Moderato assai quasi Andante (E♭ major).
- Scene dansante: Invitation au trépak (Танцевальная сцена: Приглашение к трепаку): Allegro non tanto (C major).
Konstantin Scherbakov started his recital with No.14, “Chant élégiaque“, annotated Adagio. This was followed by the popular No.5, “Méditation“, annotated Andante mosso:
No.14, “Chant élégiaque“
Already the opening work, the “Chant élégiaque“, instantly and entirely captured the audience, giving a “pre-taste” for the entire evening. Konstantin Scherbakov started in calm, soft manner, only hinting at some of the arpeggios. And he entirely focused on the melody line. This is in accordance with Tchaikovsky’s annotation cantando quanto possibile, forming gentle phrasing arches. He kept this approach also in the Più mosso moderato assai, applying freely swaying agogics, building up gently and harmoniously, up to the climax, keeping the garlands in the descant as illustrating accompaniment for the singing melody in the center, until a little cadenza almost casually leads into the coda. To me, it was masterful playing in dynamic control and perfect keyboard touch!
Whenever a pianist gives a recital with Russian repertoire, there is a high chance that No.5 from op.72, “Méditation“, will be played as encore. Some may view this composition as “overused”. They may have wondered why the pianist in this recital chose it as second piece after the introductory No.14 from the same collection.
However, it soon became evident that in this context, that same music received far more weight and care: the attention that it really deserves! It was anything but a casually presented encore, lacked any excess sweetness and romanticism. Konstantin Scherbakov avoided exaggerations in agogics, his pace was fluent, not exceedingly slow. He formed long, harmonious arches, building up dramatically, up to fff in the 9/8 part: very expressive playing! And it proves that also without extra sweetness this is very touching music!
Tchaikovsky: Grande Sonate in G major, op.37
The first half of Konstantin Scherbakov’s recital culminated in the Grande Sonate in G major, op.37, which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed in 1878. There are good reasons why the composer called this “Grand Sonata”. The sonata is long—around 35 minutes. The first movement alone is almost 15 minutes. But the sonata is also big in its technical, pianistic requirements: it’s for a reason that this composition so rarely shows up in concert programs! There are four movements:
- Moderato e risoluto
- Andante non troppo quasi Moderato
- Scherzo. Allegro giocoso
- Finale. Allegro vivace
I. Moderato e risoluto
To me, Konstantin Scherbakov’s playing sounded fluent, dramatic, as well as rhapsodic and narrating. He kept the musical flow running throughout the large movement, never disrupting the rhythm, accommodated even through hemidemisemiquaver runs in the flow, with the help of eloquent, decent agogics and an expressive, but not excessive rubato. The articulation was clear and careful throughout. At the same time, the pianist avoided rough edges. He used harmonious dynamic and phrasing contours. Even the double-punctuated opening motif was not harsh, but almost mellow and fluent.
I really liked how in the development part the artist managed to highlight / expose the dialog between the primary and secondary voices. On top of that, I felt that the pianist enabled the listener to get and keep a feel for the overall dramatic structure of the large movement. The tension remained intact throughout, forming one big, dramatic arch from beginning to end, also across the intermittent lyrical segments.
With all this, Konstantin Scherbakov’s playing remained unpretentious throughout. He is not a man of great physical gestures, avoids making faces, does not seek eye contact with the audience while playing. His posture stayed calm, relaxed. Also his arms and hands appeared tension-free, even though those countless chord and octave chains must be played from the arms (rather than with hands & fingers). And even though the movement as such must be strenuous on the artist.
II. Andante non troppo quasi Moderato
The second movement starts off in a meditative, reflective mood. Scherbakov kept it this way also in the 6/8 part, throughout its frequent punctuations. In the cantabile segment, the pianist focused on the singing melody line, while the accompaniment in the left hand was kept restrained, commenting, illustrating, assisting the melody. Later in the movement, the two hands appeared to develop a life of their own, pushing / pulling / retaining each other. This sometimes reminded me of the interaction between Robert Schumann’s contrasting characters Florestan and Eusebius.
The Moderato con animazione at times seemed to allude to a Nocturne by Frédéric Chopin. Hereby, the melody also moves into the left hand, while right hand adds an almost casual accompaniment.
In the final Tempo I segment (9/8, marcato e cantabile la melodia), well-controlled, subtle dynamics allowed the melody to keep its presence at all times.
III. Scherzo. Allegro giocoso
The Scherzo is the shortest movement. Yet, it is rhythmically intricate. It’s a wild, restless chase, sometimes almost demonic, very fast, hushing along fluently, enthralling and technically highly demanding. I liked the harmonious, large phrases in the Trio-like central part. And again, Konstantin Scherbakov was very convincing in the overall dramaturgy. And in how he was able to control the phrasing, to convey the overall architecture.
IV. Finale. Allegro vivace
The sonata concludes with brilliant, virtuosic fireworks, with intermittent, contrasting sections that seem to tell stories, almost lyrical. Yet, the movement overall is fairly relentless, returns to rhapsodic, expressive, even urging segments, with grand musical gestures: beautiful music! Also here, Scherbakov offered an immensely capturing performance.
I found Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation to be “integrative”, organic, compelling, fluent and harmonious. At the same time, the artist never seemed to aim for spectacular artistry: brilliance, virtuosity and perfect control in keyboard touch and dynamics are the evident basis for his playing, not a purpose on its own. And on top of that, the music alone (in particular in such a masterful interpretation!) left me in total awe!
Lyapunov: Études dʹexécution transcendante, op.11
Sergei Mikhailovich Lyapunov (Серге́й Миха́йлович Ляпуно́в, 1859 – 1924) was born in Yaroslavl. When his father died, the family (including his brother, the famous mathematician Aleksandr Lyapunov, 1857 – 1918) moved to Nizhny Novgorod. In 1878, Lyapunov started studying at the Moscow Conservatory of Music, where he had two main teachers. Karl Klindworth (piano) was a former pupil of Franz Liszt. The other teacher, Sergei Taneyev (composition) was a former pupil and the successor of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Lyapunov had a successful career as pianist and also produced a fair number of compositions. His oeuvre ranges from piano works to songs, to chamber music and symphonies.
The work he is most known for are his 12 Études dʹexécution transcendante, op.11, with which he intended to complete the cycle of the same name that Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) left uncompleted. Lyapunov completed his studies 1897 – 1905.
The Études in op.11
- Berceuse (“Lullaby”) in F♯ major
- Ronde des Fantômes (“Ghosts’ dance”) in D♯ minor
- Carillon in B major
- Térek (“The River Terek”) in G♯ minor
- Nuit d’été (“Summer night”) in E major
- Tempête (“Tempest”) in C♯ minor
- Idylle in A major
- Chant épique (“Epic song”) in F♯ minor
- Harpes éoliennes (“Aeolian harps”) in D major
- Lesghinka in B minor
- Ronde des sylphes (“Dance of the sylphs”) in G major
- Elégie en mémoire de François Liszt (“Elegy in memory of Franz Liszt”) in E minor
The studies selected in this recital are highlighted in bold.
The Études by Lyapunov (culminating in No.10, Lesghinka) are among the most difficult pieces in the entire literature for piano solo. One can see this already from the fact that besides Konstantin Scherbakov’s own, complete reference recording from 1993, there are (to my knowledge) only two complete recordings of these Études. Scherbakov’s recording (see Addendum 3 below) is currently not available as CD, but there is a YouTube video (showing the score rather than the artist) with Konstantin Scherbakov playing, see Addendum 2 below.
The Tchaikovsky sonata may have been very demanding already. However, the selection of six Études from op.11 by Sergei Lyapunov went much above that in technical challenges:
Konstantin Scherbakov started with the seemingly harmless study No.1, “Berceuse” (cradle song, lullaby). The beginning is almost foggy, mellow, but always singing, played with gently swaying agogics. It appears simple, maybe reminding of music by Claude Debussy or Maurice Ravel. However, this is far trickier to play than it seems. In Scherbakov’s hands, technical artistry is often not obvious at all!
VIII. Chant épique
Étude No.8 begins as an arpeggio study, in which one could admire the artist’s excellent dynamic control. However, this is followed by a technically very challenging, intricate section. It start with simple staccatos, but then evolves into a complex mix of chord sequences in both hands, mixed with wide-spanning broken chords, again in both hands. This makes the Berceuse sound like child’s play. In contrast, in No.8, Lyapunov appeared to write for three or four hands. The study culminates in a broad climax, then returns to the arpeggios. Ultimately, it ends in a second, virtuosic build-up, first a swirling Allegro vivo, and finally a Presto. Fascinating!
V. Nuit d’été
Initially, No.5 reminded me of a Song without Words by Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Indeed, nicely depicting the calm, serene atmosphere of a summer night. One can hear the song of a nightingale, maybe a gentle wind playing with the leaves of a tree. But almost unnoticeably (for the listener), the music gets more intricate. The right hand deploys virtuosic cadenza-like chains of wide-spanning figurations, espressivo, dolcissimo, jeu perlé. Lyapunov resorted to three staves in order to keep the notation readable. And yet, apart from the central, broad climax, the piece remains marvelously atmospheric, serene, despite all the technical challenges! Keeping the atmosphere in this study requires excellent dynamic control. The rendition we heard left nothing to wish for!
“Tempête” is the appropriate title for No.6! Neckbreakingly rapid triplet figures in both hands, spanning the width of the keyboard, depict storm winds, lightnings. Amidst all this, a melody line, at times in the right hand, then in the bass etc., can be heard almost throughout the piece. Fascinating!
II. Ronde des Fantômes
Lyapunov called Étude No.2 “dance of the phantoms” or “dance of the shadows”. It features gnome-like, furiously running, very fast 6/8 figures, independent in both hands, with the peak notes marking melody fragments, ending in a witty, short staccato and ppp “blip”. It’s the shortest study in Scherbakov’s selection (about 3 minutes, the longest one, No.5, was around 9 minutes), but nevertheless technically extremely challenging!
Finally, No.10, Lesghinka, was the culmination of the recital. And it is also the culmination of Lyapunov’s op.11. This strongly reminds of the Oriental Fantasy “Islamey”, op.18 by Mily Balakirev (1837 – 1910), once known as the “most difficult piece for piano of all time”. Lesghinka was indeed inspired by Islamey. It features some of the same (or similar) oriental tone / motifs and harmonies.
However, Lesghinka is vastly more restless, more complex in its texture (and in the impression on the listener). It mostly lacks Islamey‘s notorious tone repetitions, but instead employs wildly running, intricate accompanying lines. It also lacks Balakirev’s lyrical segments, instead (with the exception of a central Poco meno mosso section) remains furiously dramatic almost from beginning to end.
But even in this dramatic climax, Konstantin Scherbakov’s playing remained unpretentious, expressive—and very impressive, indeed! One of today’s really big, big pianists!
Tchaikovsky: “Les Saisons“, op.37a — XI. Novembre (“Troïka”), Allegro moderato
In response to the frenetic applause, Konstantin Scherbakov returned to Tchaikovsky for the two encores. Both these encores were excellent choices for ending this recital. The first one, “Troïka” / Novembre, from the cycle “Les Saisons” (The Seasons), op.37a, allowed the listener’s mint to come to a rest, offering marvelously singing melodies. In the middle part, Konstantin Scherbakov reduced the tempo, making it sound slightly hesitating, moody, yet playful. This was a maybe unusual, but very interesting, captivating approach. A return from Lyapunov’s technical challenges to music that is entirely atmosphere and expression—and some melancholy!
Tchaikovsky: 2 Morceaux, op.10 — II. Humoresque in E minor, Allegretto scherzando
As the final encore, the pianist chose the second one of Tchaikovsky‘s two Morceaux, op.10, the Humoresque in E minor (and G major), annotated Allegretto scherzando. This was composed 1872.
It would have been wrong to expect light, humorous music here. Tchaikovsky was not really the man for jaunty, light-hearted pieces. So, this is not Scherzo-like music, but a reflective, carefully, sometimes hesitating piece. In that sense, it seemed to pick up from the middle part of the preceding “Troïka“! Both encores were masterfully selected. They were of course played with the same dedication and mastership as all music that evening. One cannot expect casual playing from this artist!
I don’t know what to criticize in that recital. This is a real master of the piano! And he is an artist that deserves more attention!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. But I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review
Addendum 2: The Lyapunov Études on YouTube
Addendum 3: The Lyapunov Études in Scherbakov’s 1993 Recording
Konstantin Scherbakov’s recording of Sergei Lyapunov’s “12 Études dʹexécution transcendante, op.11″ unfortunately is not available as hardcopy CD:
Sergei Michailovich Lyapunov — 12 Études dʹexécution transcendante, op.11
Naxos / Marco Polo 8.223491 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 1993
(currently not available as CD; Amazon.de offers this as download)