Lev Sivkov
Reger / Berio / Britten / Ibert / Bach

Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2020-01-21

4.5-star rating

2020-02-02 — Original posting

Lev Sivkov @ Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2020-01-21 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Lev Sivkov @ Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2020-01-21 (© Rolf Kyburz)
“Rosinen” im Repertoire für Cello solo, vom 20. Jahrhundert zurück zum Barock — Zusammenfassung

In einem hervorragenden Solo-Rezital in der Semper-Aula der ETH Zürich präsentierte der Russe Lev Sivkov (*1990, jetzt Solo-Cellist am Opernhaus Zürich) Höhepunkte des Cello-Repertoires. Er begann mit der technisch höchst anspruchsvollen Suite Nr.1 in a-moll, op.131c/1 von Max Reger. Diese Komposition lehnt sich erst an Bach’s Suiten an, bewegt sich dann jedoch in die Sphären der Spätromantik. Lev Sivkov meisterte die intonatorischen Schwierigkeiten scheinbar mühelos.

Als kleines Intermezzo folgte ein kurzes, aber interessantes Stück Les mots sont allés… — “recitativo”, das Luciano Berio 1978 zum 70. Geburtstag von Paul Sacher komponiert hat. Der erste Teil des Rezitals schloss mit der zweiten Suite für Cello solo, op.80 von Benjamin Britten—ein musikalisches Meisterwerk.

Bevor sich Lev Sivkov im zweiten Teil dem Barock zuwandte, schob der Cellist die kurze, aber kontrastreiche Ghirlarzana von Jacques Ibert ein. Schließlich folgte die freudvoll-apollinische Suite Nr.3 in C-dur von Johann Sebastian Bach, der Lev Sivkov als Zugaben gleich noch die Präludien der Suiten Nr.2 (d-moll) und Nr.4 (Es-dur) folgen ließ.

Table of Contents


Three months after my last visit to that place, I found myself back in the venerable Semper-Aula at Zurich’s ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), for another concert in the series Musik an ETH und UZH, organized by Musical Discovery. The concert was unusual for this context insofar, as there was no piano involved: most concerts in the series are either piano recitals, or chamber music with piano. String quartet or similar chamber music recitals would be one such exception. However, this concert featured a single string instrument: a rare instance of a recital for cello solo:

The Artist: Lev Sivkov, Cello

This was the second time that I heard the cellist Lev Sivkov (*1990) in this venue. On 2018-10-23, he performed as part of a group of chamber musicians, in a concert that included a variety of genres. Lev Sivkov then was part of a string trio, a piano quartet, and a piano quintet.

The artist grew up in Novosibirsk. At age 19, he moved to Stuttgart, studying with Conradin Brotbek and Jean-Guyhen Queyras. He followed the latter to Freiburg, where he continued his studies. 2016, he was solo cellist at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, and since 2017, Lev Sivkov is solo cellist in the Philharmonia Zürich, the orchestra of the Zurich Opera.

According to older information he plays (played) an instrument by Miremont et fils from 1880. However, more recent information (2019-07-30) indicates that he is currently playing a cello by Vincenzo Postiglione II (Naples, 1831 – 1916) from around 1894.


Lev Sivkov performed a repertoire ranging from baroque to 20th century.

The initial program announcement the pieces in the order Reger — Ibert — Britten — Bach — Berio. The above order, however, made sense.


The venue offers 99 seats. Not all of these were occupied—but for a solo performance, the event featured a fair-size audience. The organizers reserved me a seat at the left edge of row #3. I could see the artist performing, the spot offers optimum acoustics, and I could also operate my camera for the photos.

Concert & Review

Reger: 3 Suites for Cello solo, op.131c — Suite No.1 in G major (1915)

1914 and 1915, the German composer Max Reger (1873 – 1916) published four series of chamber music works, all falling under “op.131”:

  • 6 Preludes and Fugues for violin solo, op.131a
  • 3 Duos (canons and fugues) in old style, for two violins, op.131b
  • The 3 Suites for Cello solo, op.131c
  • 3 Suites for Viola solo, op.131d

The three Suites for Cello solo, op.131c (all from 1915) include

These suites are among the most demanding works in the repertoire for cello solo. The first suite in G major has the following three movements:

  1. Präludium: Vivace
  2. Adagio
  3. Fuge: Allegro

The Performance

Already the first notes clearly demonstrated Reger’s affinity to baroque, and more specifically Bach’s music! Even though the composer didn’t follow the full suite scheme (the one direct analogy is the opening prelude movement), and even though he doesn’t directly copy any themes, the proximity to Bach’s suites was very tangible in every phrase, every motif. This not only made the listener feel at ease in this music, but it also nicely opened the circle which the last piece in the program, Bach’s Cello Suite No.3 would close.

In the Präludium, I actually felt that within Bach’s six suites, the No.3 in C major bears the closest relationship with Reger’s Suite No.1 in G major. Even in the harmonies, the latter seemed to follow Bach’s model, and melodically, there are similarities with Bach’s No.3 (scales), as well as with Bach’s No.6 in D major, and No.1 in G major. So, already the beginning pointed to an excellently composed recital program.

I. Präludium: Vivace

Needless to say that Reger did not stay within Bach’s harmonic realm. While it seemed possible to collect almost all motifs from Bach’s models, Reger expectedly ventured into late-romantic harmonic progressions, then alternated between baroque and late-romantic “role models”. But even in the latter, he uses dissonances sparingly, doesn’t upset the listener. Quite to the contrary: what rich, enchanting, marvelous music this is—one could listen to it on end (also because Reger uses a wider spectrum of harmonies than Bach, of course).

The acoustics appeared to offer ideal support to the ravishingly beautiful tone of the cello, and Lev Sivkov let the instrument sing, resonate, reaching and connecting with everybody in the hall with his expressive, full tone, the harmonious (but not excessively strong or fast) vibrato. In short: his playing was masterful, the intonation firm, also where Reger’s double-stop passages get fairly challenging.

II. Adagio

Albeit Adagio, and even though also here, there are “baroque segments” in harmonies and motifs, the middle movement appears far more challenging. It is full of late-romantic harmonies, intricate, rapid “odd” broken chords and non-diatonic scales, as well as double- and triple-stop passages full of accidentals. Clearly, here (again), the biggest challenge is in the intonation—which Lev Sivkov not only mastered well, but at the same time formed beautiful dynamic arches, exploiting the instrument’s full resonance, especially in the bass and middle ranges. Only in the top range, the cello sounded maybe a tad “covered”. However, the artist more than compensated this with the verve, the expression and intensity in this playing.

III. Fuge: Allegro

The simple fugue theme sounds familiar, popular even—however, Reger’s harmonies and the marcato articulation make this soon sound rather austere—more austere than Bach’s fugues. And the difficulties in this piece in intonation through the complex double-, triple- and quadruple-stop passages are horrendous, the textures not too far from Bach’s most difficult fugues for the violin solo,. Still, Lev Sivkov was able to make this music sound joyful (and somewhat moody—maybe Reger’s sarcastic trait?).

Berio: Les mots sont allés… — “recitativo” for Cello (1978)

Luciano Berio (1925 – 2003) composed “Les mots sont allés …” — a “Recitativo” for cello in 1978, on the occasion of the 70th birthday of the conductor, patron and impresario Paul Sacher (1906 – 1999). From the description at the Universal Edition Website: “… this short piece is based on the dedicatee’s name. The initial tempo is slow, as the pitch material is as it were introduced. Variations follow, according to the commission, which Rostropovich negotiated; the music becomes ever more animated, passionate, virtuosic. Despite its brevity, listeners experience its musical richness.

“Based on the dedicatee’s name” means a theme based on the tone sequence “E♭ — A — C — B — E”, i.e., “Es (=S) — A — C — H — E — [r]” in German reading. In fact, this sequence is opening the piece.

The Performance

Very careful, subtle, the “name theme” in the beginning. Initially hesitant, seeking, the theme is repeated while widening the pitch, switching to different octaves, the tone turns more and more colorful (e.g., through an “airy” bow and sul ponticello playing). Despite the octave jumps and the pauses, the theme remains recognizable. It seems that Berio applied principles of Dodecaphony, though (?) limited to, or focusing on the tones of the theme / name.

A second voice joins in, initially accompanying / following the first one, then forming a dialog that picks up intensity, rapid tremolo depicts excitement, tension—and soon after the trembling climax, the atmosphere calms down again, finally fading away into a vibrato-less, “hollow, naked” open minor sixth—an open question? An interesting little mystery piece—pensive, reflective…

Britten: Suite No.2 for Cello solo, op.80 (1967)

Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) composed three suites for cello solo. The Suite No.2 for Cello solo, op.80 is from the year 1967. The Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927 – 2007), who inspired Britten to write all three of the suites, premiered it in 1968. The movements are

  1. Declamato: Largo
  2. Fuga: Andante
  3. Scherzo: Allegro molto
  4. Andante lento
  5. Ciaccona: Allegro

The Performance

I. Declamato: Largo — II. Fuga: Andante

The resolute beginning feels austere—but the tone soon softens, momentarily retracts into pp, and a downward glissando appears to catch motion and momentum. The music livens up, swaying out in pitch and into an astounding dynamic bandwidth, exploring depth. Indeed, a declamation, maybe a philosophical monolog, meditative, reflecting overall. The artist seemed to seek eye contact with people on the audience—most likely sub-consciously, without really looking. His tone was intense, clear, well-defined down to the finest pp, through the switches in mood / atmosphere and emotion.

The fugue follows the Declamato without interruption, forming a single, really multifaceted movement that alternates between decisive “statements”, reflective moments, and lively sections expressing hope and joy, even “dialog” segments with lively interaction. The fugue itself is not easily recognizable as such—it feels more like a canon, where the two voices are closely intertwined in “hidden polyphony”.

III. Scherzo: Allegro molto

The short Scherzo features a wild, raging, emote theme. Exclamations, often ending in a rapidly growing, abruptly ending tones—anger, almost brutal action? Not without resolution, though—the emotions calm down, the movement ends calm, peaceful.

IV. Andante lento

A gentle, soft, melancholic cantilena, with the accompaniment of left-hand pizzicato, then “proper” pizzicato even with both hands, mixed with spiccato tones, picking up emotion, urgency and intensity. The movement culminates in intense cantilenas, even as duet, then retracts, returning to pizzicato in a single tone, fading away into the finest pppp: touching, beautiful!

V. Ciaccona: Allegro

A highly virtuosic movement! Short staccato notes in the bass mark the short, repetitive Chaconne theme. These tones initially alternate with melody notes (also staccato) in the descant. The latter rapidly pick up motion, a third voice joins in, first as hidden polyphony, then into double-stop playing, only interrupted by jumps to the intermittent bass notes. The music dwells into expressive, lively cadenzas, then returns to the “Ciaccona mode”. This is giving way to vibrant arpeggiando, leading into intense singing in the descant, then covering the entire range, highly expressive, harmonious, beautiful—and rich in colors, pictures, narration. A jubilant, vivid and joyful climax, calming down again, then reviving into a lively, final cadenza. When the movement ends in jubilant C major, the wistful moments, the quarrels of the Scherzo, the austerity of the beginning are all forgotten. A masterpiece, brilliantly performed!

Ibert: “Ghirlarzana” quasi adagio for Cello solo (1950)

Jacques Ibert (1890 – 1962) wrote Ghirlarzanaquasi adagio for cello solo in 1950 upon a commission by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation. It is a short work in a single movement.

The Performance

A piece that is based on contrasts: tiny, often “airy” motifs in the descant against earthly counterpoint responses in bass, dissonances and proximity in the latter, distance and abstraction in the upper voice. Melancholy and pain vs. serenity, earth vs. heaven. At least initially, the piece is using motifs rather than melodies—unless one takes a descant “question” and its response in the bass for a melody fragment. Pensive, reflective: strong expression and intensity in smallest motifs / fragments. Only in the center, the voices get more agitated. Initially, they feel almost independent, their encounters going through narrow, often poignant dissonances. Gradually, they are interacting more closely, also more harmoniously, motifs connect up into short melodic segments, the atmosphere moves from pin and melancholy to serenity—ultimately fading away into the distance… A little gem, this piece!

Bach: Suite for Cello Solo No.3 in C major, BWV 1009

Among the six Suites for cello solo (BWV 1007-1012) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), the Suite No.3, BWV 1009, is in C major, featuring the following movements:

  1. Prélude
  2. Allemande
  3. Courante
  4. Sarabande
  5. Bourrée I / II
  6. Gigue

The Performance

I. Prélude

Lev Sivkov played with relatively broad articulation, with differentiated agogics and careful dynamics. His articulation (in my view) was sufficiently percussive, yet light, at the same time, he varied his tone from moderately intense (never forced) to subtle and airy, as appropriate for the musical phrase. It was definitely not an austere „bare bones“ performance: swaying out in agogics and dynamics with the course of the phrase.

Lev Sivkov’s vibrato was either absent or entirely inconspicuous. That’s not just in line with today’s state-of-the-art historically informer performances, but almost mandated by the frequent use of empty strings: C major is the ideal key for the cello, its strings being tuned to C-G-D-A.

II. Allemande

A dance movement, with delightful rhythmic / agogic swaying, very light in articulation and tone. And of course, Lev Sivkov observed both repeats, as also in all subsequent movements.

III. Courante

Here, the „dance swaying“ initially seemed slightly weaker, the rhythm / meter a tad more regular: the movement is almost entirely in quavers. However, the swaying happened at a larger scale: not inside bars, but in the bigger phrases. I did indeed like the subtle harmonious arches, which the artist formed in flow, dynamics, and tension.

IV. Sarabande

A slow dance movement—and a dance it was! The rhythmic swaying was again more distinct at the level of motifs, stronger in agogics and dynamics. One may see this as “dreamy” movement (sheer beauty and serenity!)—but of course, the artist maintained presence and intensity across the big, expressive arches.

V. Bourrée I / II

The pair of Bourrées return to a lively dance pace. I found the articulation to be light—an excellent compromise between broad and dry. And I really liked the momentum, and the big breath in these movements!

VI. Gigue

A completely different type of dance, in 3/8 meter: fast, light, fun, with “folk moments” that imitate a hurdy-gurdy. Needless to say that this was again excellent in the momentum, the big arches!

Encore 1 — Suite for Cello solo No.2 in D minor, BWV 1008 (Prélude)

The advantage of ending the official program with a Bach Suite was that for the encores, the artist could simply select a movement from another one of Bach’s Suites, without “breaking the context”. The first encore was the opening movement (Prélude) from the Suite for Cello solo No.2 in D minor, BWV 1008:

One may seem this piece as emotionally restrained, if not austere. Nevertheless, Lev Sivkov presented it full of inner life and beauty, with pronounced swaying in every phrase, always “breathing”, and forming a single, big arch up to the fermata that leads into a long pause. The artist made the bars that follow sound like the cadenza in a concerto. Not a virtuosic show or excursion, though, but a post scriptum of sorts, comment to what preceded. The five chords that close the piece felt like open-ended—but that of course was Bach’s intent: it’s the prelude to a suite, after all.

Encore 2 — Suite for Cello solo No.4 in E♭ major, BWV 1010 (Prélude)

Lev Sivkov announced a second encore—on the same path: the opening movement (again named Prélude) from the Suite for Cello solo No.4 in E♭ major, BWV 1010.

There is little to add to what was already stated about the performance of the Bach pieces above. One comment on the music, though: compared to the other suites in major keys (No.1 in G major, No.3 in C major, and No.6 in D major), this suite always strikes me as the most austere. That’s not unexpected, though, considering the E♭ major key: this leaves little opportunity for added resonance from empty strings. And it is distinctly “uneasy”, if not challenging to play! Of course, that wasn’t noticeable here, as Lev Sivkov was able to breathe life and emotion into this music, too!

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