Piano Recital: Konstantin Scherbakov
Ludwig van Beethoven

Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-12-12

4.5-star rating

2015-12-13 — Original posting
2016-08-21 — Brushed up for better readability

Konstantin Scherbakov (source: scherbakov.ch; photo © Jen-Pin)
Konstantin Scherbakov (source: scherbakov.ch; photo © Jen-Pin)

Table of Contents


I almost missed out on this piano recital by Konstantin Scherbakov at in the “Großer Saal” of the Tonhalle in Zurich: it somehow slipped through my watchlist, so I wasn’t even aware it was happening. But unexpectedly I got a chance to attend, even with the fantastic privilege of sitting on first-row podium seats! I could not have felt more blessed ever throughout this past year!

Some may argue that on stage seats one is sitting “behind” the piano, seeing only its lid, the sound going out in the other direction. However, the truth is that I did not sense the slightest acoustic disadvantage (also thanks to the excellent acoustics of the hall) or imbalance in sound. On top of that, I had a perfect view on the artist’s hands (both directly, as well as mirrored in the keyboard lid. It also helped that my position was slightly elevated. Plus, for once I got a chance to have an excellent view on the artist’s left hand. That’s the part in a piano performance that is often neglected — visually, and maybe even in what our senses believe to hear from watching primarily the right hand!

The Program

On to the program of the evening! Konstantin Scherbakov (*1963) played an all-Beethoven program, major parts of which I had already heard him play earlier this year, in the Semper-Aula of the ETH in Zurich, on 2015-03-24. All compositions in this “Xmas concert” were by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827):

All this music was not new to the artist, but had been in his repertoire for many years. He had recorded the Variations op.35 back in 1984, the Liszt transcription of all Beethoven symphonies were recorded 1998 – 2006, and finally, the piano sonata op.27/2 is part of any pianist’s standard repertoire. In the concert in March, he played the variations op.35, as well as the Liszt transcription of Beethoven’s “Eroica”. Even this evening’s encore was part of the program in March, see below.

A Repeat Program?

This sounds like mostly a repeat concert. However, in the aftermath, I think that the concert in March, in a small venue with a mere 99 seats in the auditorium, served as a “testbed” for a program (composed of pieces that maybe he hadn’t played in concert for several years) that Konstantin Scherbakov took to a big tour throughout East Asia this summer.

So, this was the return of that program to Zurich, after more than half a year of further maturing and settling, now (deservedly!) for a much bigger audience. The venue was practically sold out. Of course, the basic characteristics of Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation have not changed since March. So, I’m not going to repeat myself in detailed descriptions (see my earlier post for a write-up on this), but I make this a rather short review, focusing on my fresh impressions from this concert.

Artist and Instrument

Even without the previous concert in March, I knew what to expect, knowing that this would be a classic interpretation. In other words: I did not expect a historically informed / oriented performance. This would require a fortepiano (replica or original) anyway. The concert in the Tonhalle was on a Steinway D, the type of instrument Konstantin Scherbakov teaches and lives with. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory, with Lev Naumow (1925 – 2005), a pupil of the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus (1888 – 1964). So, we are talking about a classic interpretation. Specifically, one of the classic Russian School that has brought us so many great artists. And what an interpretation this was!

Sonata No.14 in C♯ minor, op.27/2

One should keep in mind that the naming of this sonata is totally mis-leading. It is definitely not by the composer.

In the back of my mind, I had this thought that one may be hearing the famous “Moonlight Sonata” op.27/2 a bit too frequently. Maybe the sonata is even somewhat “worn out”? This evening definitely proved such thoughts to be wrong.

The Performance

I. Adagio sostenuto

Right from the first bars, Konstantin Scherbakov’s playing captured my attention. He is a master at controlling his keyboard touch. That touch was wonderfully mellow, legato in the first movement. I also found his dynamics to be very diligent and subtle. Even more subtle and detailed were his agogics. Nothing ever was superficial. The artist knew and felt exactly how much to “hold back” in front of peak notes without ever losing / disrupting the musical flow. He carried his listeners through the piece and made them feel embedded in this music.

II. Allegretto

Just like the first movement, the Allegretto was marvelously quiescent, devoid of all inappropriate excitement. Only the first part of the Trio stood out slightly, with its sf and fp accents. Serene, almost heavenly music, again carried / supported by masterfully controlled agogics.

III. Presto agitato

Also the last movement, Presto agitato, was — despite its dramatic attitude — devoid of extroverted virtuosity. Konstantin Scherbakov focused on the expression, the internal turmoil, but without overloading his playing. Many pianists try to shine by delivering ultra-sharp staccato / sf double-quavers. Here, the pianist performed these correctly, with the sf on the first note only, the second one being a mere shadow/echo.

Based on this sonata, I would claim that Konstantin Scherbakov is a master in decent and discreet agogics, and a master of mellow, harmonious keyboard touch!

15 Variations with Fugue in E♭ major, op.35

As stated, I have discussed Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation of the Variations op.35 already in with the review of the concert in March. I have further discussed his CD recording of the same composition from 1984 in a comparison post (the latter was posted after the concert review).

The Performance

For this concert, let me just add some remarks on the relationship between the CD recording from 1984 and this concert performance. The 1984 recording is technically brilliant. It is virtually perfect, as expected for a studio recording: a very “pianistic”, excellent performance — maybe slightly “edgy” at times.

In this concert now the artist focused on expression, phrasing and musical flow. Some features persist from the 1984 recording, such as the slightly faster semiquaver segments in the first half of the theme. But mostly, the interpretation now is more harmonious, certainly avoids extremes, seems more careful and more expressive. Of course, it still is technically brilliant. Though, technicalities now have become inconspicuous. They are a mere basis on which the music can evolve and flourish.

Beethoven / Liszt: Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55

One could say similar things about Konstantin Scherbakov’s performance of Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No.3, “Eroica”. Also here, some of Scherbakov’s CD recordings of Liszt’s Beethoven symphony transcriptions for two hands (dating from 1998 – 2006) are occasionally somewhat “edgy”. They may occasionally be a touch rough in the articulation — even more than the op.35 recording from 1984. This is entirely gone in this year’s performances. Even between the concert in March 2015 and now, I felt that the interpretation has settled, become more natural.

In today’s performance (more so than in his CD recordings), Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation is not aiming at a demonstration of his own technical brilliance, or of the virtuosity in Franz Liszt’s piano score.

Why Those Transcriptions?

Liszt made those transcriptions such that Beethoven’s symphonies (which he admired) became more accessible to audiences that did not have a chance to attend orchestral performances. Also, in the absence of recording media in the 19th century, listening to piano transcriptions was popular, especially in the wealthier parts of society. In other words: these transcriptions are not about Liszt’s excellence as composer, nor about the virtuosity of the pianist, but about Beethoven’s music. This is exactly what was so stunning about Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation. It’s not the “pure pianist’s approach”, but a very serious effort to make the audience experience Beethoven’s original music, his symphony. With this, I don’t mean to belittle or deny the vast technical challenges, the forces that it takes to play these 50 minutes of complex piano score!

Highlights in the Performance

Even for those only moderately familiar with Beethoven’s third symphony, at least the outline of the instrumentation must have sprung to mind. The most striking, stunning moment for me was in the Trio, where those beautiful horn calls, the melody lines of the three horns turned into almost visual reality.

Actually, in some ways, Liszt’s piano score is more transparent than the orchestral version. It permits hearing, makes it easier to follow otherwise hidden details, such as secondary voices that can easily be overheard in the orchestra. It’s in all these aspects where I see the particular strength in Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation, besides all the points made with the first two compositions in this program. Apart from the horn calls in the Trio, I was particularly touched by those serene episodes within the funeral march, where the music switches to major keys. These felt like short glimpses into heaven / a paradise. Inevitably, though, the relentless march towards the tomb resumes, overshadowing these episodes. In many ways, this was a masterful, overwhelming interpretation — and a memorable experience. I’m sure the majority of the people in the audience were equally impressed by this.

Needless to say that Konstantin Scherbakov more than deserved the strong applause!

Encore — Bagatelle in E♭ major, op.126/3

Very often, I’m skeptical about encores, because they tend to “erase” the vivid memories from the pieces played in the regular program. However, Konstantin Scherbakov made an excellent choice, by selecting the Bagatelle No.3 in E♭ major from Beethoven’s op.126 (Andante cantabile e grazioso). This is one of the composer’s very last works, a really serene piece. At the same time, it a welcome transition from the turmoil, the highly emotional world of the finale in Beethoven’s symphony, into the starry night on the way home.


Throughout the concert it was fascinating to watch Konstantin Scherbakov’s calm, relaxed, effortless posture, particularly in arms, hands and fingers. Pretty much throughout the performance, his visual appearance gave very little indication about the technical challenges in this concert. His unpretentious attitude, his friendly appearance reinforced this impression. Had he not already had my highest esteem and appreciation as an artist, he would have won it with this concert. Many thanks for this fantastic experience!

Addendum 1

Konstantin Scherbakov has played the Variations op.35, and Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Symphony No.3 in an earlier recital. That concert took place on 2015-03-24 in the Semper-Aula of the ETH Zurich. I have reviewed this in a separate blog post.

Addendum 2

I have posted discussions / CD comparisons for all of the works in the official part of this program:

Addendum 3: CDs Relating to this Concert

Konstantin Scherbakov: Beethoven, Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 in Franz Liszt’s piano transcription (part of the set below)

Liszt / Beethoven: Symphonies Nos.1 & 3 — Scherbakov; CD cover

Franz Liszt: Beethoven, Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3, piano transcriptions

Konstantin Scherbakov, piano

Naxos 8.555354 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2001
Booklet: 8 pp. en/de/fr

Liszt / Beethoven: Symphonies Nos.1 & 3 — Scherbakov; CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

Konstantin Scherbakov: Beethoven, Symphonies Nos. 1 – 9 in Franz Liszt’s piano transcription

Liszt / The Beethoven Symphonies — Scherbakov; CD cover

Franz Liszt: Beethoven, Symphonies Nos. 1 – 9, piano transcriptions

Konstantin Scherbakov, piano

Naxos 8.505219 (5 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1998 – 2006 / © 2006
Booklets with the individual CDs, typically 8 pp., en/de/fr

Liszt / The Beethoven Symphonies — Scherbakov; CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

Konstantin Scherbakov: Beethoven, 15 Variations op.35; Piano Sonatas opp.13 (“Pathétique”) & 57 (“Appassionata”)

Beethoven: Eroica Variations op.35, Piano Sonatas opp.13 & 57 — Konstantin Scherbakov; CD Cover

Ludwig van Beethoven: 15 Variations op.35 (“Eroica”), Piano Sonatas opp.13 & 57

Konstantin Scherbakov, piano

Two Pianists Records TP1039190 (5 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2015

Beethoven: Eroica Variations op.35, Piano Sonatas opp.13 & 57 — Konstantin Scherbakov; CD, EAN-13 barcode
amazon media link

The Naxos CDs appeared as part of a project, intended to cover all of Franz Liszt’s piano works, involving several artists.

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