Piano Recital: Oliver Schnyder
Beethoven / Bartók / Brahms
Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-02-27
I don’t need to introduce the Swiss pianist Oliver Schnyder (*1973) in the context of my blog. I have written about this artist in several articles—and more information is also available on Wikipedia. This concert in the big hall of Zurich’s Tonhalle ran under the label “Meisterinterpreten in Zürich“.
Quite often (at least here in Switzerland), local heroes have a hard time making themselves recognized as being equivalent to international artists. In the eyes of their home audience (outside of their personal fan community), even world-class artists often appear to have a hard time reaching the top levels of the career, in comparison to international stars. The fact that Oliver Schnyder now made his appearance under the label “Meisterinterpreten” seems to indicate that he has surpassed this local barrier. Also Oliver Schnyder’s growing discography indicates that he has indeed been able to establish himself in the international halls of fame.
I don’t mean to question Oliver Schnyder’s status as master artist at all (this concert may or may not confirm that status in the eye of a listener). But I have asked myself: what does it take a pianist to earn the title “master artist”?
Meisterinterpret—What is a Master Artist?
In my personal view, this status does not necessarily depend on the size of an artist’s discography (Grigori Sokolov has almost none). Also the number of successes at competitions is not necessarily linked to international stardom: there are certainly artists who managed to run a career without the stress of competitions. The presence in social media does not guarantee the status of an international star artist. Similarly, the size of an artist’s fan community (say, in social media, or on YouTube) isn’t necessarily an indication for an artist’s mastership, and trying to make advances to a fan community may even be counter-productive. At least in an ideal world, it is (or should be) the qualities of an artist’s playing which should be the (only) relevant criterion here.
Well, then, what are the relevant qualities of an artist’s playing? Here’s my view:
- A key quality is whether an artist is adequately able to convey the composer’s intent (as much as one can extract that from the score, the composer’s notation);
- technical ability, artistic mastership and maturity are of course pre-requisite—perfection is not.
- But an artist must be able to address an audience, to touch its heart,
- and that again requires a personal view: blind, soul-less imitating of existing—present or past—interpretations doesn’t constitute mastership;
- similarly, cold perfection characterizes a machine, not a master artist.
- However, to me, it is an absolute requirement for an artist to develop his own, personal style. But I don’t imply that as a listener I need to be in 100% agreement with all aspects of an artist’s interpretations.
Where Does Oliver Schnyder Stand in This?
Oliver Schnyder’s technical abilities are out of question: this concert gave clear evidence of serious, thorough preparation. The reason for the above considerations was not that I doubted Oliver Schnyder’s abilities as an artist—quite to the contrary! This concert confirmed the artist’s technical mastership, and it showed that Oliver Schnyder is well able to reach out to the listener’s heart. On top of that, in the course of this concert I realized that Oliver Schnyder has found his own, personal style. This style showed up as a common thread throughout the evening. In particular:
This pianist likes a fluent, often fast tempo.With his flawless technique, a fast pace does not appear to be a challenge: I did not note any problems with the coordination between hands, between voices. Oliver Schnyder is careful, diligent in phrasing, very differentiated in dynamics, especially in the soft, subtle segments, in the melodic, the cantabile aspect. He knows how to make melodies sing—without neglecting secondary voices. I really enjoyed his phrasing, how he formed big arches and build-ups, and the differentiation in his agogics. He is never rough in his keyboard touch: no thundering, no twanging of strings: he does not try reaching the upper end of the dynamic scale, hence there is no danger of him exceeding the capabilities of the instrument (Steinway D). I would call his playing elegant, certainly not coarse.
Opinions / Personal Preferences
Certainly, there are areas where I personally have different preferences: one of these is that with Oliver Schnyder’s fast tempo, sometimes, fast figures tend to be a bit superficial. The fast pace is costing detail, goes at the expense of articulation in small motifs, in the area of short notes. On the other hand, one could say that this avoids an excess of fragmentation in the phrasing, gives more focus on the big phrases and arches.
Oliver Schnyder’s programming was interesting: an early Beethoven sonata is followed by a second one at the threshold to Beethoven’s late oeuvre. This was followed by a jump to the 20th century, to Bartók, and the part after the intermission was exclusively dedicated to Johannes Brahms’ Sonata in F minor, op.5—an almost monstrous piece, both in its dimensions, as well as in its emotional depth and intensity.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.9 in E major, op.14/1
After the famous, rather dramatic “Sonate pathétique“, the Sonata No.8 in C minor, op.13, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) followed up with the two more light-hearted piano sonatas op.14, in 1798; the first of these, Piano Sonata No.9 in E major, op.14/1, opened the program. It features three movements:
- Allegro (4/4, E major)
- Allegretto (3/4, E minor) — Maggiore (3/4, C major)
- Rondo: Allegro commodo (2/2, E major).
Just as an interesting sideline: Beethoven also reworked this sonata for string quartet. It’s a transcription that he was particularly proud of! I have written about this transcription in a separate blog post, a comparison of several recordings.
Maybe the most critical part of a piano recital is the very beginning. An artist will have tried the instrument during rehearsals. Yet, when the audience is filling the hall, this alters the acoustics, sometimes in unpredictable ways. Plus, some artists also need to fight stage anxiety, which makes things only worse. I don’t know about Oliver Schnyder’s personal experience. In any case, I felt that the repeat of the exposition in the first movement was more structured, slightly firmer, had more clarity than the first pass. But after that, the pianist appeared to have adjusted his playing (articulation, dynamics) to the acoustics in the very well-sold venue.
In the development section of that movement (as also later, in the Bartók sonata) I had the impression that Oliver Schnyder occasionally tried compensating a slight deficit in supporting reverberation by gradually using more sustain pedal (this may just have been my personal impression, bur the extra use of the sustain pedal may also have occurred subconsciously). I personally would have preferred somewhat more “acoustic support” (which might imply a smaller venue).
Also here, I noted the focus on big arches / phrases—at the expense of a more detailed articulation, and sometimes slightly “squeezed” articulation in the quavers.
III. Rondo: Allegro commodo
The same observation as above, now with the semiquavers. But the big phrases and arches were formed carefully, the articulation fluent, not fragmented. The last return of the Rondo theme (ritornello) is heavily syncopated (the hands are rhythmically shifted by a quaver). Oliver Schnyder resisted the temptation to make this sound overly “jazzy”.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.27 in E minor, op.90
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.27 in E minor, op.90 is right at the threshold to the late sonatas (opp.101, 106, 109, 110, 111). It was composed in 1814 (which some people count into Beethoven’s “late middle period”). In my view at least, it is certainly quite far from the light-heartedness of op.14/1. It’s not just in minor tonality, but definitely more dramatic, earnest in its attitude, especially in the first movement. Unusually, the sonata only features two movements:
- Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck (“With liveliness and with feeling and expression throughout”, 3/4)
- Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen (“Not too swiftly and conveyed in a singing manner”, 2/4)
I. Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck
Oliver Schnyder immediately continued with op.90 after the previous sonata, just allowing for a regular movement break (2 – 3 seconds), but not allowing for applause to set in (and this wasn’t due to a failure on the part of any claqueurs!). I found this a rather questionable decision, to say the least. The two sonatas may fit superficially, based on their tonalities (E major — E minor), but in my opinion, this appeared to make the op.90 feel rather like an early sonata, made it feel more lighthearted: the artist appeared to focus on the lyrical aspect, even seemed to expose playful, elegant facets in that score. These aspects may indeed be present—to a very small degree: predominantly, I see the first movement as very dramatic, sometimes somber, earnest, maybe even torn, rebelling.
II. Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen
Yes, this movement indeed is lyrical, lucid, cantabile. Here, Oliver Schnyder must have felt “in his element”! However, none of this implies youthful lightheartedness, as in op.14/1; instead, I see traits of melancholy, of longing in this “song without words”.
Bartók: Piano Sonata, Sz.80 / BB 88
Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) composed his well-known, popular Piano Sonata, Sz.80 / BB 88 in 1926. The sonata features three movements:
- Allegro moderato
- Sostenuto e pesante
- Allegro molto
I. Allegro moderato
Already in the first bars, Oliver Schnyder brought out the amazing bass sonority of the instrument. His playing was very rhythmic, but not excessively percussive (many pianists focus on the latter aspect). Schnyder did not neglect the melodic components, his playing remained fluent, at times even elegant, almost playful (and playing this sonata must be fun!). I did not feel entirely at ease with the tempo changes towards the accelerating end of the movement. But maybe this was intended by the composer?
II. Sostenuto e pesante
This movement always reminds me of “Le gibet” from “Gaspard de la nuit” by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937). The music seems to begin in a pensive atmosphere, expressing forlornness (to me), which Oliver Schnyder brought out very well. He also highlighted the melancholic melody that gradually builds up to the expression of pain.
III. Allegro molto
The final movement felt relatively fast and fluent, again more expressive than strictly rhythmic or percussive. In Schnyder’s performance, the middle part to me evoked bird calls, nature—despite the busy, strongly rhythmic texture of the music.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) was 20 when he wrote his third and last piano sonata, the Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor, op.5; when I listen to this music, it is obvious to me that the young Brahms must have been deeply infatuated with Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896), and the sonata expresses all the depth of his strong feelings for this woman. The sonata features five movements:
- Allegro maestoso (3/4)
- Andante: Andante espressivo — poco più lento — Tempo I (2/4) — Andante molto (3/4) — Adagio (3/4)
- Scherzo: Allegro energico (3/4) — Trio (3/4)
- Intermezzo (Rückblick): Andante molto (2/4)
- Finale: Allegro moderato ma rubato (6/8) — Più mosso
Despite a relatively “pushed”, daring tempo, the secondary theme remained lyrical, singing. the development section was even dreamy, pensive, and at the same time full of pictures.
Andante: Andante espressivo
The second movement felt very intimate, both vocal and talking, with lots of soft tones, often gentle, charming—but that’s not a miracle, as Brahms had an intimate poem in mind:
Der Abend dämmert, das Mondlicht scheint, da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint und halten sich selig umfangen
or, in translation:
Through evening's shade, the pale moon gleams While rapt in love's ecstatic dreams Two hearts are fondly beating.
One could say that this is self-explanatory. Still, I asked myself, is the music meant to describe Clara’s (female, gentle), or rather the deep, intense emotions in Brahms own, burning, inner self? In Oliver Schnyder’s interpretation, I mostly pictured a description of Clara’s side. The big gestures of Brahms’ own emotions mainly appeared to break through at the short, but impressive molto pesante (very heavy) section.
Scherzo: Allegro energico — Trio
Here’s another example of a movement which in Schnyder’s interpretation was rather fast, fluent, and virtuosic. This again happened at the expense of short note values. It left little time for feelings of forlornness, for the scare of abysses even, which one might see in this movement as well. As a compensation, the Trio was singing, almost vocal—and it reminded me of Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without words)
Intermezzo (Rückblick): Andante molto
This is a tricky movement: Brahms’ annotation is Andante molto, in 2/4 time, yet, the movement is full of short demisemiquaver triplets. The annotation suggests “walking” crotchets (as a minimal pace), but the triplets in the bass appear to define an upper limit to the tempo, for it to be executable at all. In my perception, in Oliver Schnyder’s tempo, the triplets were at or above the limit of modern piano mechanics (it is likely that around 1853, piano mechanics were faster and allowed for more rapid repetitions).
Finale: Allegro moderato ma rubato — Più mosso
My impression was that in the final movement, the artist was reaching the limits of his physical and emotional reserves. This is definitely understandable, given the dimensions and the intensity of this sonata (and the three sonatas prior to the intermission). In my view, the tempo seemed excessive in general, but even more so in the Presto part. Semiquaver passages often could no longer be articulated properly, and an occasional excess in sustain pedal (maybe marginal synchronization of the pedaling?) caused somewhat blurred articulation.
Personally, I would have preferred a more considerate, gradually more reflected approach. However, the sonata is so strong & deep in its emotions.: I would not dare blaming the artist for (gradually) losing control, for running out of reserves. Even as a listener, Brahms’ sonata is close to overwhelming me emotionally! To me, this is maybe the emotionally strongest / deepest sonata ever.
Relief from the Brahms sonata came with the strong applause—and Oliver Schnyder “switched to encore mode”. Just like other artists, such as Denis Matsuev, he seems to view the “encore part” as a second, autonomous (but not announced) part of the concert program. In rapid succession, he presented six encores (thanks to the artist for helping with the identification of No.6!):
- Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): from “6 Klavierstücke (Pieces for Piano)”, op.118: No.2, Intermezzo in A major
- Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): from “8 Klavierstücke (Pieces for Piano)”, op.76: No.2, Capriccio in B minor
- Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907): from Lyric Pieces (vol.X), op.71: No.3, Småtroll (Puck)
- Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847): from Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without words), vol.6, op.67: No.4, “Spinnerlied“ (Spinning Song), C major
- Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953): from 4 Pieces for Piano, op.4: No.4, Suggestion diabolique
- Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856): from Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), op.82: No.7, Vogel als Prophet (Bird as Prophet): Langsam, sehr zart (Slowly, very tender)
I think that these encores allowed him to become reconciled with the situation (and with the audience?).
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.