Piano Recital: Oxana Shevchenko
“Igor Stravinsky, the Ballet Composer”

Works by Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, & Liszt

Gemeinderatssaal Uster, 2017-02-02

2017-02-19 — Original posting



The Artist

I don’t need to introduce the Kazakh pianist Oxana Shevchenko, as I have witnessed and written about her playing in several concerts. I have reviewed her performing as duo partner with the cellists Christoph Croisé and Narek Hakhnazaryan, and on top of that, I have attended a concert in Lausanne, where she played Aloÿs Fornerod‘s Piano Concerto. Last, but not least, I have enjoyed her playing at a private solo recital on 2016-01-16, near Zurich.


This posting is about the second concert in a mini-series of four small-scale recitals that Oxana Shevchenko has given in the Zurich area. I’ll post a separate note on the “story” around these recitals (such as organizational aspects, etc.). Let me just state here that this is not a standard concert review—rather more of a teaser article giving the outline of the program. The idea behind these recitals was two-fold:

  1. Oxana has the opportunity to record all works for solo piano by Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) with Delphian Records, Ltd. (Edinburgh, U.K.). She has been working on parts of this repertoire for a while, but now she was given less than 5 months of lead time prior to the recording date (week of March 6th), and she wanted to have some exposure with a real audience prior to recording, rather than just playing & rehearsing for herself.
  2. Delphian asked the artist to contribute around one-third of the production costs. Oxana was able to raise the bulk of that sum, but she is still looking at covering the remaining 20%.

Why Four Recitals?

The recording will presumably be on two CDs. In other words: Stravinsky’s oeuvre for solo piano is too large for a single concert. So, the works that Oxana wanted to perform were split into three programs. The notice period was unusually short (too short for getting the recitals into any of the regular series in the area). This made regular advertising difficult, if not impossible (or very expensive). With each of these programs, Oxana Shevchenko included compositions from the classic or romantic period, with the idea to gather a bigger audience, and to increase the chances of meeting the financial goal. In the end, the series comprised four recitals, where the first program was repeated in the last concert.

In addition, Oxana felt that “the more recitals, the more exposure, the better”. She will perform additional recitals in Moscow (2017-02-17 and 2017-02-18), Canterbury, U.K. (2017-02-26), as well as in Boston, MA (2016-03-02), on top of a tight rehearsing schedule.

A General Remark

I’m not critically reviewing the performances as such. For one, the four recitals discussed here are the first public exposure at least for some of the compositions. Therefore, Oxana’s interpretations can’t be regarded “final” at this stage: in a tight rehearsing schedule, her interpretations are still expected to evolve up to the recording date. On top of that, Oxana’s rehearsing schedule was hampered, because around the end of 2016, an infection severely reduced her rehearsal hours for several weeks. This caused some of the interpretations to be more preliminary than anticipated.

The Venue

The venue for this recital is the building for the administration of the city of Uster. The hall for the recital actually is where the community parliament is holding its sessions, and at the same time, the hall is also regularly used for small-scale concerts (e.g., by teachers and pupils of the local music school). The West side of the hall holds an auditorium (for people who want to follow parliament sessions), and together with additional chairs in the middle part, the hall can hold up to 250 people. Opposite the audience, there is a nice, mid-size Bechstein grand piano. The acoustics are quite reasonable, though rather dry.

More information about the setup, facts and stories etc. around Oxana’s recitals will be posted in a separate blog entry.


Newspaper Article, Anzeiger von Uster, 2017-01-05
Anzeiger von Uster, 2017-01-05, p.5

This concert (as well as the previous one in Rüti ZH on 2017-02-01) was done in cooperation with the local music school (MSUG, Musikschule Uster-Greifensee). In this case, advanced pupils in a duo, a trio, and a young pianist played in a “pre-program” of around 30 minutes. They are all participating in promotion classes under the guidance of the pianist and teacher Alexandra Rabara. This allowed these pupils to make a public appearance together with a “real” artist (the kids and their parents were extremely excited about this opportunity!). Also, it at least had the potential of attracting additional audience (relatives, colleagues, teachers, other advanced pupils, etc.).

Two of the children, the siblings Léanne van Doornick (10) and Luc van Doornick (13) were featured in the local newspaper, a month prior to the recital (click on the image on the right to enlarge), with a reference to their participation in this recital. Luc van Doornick played in all three parts of the pre-program, starting with the

Duo Canorus

The “Duo Canorus” is formed by Bowin Bo-Shiuan Peng at the cello (on the preceding evening, we heard him play the piano!), and Luc van Doornick at the piano, both age 13 (see the pictures below). Their program featured two compositions:

Luc van Doornick

In the middle part of the pre-program, Luc van Doornick (13) played alone, presenting two compositions:

The Mozart movement is 10 minutes—playing it by heart is quite an achievement for a 13-year old! With Shchedrin’s “In the style of Albéniz”, he (and his teacher) unknowingly picked one of Oxana Shevchenko’s favorite composers, and a piece that Oxana currently is playing in a version for piano and cello, together with Christoph Croisé!

Trio “Les Trois L.”

The name of the Trio “Les Trois L.” is derived from the young artist’s first names: Luc van Doornick (13), piano; Léanne van Doornick (10), violin; Laurent Emmenegger (13), cello. The ensemble played two compositions:

  • Julius Klengel (1859 – 1933): Trio for children (Kindertrio) in G major, op.35/2: 2. Andante
  • Manuel de Falla (1876 – 1946): Spanish Dance No.1 from “La vida breve“: Molto ritmico (arranged by Klas Krantz)

All of the young artists performed well: after all, they have all been successful at youth music competitions already, and this concert also served a preparation for their participation in the upcoming Swiss Youth Music Competition. After that evening’s recitals, the young players and their parents even got a chance to talk to Oxana Shevchenko, and to receive advice and encouragement from her: thanks, Oxana!

Oxana Shevchenko’s Recital

Tchaikovsky: Les Saisons“, op.37a

For Pjotr Ilyitsch Tschaikowsky (1840 – 1893), composing for the piano was mostly a distraction from his big projects, such as symphonies, ballet, and opera. This explains why he has written relatively little music for piano solo. His biggest work in this genre is the Piano Sonata in G major, op.37. Apart from that, he mostly composed short character pieces for the piano. The most well-known and most popular among these are collected in the cycle “Les Saisons” (the Seasons), op.37a (also known as op.37b).

The title of this cycle seems to suggest a connection with the cycle of four violin concertos “Le quattro stagioni“ (The Four Seasons) by Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741). Indeed, each of the pieces in Tchaikovsky’s work has an associated short poem (by a Russian poet, such as Pushkin), just like Vivaldi’s four concertos (Vivaldi allegedly created those poems himself). But unlike Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky decided to write one short piece per month, rather than one per season. Most of these pieces are unpretentious, natural, atmospheric. However, not all of them are as easy to play as they may sound. In her recital, Oxana Shevchenko played the following five pieces from this cycle:

  1. Janvier (“Au coin du feu” / At the fireplace)
    Moderato semplice, ma espressivo — Meno mosso — Tempo I
  2. Février (“Carnaval” / Carnival)
    Allegro giusto — L’istesso tempo
  3. Mars (“Chant de l’alouette” / Song of the lark)
    Andantino espressivo

The Performance

I. Janvier / “Au coin du feu

In Oxana Shevchenko’s hands (and mind) this is more than the picture of someone cuddling up near the warmth of a fireplace! Rather, the memory of that person gradually brings up memories lively, flourishing pictures, scenes, maybe also a longing for the revival of nature in spring. Towards the end, though, after a climax, the music calms down again, returns to the rather melancholic mood of the first bars. I like that continuous, wide arch spanning the entire movement: very captivating, despite the melancholy!

II. Février / “Carnaval

A lively carnival scene—not polished, cold elegance or mere “show”, but rather vivid, lively dancing, stumbling (nicely pointing out those sudden syncopes that disrupt the rhythm!), more dancing, almost going overboard: a colorful piece that lives! The tempo is moderate, but not too slow, giving a chance to play out and enjoy the little rhythmic details. Oxana adds a strong contrast in the middle part: at the double bar, she stops shortly, then continues at a distinctly heavier, seemingly slower pace. The composer writes “L’istesso tempo“: yes, momentarily, Oxana appears to switch to a slower tempo, but that is more in the sense of a rubato, momentarily showing a different, more earnest, more dramatic atmosphere. Indeed, the music soon returns to the original, lively pace, and to the initial carnival temperament.

III. Mars / “Chant de l’alouette

A wonderfully contemplative piece, strongly contrasting to the preceding movement. Oxana Shevchenko illustrated the arbitrariness of bird song with a distinct, explicit rubato: very nice, living nature! After an almost lively climax, the piece calmed down again, into a silent, pensive ending, almost like a big question mark!

Stravinsky: Suite “L’oiseau de feu (arr. Guido Agosti)

1910, Stravinsky wrote his ballet “L’oiseau de feu” (“The Firebird”) for the series of Ballets Russes that Sergei Diaghilew (1872 – 1929) was directing in Paris. This was the beginning of a very fruitful cooperation between Stravinsky and Diaghilev. And it led to Stravinsky’s break-through as a composer.

The composer created a piano score for the entire ballet (sometimes referred to as Stravinsky’s “piano version” of the ballet). However, this was not meant for performance in concert halls, but merely served as a basis for the correpetition in rehearsals with the corps de ballet. In the absence of a “proper” concert version for piano, the Italian pianist and piano teacher Guido Agosti (1901 – 1989) created concert transcriptions (for solo piano) from three of the movements of Stravinsky’s Suite “L’oiseau de feu“:

  1. Dance infernal du roi Kastchei
  2. Berceuse
  3. Finale

The Performance

II. Dance infernale du roi Kastchei

What a start for a piece: almost like an explosion! Definitely, a totally different Stravinsky than the “Neo-Classicist”!! An extremely virtuosic, demanding piece, enthralling, very strongly rhythmic / percussive, yet catchy, not really melodic, but with catchy motifs in a tremendous turmoil, in which both hands are extremely busy (it feels like more than two hands, really!). It’s both magnificent and almost scary in the strength of its expression. The physical demands on the pianist alone must be horrendous, and keeping the musical flow across all the rhythmic alterations and switching is demanding in an orchestra, frighteningly hard on the piano! The other movements follow attacca, i.e., without interruption:

VI. Berceuse

With the second part of Agosti’s extract (cherry picking!), all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a serene landscape, with bells ringing from far away, a gentle wind blowing, plans swaying to and fro. Is there even a river flowing, like in the ideal, classic idyl? No, I don’t see a swinging cradle, as the title might suggest! But gradually, the tension / expectation is building up—very well realized by Oxana! New motifs (tremoli, glissandi) / melodic elements appear, gradually anticipating and leading into the last part:

VII. Finale

This is one single, magnificent, glorious, grandiose build-up to an overwhelming ending: a fantastic scenery and music. I’m strongly reminded of the final part, “The Bogatyr Gates” from “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881). But this music is vastly bigger even! It’s a Finale from the textbooks—brilliant, radiating and a single, huge, enthralling build-up. And—what can I say?—all the attributes in this description not only apply to the music, but equally to Oxana Shevchenko’s interpretation of this music!

Oxana Shevchenko mentioned to me that Delphian were reluctant to include Agosti’s three movements in the Stravinsky recording (as it is “not pure/proper Stravinsky”). However, Oxana strongly insists in having this included. Indeed, whoever hears these movements will instantly agree with Oxana and state that these movements must be part of the recording. It’s such magnificent music, it’s Stravinsky’s breakthrough as a composer, and Agosti’s transcription is very good. Plus, the composer’s correpetition score isn’t a viable option: it is not written to mirror the orchestral score adequately for a concert audience.

Liszt: Transcriptions of Lieder by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

In lieu of the originally planned performance of the Polonaise in A♭ major, op.61, the so-called “Polonaise-Fantaisie” by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849), Oxana Shevchenko spontaneously decided to play two Lied transcriptions by Franz Liszt:

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) wasn’t “just” an eminent traveling piano virtuoso and composer. He also liked to transcribe works by other composers for the piano. Examples are Lieder, chamber music, overtures and arias from operas, even entire symphonies. In parts, Liszt transcribed “hits” of his time for the purpose of showing off his own virtuosity in public and private recitals. More importantly, though, Liszt wanted to allow a wider audience to enjoy such popular compositions by fellow composers. Attending public, particularly symphonic concerts at that time was possible mainly in bigger cities. Through Liszt’s transcriptions, elevated households holding an upright or a grand piano were able to perform and enjoy even entire symphonies by Beethoven in their salon or living room (given a pianist with sufficient prowess, of course!).

Franz Liszt’s transcriptions of Lieder by Franz Schubert can be seen in the same context. Liszt picked the real gems among Schubert’s Lieder for his transcriptions. These are so well-known and popular that they should not need any further introduction. The two songs presented in this recital were first published 1838 (10 years after Schubert’s death), later revised in 1876:

Franz Schubert, LiedDu bist die Ruh‘”, op.59/3, D.776 (Liszt, S.558/3)

For me, this is one of the nicest, most touching songs of all time. The lyrics in Schubert’s song are by Friedrich Rückert (1788 – 1866). The complete lyrics and a translation to English are available here.

Franz Schubert, LiedDer Erlkönig“, op.1, D.328 (Liszt, S.558/4)

Schubert’s famous song is based on a dramatic poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832). The complete text, along with translation is available here.

The Performance

Du bist die Ruh” is a Lied that often touches me to tears. It’s a song of rare, haunting beauty and intensity, in an excellent transcription by Franz Liszt. And Oxana puts all her emotional intensity and expression into this song. Liszt’s often dense (and virtuosic, in its own way) setting becomes a pure means of amplifying the content of Rückert’s poem: as good as, if not better than the vocal version—thanks, Oxana!

The “Erlkönig” is an entirely different beast, of course: one of the most dramatic songs (or rather, a ballade, really) in the entire literature. Both in Schubert’s original, vocal version, as well as in Liszt’s transcription, this is extremely demanding, as one person must incorporate three characters (the father, the child, and the child abuser). It’s a cruel story, dramatic already at the onset, then building up to an almost unbearable intensity, ending in a devastating catastrophy: clearly Goethe, not Rückert. Oxana lives this scary piece, makes the listener almost shudder, causes the breath to stop: a strong, impressive climax!

Stravinsky: Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka (1921)

In his memoirs about his work on the ballet “Pétrouchka” (Petrushka), Igor Stravinsky wrote “In composing the music, I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts.” [Stravinsky, Igor. 1936. Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 48]. Originally, Pétrouchka was a concert piece for piano and orchestra. Upon a suggestion by Sergei Diaghilew (1872 – 1929), Stravinsky reworked it into a ballet for the Ballets Russes.

In that composition, the piano is essentially just a percussion instrument. Arthur Rubinstein (1887 – 1982) gave Stravinsky some essential ideas about what else the piano can do. In 1921, this motivated the composer to write a “piano sonata”, based on motifs from the ballet: the Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka. It’s one of the most challenging and most virtuosic pieces in the entire piano literature, featuring three movements:

  1. Danse Russe
  2. Chez Pétrouchka
  3. La semaine grasse

In the last movement, the composer almost always used three, sometimes even four staves.

The Performance

Oxana has had these three movements in her repertoire for a while, so she has the extreme technical challenges in this work well under control. I have indeed commented on her performance of the “Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka” in my report from her private recital in Dietlikon ZH, on 2016-01-16, just 13 months ago.

Danse Russe

As I wrote in last year’s review: already the first movement is a technical monster, requiring power, rapid jumps, dynamic, ultra-fast agility, fast repetitions with “about 20 fingers”. While listening to Oxana’s performance now, I noted how much she pays attention to “(hidden) middle voices”, and at the same time, despite all the difficulties, she is able to maintain a steady, natural flow in this enthralling music: excellent!

Chez Pétrouchka

The second movement is a rather grotesque intermezzo, initially in their grotesqueness reminding me (again!) of some movements from “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881), such as “Gnomus” or “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle”, maybe? In calm (yet still grotesque) moments one listens to the fascinating, percussive sonority, the decaying resonances of fff notes in the concert grand.

These sections alternate with very busy, virtuosic, “intentionally chaotic” segments, where the flow is (again, intentionally) erratic—almost like a small animal that is busily and unsystematically running around, then suddenly stops, anxiously watching out for predators. A dance- or march-like rhythm evokes the picture of a whimsical procession from a fairy tale. The grotesqueness grows, along with the virtuosity of the movement—excellent, fascinating playing again by Oxana!

The movement suddenly comes to a halt, and a sudden, abrupt transition breaks off for (rather than leads to) the final segment:

La semaine grasse

In January 2016 I wrote: “But that all is merely a prelude to the challenges of the last movement: percussive, polyrhythmic. Like in the first movement, it seemed impossible that a mere two hands were playing this. The piece requires constant, vast jumps with both hands—and a huge amount of physical power. It was jaw-dropping to see how well and with how much strength and agility Oxana mastered this technical benchmark! And it is beautiful, enthralling music, after all—to me, one of the true masterpieces of 20th century music! Oxana clearly plays this with her heart, rather than as a demonstration of cold virtuosity and perfection. I was completely taken and captured by this performance, and I really hope to witness this again in the future!”

I don’t have anything to add to this, except that indeed I’m grateful for the opportunity to witness this again with Oxana playing. On top of that, we all will have the opportunity have her play this for us any time, and as often as we like, via CD!

Encores, Conclusion

As encore, Oxana Shevchenko offered the third movement, “Mai: Les nuits de mai” (“The Nights of May”, Andantino — Allegretto giocoso — Poco meno mosso — Andantino) from the piano cycle Les Saisons” (The Seasons), op.37a (or op.37b) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893). That’s a serene, calm piece, a stark contrast to the virtuosic firework in Pétrouchka. And it was excellent to “cool down one’s mind”, to “chill out” after all the preceding excitement.

Oxana Shevchenko @ Gemeinderatssaal, Uster ZH, 2017-02-02 (© Deborah Kyburz)
Oxana Shevchenko @ Gemeinderatssaal, Uster ZH, 2017-02-02 (© Deborah Kyburz)

Concert Handouts

The material used for announcing the recital, as well as used for distribution in the concert (all in German) included

The Other Recitals in the Series

I have posted separate notes about the recitals in this small series:

Finally, I plan on posting a separate note on organizational & related aspects around these recitals.

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