Piano Recital: Oliver Schnyder
Mozart / Beethoven
Aula, KZO, Wetzikon, 2018-01-31
Two days prior to this concert I learned through Facebook that Oliver Schnyder (*1973, see also Wikipedia) was going to step in for Angela Hewitt (*1958, see again Wikipedia) at the “Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland / Klavierissimo” festival in Wetzikon ZH, a 5-minute train ride from where we live. Angela Hewitt apparently fell on a staircase and is unable to travel. She planned to perform the complete first book (24 preludes and fugues) of the Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846 – 869, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750).
So, today, my wife and I spontaneously decided to attend Oliver Schnyder’s recital. One motivator was that Oliver Schnyder did not take over Hewitt’s program. I’m skeptical in general about Bach on the piano, and the above work in particular in my opinion should not be performed (in public) on instruments with equal temperament tuning, such as a modern concert grand (see a separate blog post on this issue). But Oliver Schnyder decided to perform pieces of his own choice, by Mozart and Beethoven, so…
My general concert schedule in the first two months of 2018 seems fairly loose. However, this and last week I ran into a cumulation of 8 concerts. Four of those were with review commitments for Bachtrack, which will receive “standard treatment”, i.e., a Bachtrack review, later an extended follow-up review in my blog). But for the other events I decided to try a more compact review for my blog. The hope is that with this, my backlog isn’t getting too big. We’ll see how that works out. In the past, “short reviews” often ended up being among the longer ones! I may (have to) use this (hopefully) reduced scheme for “non-Bachtrack” concerts more frequently.
In these simpler reviews, I try not to shorten my comments to the actual performance. However, I will spend fewer words on introducing artists, venues, composers and their works. I do keep the general, structured format, though. In other words: with the subtitles etc. it should be easy to locate comments on a given piece or movement. At the same time, the text should not look like a single, huge “blob”.
Artist & Venue
Oliver Schnyder doesn’t need to be introduced here: I have written about his solo performances in recitals, as soloist with orchestras, and as member of chamber music ensembles.
The venue for this concert was the Aula of the Kantonsschule Zürcher Oberland (KZO, a regional high school). It’s an excellent concert hall with around 600 seats in a semi-circular arrangement, fairly good acoustics and excellent view from all seats. I’m familiar with the venue from earlier concerts. However, all events that I previously attended in this hall occurred before I started blogging & writing concert reviews.
The piano was a Steinway D-274 concert grand, excellently tuned and regulated by the local “piano source”, Gebrüder Bachmann, in Wetzikon.
Mozart: Piano Sonata in B♭ major, K.570
Oliver Schnyder opened his program with the Sonata (No.17) in B♭ major, K.570, which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed in 1789, in response to a commission by the Prussian Court. The composition features three movements.
I did not expect Oliver Schnyder to try imitating a fortepiano. The interpretation fitted the instrument at hand: full, round in sound, the staccati not too harsh / short, nice legato, singing melodies. Oliver Schnyder avoided all harshness, formed harmonious, gentle dynamic arches. Of course, there were Mozart’s f chords. However, these were merely f, not ff or sfz. The repeat of the exposition was left “as is”. There were no additional ornaments or variations. I liked the minute ritenuto prior to the second theme, in bar 22. One quibble: the repeat of the exposition seemed a tad rushed (some unrest compared to the first pass). Maybe some extra ornaments would have been in order, might have prevented the rushing?
There was also some extra (unnecessary) acceleration in the semiquaver passage in bars 95ff, in the development part, later again (just a tad) in bars 187ff (the equivalent semiquaver passage in the recap section). But I liked the little, hinted fermata prior to the recap section, in bar 132.
The main theme of the Rondo form sounded pensive, retained. It fitted the farewell mood that is sometimes ascribed to this theme. Again, Oliver Schnyder left the music as is, did not add extra ornaments. All repeats in Mozart’s score were observed (thanks a lot—this keeps the composer’s balance in structure and length!). The first couplet was treated similar to the main theme. Here, the repeat of the second part had some subtle dynamic variation (slightly louder). There was a nice, little extra ritenuto / fermata prior to the return of the main theme. I also liked the little extra time that Oliver Schnyder gave to the peak motes in the second beat in bars 32 / 33 and some equivalent motifs.
Technically, the movement may sound easy—the interpretation certainly isn’t. One could also tell this from one or two tiny (hardly noticeable) mishaps that occurred—even to an experienced pianist such as Oliver Schnyder! The one freedom that the pianist allowed for was in the coda. This was treated more freely, more flexible in the tempo.
Here, the tempo felt absolutely natural, devoid of unnecessary sporty ambitions, of extravaganza: Mozart was commissioned to write simple sonatas. Again, the repeats did not get extra ornaments. Oliver Schnyder merely applied subtle dynamic variations between the two passes . And also here, all repeats were observed. The one place where Oliver Schnyder did add extra ornaments was in the Coda: nice! This indeed would otherwise have sounded like yet another repetition of the main theme.
Quibbles? Bar 53 was a tiny bit rushed in the second pass. But that must have gone unnoticed by most listeners.
The sonata ends with three f chords. Oliver Schnyder did the first chord f; however, he softened the final two to a gentle p—a nice idea!
The program continued with Mozart’s Sonata (No.8) in A minor, K.310 / 300d from 1778, again with three movements. This is one of only two piano sonatas by this composer in a minor tonality, more serious, earnest than all others: Mozart’s mother had just died when she accompanied him on a trip to Paris. In addition, different from K.570, Mozart wrote this sonata for his own concerts. this explains why it is (albeit an earlier one than K.570) much more demanding, technically and musically.
I. Allegro maestoso
A little hiccup to start: I did not understand why Oliver Schnyder played acciaccaturas in lieu of appoggiaturas in bars 2 and 4 (also in the repetition, and again at the beginning of the development and recap sections). To me, this not only sounds odd (I have rarely heard it played this way), it is also inconsistent. Yes, Mozart writes the grace notes as semiquavers. But he does so throughout the movement, never with a slash through it (which would indicate fast execution, i.e., acciaccatura), and Schnyder treated all (?) other occurrences as appoggiaturas, i.e., as “slow ornament”, just barely distinguishable from a regular, full size notes (the distinction should in my opinion be mostly dynamic, not in duration).
Oliver Schnyder played this as fairly dramatic music—which it is. Quite expectedly, it sounded—like Mozart on a modern concert grand, i.e., heavier, fuller, darker than on Mozart’s instruments, which one simply cannot imitated on modern grands. Apart from the principal sound characteristics, one major difference here (in my opinion) was, that the semiquaver sections felt rather massive and powerful (in comparison to the fortepiano, that is). The movement also might have benefitted from a little more agogics, an occasional pensive component / moment (but OK, I know that I view this music from the point-of-view of fortepiano playing).
II. Andante cantabile con espressione
A tricky movement! Mozart writes it in 3/4 time, Andante cantabile, but at the same time, he uses note values down to hemidemisemiquavers (even with trills!!). It is probably unavoidable that the beginning feels much slower than Andante, with the small note values receiving too much weight, and at the same time, the movement sounds more heavy than intimate. The problem is aggravated on modern instruments with their heavier mechanics, as there is a limit to the speed at which one can play these short notes. As a result of the (relatively) slow tempo, Oliver Schnyder (understandably) left out the repeat of the first part.
On the bright(er) side, the key to this movement is the cantabile part, and the con espressione. Oliver Schnyder certainly knows how to make the piano sing! Also, he carefully crafted the dynamics, the phrasing: that aspect clearly was excellent!
I note that here, the appoggiaturas were all performed as written, i.e., slow…
To me (see above), the Presto movement felt rather soft, fluent in the articulation: I think the movement deserves more “bite”, more drama (maybe anger, even sarcasm / grim humor, rage?). There were sections that sounded lovely (reminiscences of the composer’s late mother?), if not amiable—and sometimes more Allegretto than Presto.
Am I expecting too much? OK, I’m biased—and Mozart is definitely more difficult to play than most people think!
The “big chunk” and the most challenging piece followed after the intermission: the Piano Sonata No.29 in B♭ major, op.106 (“Hammerklavier“), which Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) composed 1818. It’s Beethoven’s biggest sonata (typically around 40 – 45 minutes), and it it is one of the most difficult pieces in the entire piano literature—not just technically, but (maybe even primarily) in the interpretation. This sonata features four movements.
Oliver Schnyder seems determined to master this sonata, master it with bravura even. We’ll see how much he succeeded in this venture: even some big names fail with this monstrous piece!
A dramatic, urging interpretation! I think this is an excellent approach to this movement. Though, Oliver Schnyder has a slight tendency to rush fast motifs (quavers, in this case), which occasionally made the performance sound momentarily superficial. I have noted that in earlier concerts by this artist, too. It was only a nuance, but it went at the expense of details in the articulation. Maybe a very slightly slower tempo would have avoided this? OK, Beethoven’s metronome marking (1/2=138) is fast, indeed. But also this refers to a fortepiano with lighter mechanics and different sound characteristics. The closing bars of the exposition (ff) were even faster than the beginning.
The head of the theme in the 4-voice fugue (development part) was also a little too fast, rushed / pushed. Yes, big phrases were shaped nicely and carefully. However, the tempo again caused details in the articulation, and also a number of (small mishaps) in the development part indicated that Schnyder pushed himself to the limits. Too bad: there was mostly (almost) just drama, pushing. I also expected / hoped to see calm(er) moments. And: why push already the opening movement? There is so much yet to come!
II. Scherzo: Assai vivace — Presto — Prestissimo — Tempo I
In the beginning, the punctuated motifs reached the limits of the piano mechanics, but the dynamic annotations were observed very carefully. In bar 45, Beethoven suddenly switches from B♭ major to B♭ minor. the annotation is semplice, and Beethoven writes long slurs, and the part up to bar 80 essentially is to be played with the sustain pedal. This entire segment has an accompaniment / foundation of rolling quaver triplets. I really liked how the pianist inserted a little hesitation at the point where the tonality changes.
A Presto part follows, without metronome annotation. Maybe because the Allegro vivace was fairly fast already, I could hardly feel the switch to Presto. But the latter part is tough, technically, so…
III. Adagio sostenuto
The first two movements certainly have their challenges, technically. However, it’s the slow movement where many artists fail! The main difficulty here is that the piece is very long (15 – 20 minutes in most interpretations). The challenge is to stay calm, to resist the temptation to accelerate, but on the other hand, to keep up the tension from beginning to end, and to “keep together” the long melody lines.
In my view, Oliver Schnyder’s interpretation felt a tad too fast. Maybe it was a little fast in order to avoid the movement falling apart? The melodies were singing nicely, and the dynamics were carefully shaped. At the same time, there was a frequent sense of unrest, of (undesirable) forward pull, and/or maybe too much “action”. The pianist probably did too much in terms of local agogics (and dynamics?). This added to the unrest and kept too much focus on local “features”. True, the latter were all articulated / formulated very nicely, though.
To me, the music did not feel Adagio, let alone Adagio sostenuto. That wasn’t merely the tempo, but the fact that local “action” received too much focus, in comparison to the big arches / lines. I certainly felt this also in the demisemiquaver segment in bars 86ff. Bar 113 is a kind of “rupture” in the composition: a short general rest, followed by a new start (a tempo). Oliver Schnyder deliberately exposed that rupture (despite the fluent tempo), did not try to harmonize it. One can only say: yes, the rupture is in the score!
Not quite there yet?
Sadly, exactly at this crucial point, somebody’s cell phone rang…
Overall, I rate the movement as “mixed success”. There were lots of nice details in motifs, phrasing, articulation and dynamics. One could have taken almost any 1 or 2 minutes segment and state that it was very nicely and carefully done. But at the same time I also regard this a not 100% successful—yet.
The gist / crux of this movement can be described as the troublesome journey between Scylla and Charybdis. I mean, the conflict, the difficulty in finding the magic point between unrest (or a run-away tempo) and a static performance (boredom, in the extreme, i.e., losing the listener). I think the artist isn’t quite “there” yet in finding the ideal realization.
IV. Introduzione: Largo – Allegro – Fuga: Allegro risoluto
The slow movement is musically tough to master. The following Allegro part of the final movement, on the other hand, is technically very difficult. And it is huge in its form: a large three-part fugue “con alcune licenze” (with some freedom). It’s a fugue with several themes that are anything but short and catchy. That alone is a challenge to present conclusively. And Beethoven takes this to the extreme with what’s doable with two hands and three voices. And when the possibilities (and the listener) seem exhausted, he starts anew, with a new theme. With this, the movement isn’t just a challenge in its technical difficulties, but equally in “keeping it together”, keeping up the tension, once more trying not to lose the listener.
The Largo introduction (just two essentially meter-free bars, formally 4/4) was excellent, even though the demisemiquaver chains were maybe a tad (too) blurred. But OK, the score has no annotation concerning articulation (legato vs. staccato). The transition (last part of bar 2), however, was excellent: both harmonious and full of tension.
Oliver Schnyder started the Allegro (bar 3) very fast, almost furiously. But then, Beethoven inserts another, meter-free section of two bars, a second attempt of sorts, with a new transition to the fugue: theater on the piano stage! It’s a concept that Beethoven used in several other places, such as the last movement to the 9th symphony—and it sure worked here! However, when Beethoven (at last) appears to have mastered the compositorial challenge of entering the fugue, the real challenge for the pianist starts!
Allegro risoluto (Fugue)
Technically, the pianist mastered the fugue really well, there weren’t many mishaps at all. This movement is hardly playable without minor incidents (such as the occasional missing or mis-placed note, etc.) in a live concert. One should not expect perfection here, ever, in a concert; the real dangers are elsewhere.
One tricky segment starts around bar 152, where Beethoven takes back the volume to p and writes cantabile, explicitly writes sempre p. After all the action that preceded, it is very difficult not to lose the tension, the suspense, the direction in this segment. I did indeed feel that around bar 170,, there was a distinct loss of tension. But Oliver Schnyder soon recovered after this, and I was pleased to see how well he mastered all the polyphonic challenges.
The Final Segment
The next, major hurdle is again not technical, but the fresh, una corda beginning after the half-closure in A major and the general rest at bars 248/249. Oliver Schnyder decided to play this sempre dolce e cantabile section at a slower pace: a risky choice! It means that the momentum from the previous segment is lost—deliberately discarded, and now one needs to start anew, building up tension and momentum. But I must say: it worked out well in this performance—I even felt that as a dramatic concept, this last part felt more successful / compelling than the first part.
One little exception maybe was at the transition to the coda, around bar 366, which didn’t convince me. It appeared as a little rupture. The momentum is lost momentarily—and so was the tension.
In the fugue, the Steinway grand sounded a little out-of-tune: it doesn’t take “heavy Rachmaninoff pounding” to cause a concert grand to lose tuning quality. In a recording, this would of course be fixed, but in a concert… Maybe, the tuning should have been checked and readjusted in the intermission?
For me, as a layman, it is easy to criticize the artist. Anybody who tackles the challenge of performing op.106 in concert deserves my highest respect. And despite a few (mostly minor) shortcomings, this was an impressive performance: congrats!
Encore — Schumann: “Vogel als Prophet“, op.82/7
With the strong applause, the artist asked the rhetoric question: “What can one possibly play after such a monster?”. Then, he still announced an encore, “Vogel als Prophet“ (Bird as Prophet) by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856). It’s the No.7 (in G minor) from Schumann’s Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), op.82, a set of 9 pieces for piano. With its 3+ minutes, No.7 is among the longest movements of the set (the shortest ones are just over 1 minute).
“Bird as prophet” is a moody, small piece that strikingly describes the arbitrariness of a bird song: nice and resting in itself, contemplative, unpredictable, without an obvious goal. A little gem, a masterpiece in its own way. The brief middle part touchingly alludes to / anticipates the “ghost” theme from Schumann’s last composition.
It was good to have this pensive, introverted encore as a contrast to the turmoil in Beethoven’s fugue movement in the “Hammerklavier” sonata!