Piano Recital: Olga Scheps
Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev

Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-03-08

3-star rating

2016-03-10 — Original posting
2016-10-07 — Brushed up for better readability

Olga Scheps (© 2015 Uwe Arens / Sony Classical)
Olga Scheps (© 2015 Uwe Arens / Sony Classical)

Table of Contents


Olga Scheps is the daughter of two Russian pianists, born in Moscow in 1986. When she was 6, her parents moved to Germany, where her father Ilja Scheps now is a professor at the Aachen section of the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln. Olga Scheps gave her debut at the age of 14, playing Sergei Prokofiev‘s Piano Concerto No.1 in D♭ major, op.10. One of her early mentors was Alfred Brendel. She studied with Professor Pavel Gililov in Cologne and completed her piano studies in 2013, later taking additional classes with Professors Arie Vardi and Dmitri Bashkirov (1931 – 2021). She has since launched a successful career as soloist, as well as chamber musician, giving concerts and recitals all over Europe and Asia, here repertoire centering around classical and romantic composers.

That biography and Olga Scheps’ repertoire sound ideal for the recital at Zurich’s Tonhalle, where the artist selected an all-Russian, romantic and late-romantic program. The one possibly adverse condition was that Olga Scheps seemed to have a cold, and so may not have been in best condition for giving a demanding concert recital. In the following text, I group my comments by composition, in the order in which the pieces were played.

Tchaikovsky: Les Saisons, op.37a/37b

The concert started with the piano cycle “Les Saisons” (The Seasons), op.37a (or op.37b) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky(1840 – 1893): a cycle of twelve catchy, but technically not necessarily easy character pieces, composed around 1886. Instead of a detailed description, I’ll just list the titles and their annotation, along with my comments. For more detail see my comments on last year’s piano recital by Denis Matsuev, featuring the same pieces.

The Performance

Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely happy about the interpretation in this recital. Sure, the music is beautiful, often very pictorial and easy to “understand”, the pieces are short, creating a multi-faceted, entertaining variety: an invitation to lean back and enjoy. However, that’s not my task as reviewer, as I see it: I’m judging a performance on whether it is following the composer’s intentions (as much as those can be derived from the score), and whether the interpretation fulfills my expectations.

Invariably in such recitals, one is comparing such a performance with that of other artists, be it in concert (such as last year’s piano recital by Denis Matsuev) or from recordings: new, independent views on a given composition (like “in empty space”, not influenced by existing or pre-conceived views) are hardly possible at present time. If such a new view were to succeed, it would have to be extremely conclusive, convincing (and still justifiable from the score, unless it is meant to be a parody, an arrangement, or a re-composition). So:

I. Janvier (January)

“Au coin du feu” / At the fireplace: Moderato semplice, ma espressivo — Meno mosso — Tempo
Fluent, if not relatively fast: is this still Moderato? At this pace, I think that also the espressivo aspect is suffering, fast figurations were somewhat superficial. With that basic pace, the contrast to the Meno mosso turned out rather strong. The articulation was careful, but the dynamic contrasts may have been a bit strong for the semplice. On the other hand, I liked the very subtle, almost whispered ending in ppp.

II. Février (February)

Carnaval” / Carnival: Allegro giusto — L’istesso tempo
Again a rather fluent tempo, rather (too) elegant and fast for a carnival dance in the Allegro giusto parts, maybe. However, the middle part was fun, sounding like a boorish peasant dance.

III. Mars (March)

Chant de l’alouette” / Song of the lark: Andantino espressivo
The demisemiquaver triplets were somewhat ill-defined / superficial, but better, i.e., played more carefully in the second (closing) instance of the initial part.

IV. Avril (April)

Perce-neige” / Snowdrop: Allegretto con moto e un poco rubato
Expressive, with a fluent tempo. Maybe at the upper limit for the fast motifs in the middle part?

V. Mai (May)

Les nuits de mai” / The night of May: Andantino — Allegretto giocoso — Poco meno mosso — Andantino
This now was very nice, very calm, lyrical in the first part, lovely, with mellow articulation and careful highlighting of secondary voices in the middle part. There was another instance of a whispered ppp ending: excellent, the highlight in the interpretation of this cycle!

VI. Juin (June)

Barcarolle”: Andante cantabile — Poco più mosso — Allegro giocoso — Tempo I
Somehow, I never had the “gondola feeling”, that sense of a gentle, wavy water surface that I associate with a Barcarolle. Was this too straight, lacking agogics (metric variations within a bar)? This certainly wasn’t overloaded with emotions! The contrasting middle part (Allegro giocoso) was vivid, like a country dance, fairly energetic, but then, when the annotation calls for energico (at the return to Tempo I), I missed the energy.

VII. Juillet (July)

Chant du faucheur” / The reaper’s song: Allegro moderato con moto
A bit heavy (strong accents), more of a peasant dance —

VIII: Août (August)

La moisson” / The harvest: Allegro vivace — Dolce cantabile — Tempo I
This, in contrast, was very fast. Too fast, often superficial. Where’s the link to the harvesting in such hasty music? this was merely a virtuosic showpiece, not even played carefully. The staccato was barely recognizable as such; the dolce cantabile middle part could have been more expressive, more singing.

IX: Septembre (September)

La chasse” / The hunt: Allegro non troppo
I liked the hunting call / motif, but in general, the playing was mostly rather loud and coarse, maybe with too much pedal. I was not really happy with this!

X: Octobre (October)

Chant d’automne” / Autumn song: Andante doloroso e molto cantabile
Very subtle, delicate, sensitive: this was another highlight in this series, with one of these very nice, soft & gentle endings, this time even pppp! Tchaikovsky’s understanding of an autumn song was that of a melancholic “autumn lament”: harvest is over, the dark winter days are approaching rapidly.

XI: Novembre (November)

Troïka”: Allegro moderato
This piece starts with an annotation mf. This was rather p instead; in contrast, the middle part (grazioso) was vivid, lively, sometimes slightly superficial (too fast?) in the semiquavers

XII: Décembre (December)

Noël” / Christmas: Tempo di Valse — Trio — Tempo di Valse — Coda
To me, the central part of the Tempo di Valse with its quaver figures was accelerating too much, while other parts were on the heavy side. The Trio was better, though, with a decent rubato.

Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme by Corelli, op.42

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) wrote his 20 Variations on a Theme by Corelli in D minor, op.42 (Вариации на тему А. Корели) in 1931, while he was in his holiday home in Switzerland. It’s a composition that starts with a very simple theme, but then gradually evolves into substantial virtuosity in the last variations. This was the first piece after the intermission. I again had mixed feelings about Olga Scheps’ interpretation.

Structure of the Variations

  • Theme: Andante
  • Variation_1: Poco più mosso
  • Variation_2: L’istesso tempo
  • Variation_3: Tempo di Minuetto
  • Variation_4: Andante
  • Variation_5: Allegro (ma non tanto)
  • Variation_6: L’istesso tempo
  • Variation_7: Vivace
  • Variation_8: Adagio misterioso
  • Variation_9: Un poco più mosso
  • Variation_10: Allegro scherzando
  • Variation_11: Allegro vivace
  • Variation_12: L’istesso tempo
  • Variation_13: Agitato
  • Intermezzo
  • Variation_14: Andante (come prima)
  • Variation_15: L’istesso tempo
  • Variation_16: Allegro vivace
  • Variation_17: Meno mosso
  • Variation_18: Allegro con brio
  • Variation_19: Più mosso. Agitato
  • Variation_20: Più mosso
  • Coda: Andante

The Performance

Some parts I quite liked and found convincing: e.g., the technically demanding variations 5 – 7 and 9 – 12, also the virtuosic, veiled cadenzas in the Intermezzo, the cantabile in variation 14, and the dolcissimo in variation 15. But there were also parts that I didn’t really like, such as variation 8 (here, I really missed the misterioso aspect), or variation 17, which Olga Scheps played with a continuous ritardando, as if by mistake she had started too fast. In other variations I missed some conciseness, which (as I suspect) fell prey to too fast a tempo. A slightly slower pace in some of the variations would have allowed for more clarity in the articulation. Technically, the pianist did not appear to face major challenges in this music.

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No.7, op.83

The Piano Sonata No.7 in B♭ major, op.83, which Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) composed 1942, is one of the three “war sonatas”, in which Prokofiev allegedly revealed his true feelings towards Stalin’s dictatorship, after in 1939, one of the composers close friends and his wife were arrested and murdered. Strangely, the composer received a Stalin Prize of second class. The sonata was premiered in 1943 by Svjatoslav Richter: it’s an iconic piece that many pianists will regard a pièce de résistance.

It is music with extraordinarily clear texture, technically probably even more demanding than the last variations in Rachmaninoff’s op.42 (“Corelli Variations”). In the latter, and in much of Rachmaninoff’s piano music in general, a major challenge is in the complexity of the texture, the large jumps and the wide chords (Rachmaninoff’s hands were spanning wider than those of most other pianists); in Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7, requires extreme conciseness in the staccato and in the extreme, often harsh dynamic contrasts. Interestingly, the associated Wikipedia article claims that this sonata contains some of Prokofiev’s “most dissonant music for piano”. Dissonant? That wouldn’t be the first attribute that comes to my mind! I’d rather call it “percussive”! The sonata features three movements:

  1. Allegro inquieto — Andantino — Allegro
  2. Andante caloroso
  3. Precipitato

The Performance

Olga Scheps started the Allegro inquieto first movement at a fluent pace, not exaggerating contours and accents. Five bars of poco meno mosso lead into the subsequent Andantino: this felt like semplice, but there is an additional annotation espressivo e dolente. For me, both these attributes (expression and pain / suffering) took about ten bars to take effect, really (I felt the same with the second Andantino segment in this movement). On the other hand, the performance in the virtuosic Allegro sections was really excellent and impressive.

I really liked the interpretation of the Andante caloroso, with its warm, radiant, but really very unique tonality / harmonics. The interpretation was very convincing, intense, with very nice legato playing. Olga Scheps’ way of forming the giant dynamic arches in this movement featured lots of expression and force. I particularly liked the return to Tempo I towards the end, where the pianist managed to keep up the full tension, even though the music seems to have come to a halt at this point.

For the enthralling, almost “jazzy” Precipitato with its concise syncopes and the intricate rhythmic shifts, Olga Scheps appeared to have again collected all her forces and energy: this music is requiring extreme rhythmic conciseness, force, and endurance. With this movement, the pianist has created a true highlight at the end of her official program. The audience was enthusiastic and gave a standing ovation.

Encores, Conclusion

Olga Scheps played two encores; both can be heard and viewed via YouTube recordings (see the addendum 3 below):

  1. A melody from the Opera “Orpheus ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787), arranged for piano by Giovanni Sgambati (1841 – 1914): after Prokofiev’s “war sonata”, this sounded rather harmless, almost shallow. I’m notoriously skeptic about encores (as they tend to obscure the memories from the “real” program). I’m not sure whether this was a good choice here (but it appears to be one of the pianist’s standard encores).
  2. The Nocturne in D♭ major, op.27/2 (Lento sostenuto, CT 115) by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849): I should rather have left the hall. This is the piece I liked the least from the entire evening, too regular, lacking all agogic tension, occasionally too solid and straight, mostly too slow and sweet, lacking the mystery and atmosphere so typical of Chopin’s Nocturnes, in short: pretty much a disappointment. I’ll let the reader decide whether that also applies to the recorded version below.

Addendum 1

Some 2 years ago, in a Listening Diary, I have briefly reviewed a recording of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Les Saisons”, op.37a, with the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. As mentioned above, this composition was also featured in a piano recital by Denis Matsuev at the Tonhalle Zurich, on 2015-11-27.

Addendum 2: YouTube

Olga Scheps’ encores from this recital can also be found on YouTube. Here’s the first one, a melody from the Opera “Orpheus ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787), arranged by Giovanni Sgambati (1841 – 1914):

and the second one, the Nocturne in D♭ major, op.27/2 (Lento sostenuto, CT 115) by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849):

Also the Piano Sonata No.7 in B♭ major, op.83 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) can be found on YouTube, played by Olga Scheps:

Addendum 3

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. 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.

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