2017-02-19 — Original posting
Weinfelden TG, 2017-02-05
“Igor Stravinsky, the Neo-Classicist”
Works by Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert/Liszt
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 with her as duo partners 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 last 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:
- 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.
- 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 for this recital was the hall of the church community, next to the big Art Nouveau style protestant church on a rock above the city of Weinfelden, in the canton of Thurgau. The church community building is much more recent than the church, big windows on three sides open the view onto the city of Weinfelden. The hall has recently been given a facelift, the windows were equipped with new curtains, which by coincidence provided an ideal backdrop for Oxana’s blouse (see the photos below).
The can hold up to 130 people. For this concert (in the province!), 24 chairs were set up. More chairs had to be added for an audience of 28. The instrument was a small Yamaha grand piano. While the recital program was identical to the one in Rüti on 2017-02-01, the piano here didn’t quite match the qualities of the Bösendorfer in Rüti, in tuning (which sounded pretty hampered in the Beethoven sonata). The general sound quality (regulation) also was nowhere near that of the Bösendorfer in Rüti (some metallic sound, occasionally twanging strings). But also the mechanics in general were sub-optimal, the piano in Weinfelden had a squeaking sustain pedal (which fortunately was not so obvious during the recital).
More information about the setup, facts and stories etc. around Oxana’s recitals will be posted in a separate blog entry.
Note that the program in this recital is identical to that of Oxana’s recital in Rüti ZH, on 2017-02-01. Still, I decided to duplicate the bulk of the text in this posting, such as to avoid constant jumping back to that earlier posting when reading the article. Of course, the photos are specific to this concert!
Oxana Shevchenko’s Recital
Most likely, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed the Allegro in B flat major as opening movement to a piano sonata. That plan was never realized, and even this Allegro remained a fragment. It is now listed as KV 400 (or rather, after a correction in the date of creation, as KV 372a).
Oxana Shevchenko played the version that was completed by Maximilian Stadler (Abbé Stadler, 1748 – 1833). The first 90 bars are by Mozart (composed 1781), bars 92 – 148 are the ones written by Abbé Stadler. The Allegro also bears the nickname “Sophie und Constanze”: Mozart wrote these names above two mutually imitating motifs in bars 71 and 72. These are the names of the youngest of the four daughters of Fridolin and Cäcilia Weber (1727 – 1792), the singer Maria Sophie Weber (1763 – 1846), and Maria Constanze Cäcilia Josepha Johanna Aloysia Weber (1762 – 1842). 1781, Mozart lived in the house of that family, and 1782, Constanze, the elder of the two, became Mozart’s wife.
Oxana plays this movement at a very fresh, lively pace (faster than average, I suspect, certainly faster than the interpretations that I know). In her hands, this is a light, jaunty piece: she does not try overloading the music with meaning, but still keeps attention to detail, carefully articulates acciaccaturas, never loses control: an excellent piece to start a recital! There is no reason to try making this music bigger than it is. After all, there must have been a good reason why Mozart lost interest in this movement. In its basic characteristics, Oxana’s interpretation in this recital pretty much follows the one on her CD recording.
Stravinsky: Sonate pour piano (1924)
When Musicians talk about “Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata”, they always refer to this composition. The composer completed this in 1924 (there is also an early Sonata in f sharp minor from 1904, now rarely played). Igor Stravinsky himself premiered the sonata in Donaueschingen, in 1925. The work features three movements. In Stravinsky’s original score, the outer movements were only annotated with metronome numbers:
- ¼ = 112 (Moderato)
- ¼ = 112 (Allegro moderato)
Ah—what music: I could listen to this all day long! The first movement excels with its contrast between the rapid staccato accompaniment (Oxana’s specialty!) and a singing, very melodic, but rhythmically almost independent (certainly entirely different) melody line / theme: beautiful music, and I really like Oxana’s interpretation, her approach to this music. It’s music of haunting beauty—yet with an almost menacing undercurrent in the accompaniment! The sonority of the Bösendorfer proved to be excellent for this piece, especially for the long resonances in the legato melody.
The texture in the Allegretto is very much classic, again featuring a (now calmly stepping) staccato accompaniment, and a theme that initially is full of “classic” (almost pre-classic) ornaments, frequent trills (birds singing?). Though, soon the harmonies take some interesting turns, the music goes through a hesitating, faltering (now slow staccato) phase, reminiscences of the first movement creep in through a legato melody, mysteriously transformed. The movement then returns to the initial texture: isn’t this Rameau, talking through Stravinsky?
The third last movement is very virtuosic, again featuring a rapid, fairly strict staccato theme, now in a fugato, and a “classic”, seemingly independent melody trail joins in, meandering between the two staccato lines. The movement also opens facets of almost baroque polyphony—all in the light of Stravinsky’s polytonal harmonic style: a masterful piece that I thoroughly enjoy, maybe even more than the other movements!
Oxana Shevchenko @ Kirchgemeindehaus Weinfelden TG, 2017-02-05 (photos © Rolf Kyburz)
Stravinsky: Les cinq doigts (1921)
“Les cinq doigts” (the five fingers) is a collection of 8 very simple pieces for piano, which Stravinsky composed in 1921. Each of the pieces is based on a specific 5-zone sequence. For a given piece, the right hand essentially remains at almost the same position. The movements are annotated as follows:
Yes, the pieces are (very!) short and simple in their musical structure/content. There is little, if any harmonic progression within a piece (e.g., a simple alternation between two or three notes in the bass line). Each piece uses a (single) specific rhythmic and melodic pattern in melody and accompaniment. Yet, even using very simple, sometimes almost trivial means , Stravinsky manages to create music that reflects / expresses his very personal style. At the same time, he keeps the music understandable to beginners, even children.
Several of the pieces I could well imagine being played by (relative) beginners—at a slow pace (and probably rather tiring, if a beginner studies them for hours!). However, some of the rhythmic pattern are rather intricate—and definitely not for beginners! Oxana takes this a step further, by playing the faster pieces at a rather brisk tempo. And suddenly, they become little, virtuosic gems, sich as No.2, “Allegro”. And overall, in Oxana’s hands, these 8 short movements turn into a very entertaining, fascinating musical kaleidoscope—refreshing, full of life and momentum: too bad it’s over after less than 6 minutes!
1801, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) published four piano sonatas:
- the Sonata No.12 in A flat major, op.26 (“Funeral march),
- Sonata No.13 in E flat major, op.27/1, featured in this concert,
- the famous Sonata No.14 in c sharp minor, op.27/2 (the so-called “Moonlight Sonata”), and
- finally, the Sonata No.15 in D major, op.28 (“Pastoral”).
Both sonatas in op.27 originally had the label “Sonata quasi una fantasia“. The reason for this attribute is not entirely clear. One speculative justification is that (at least in op.27/1), the movements are to be played attacca, i.e., without interruption—as one might expect for a free fantasy. Another possibility might be that these are actual free fantasies that Beethoven may have performed in public, which he later wrote down for publishing. Beethoven was well-known for his ability to improvise freely on the piano. The sonata op.27/1 features four movements:
- Andante – Allegro – Tempo I
- Allegro molto e vivace
- Adagio con espressione
- Allegro vivace – Tempo I – Presto
The structure of the movements in op.27/1 is unusual. The outer movements are variations of the Rondo form (A-B-A-C-A and A-B-A-C-A-B, respectively), the second movement (in c minor) is a Scherzo, and also the Adagio (in A flat major) is in cyclic form (A-B-A).
My very first encounter with Oxana Shevchenko was with this sonata, through YouTube (via Facebook)—see the video links at the bottom of this posting. That video was created in 2009, at the International Ferruccio Busoni Piano Competition in Bolzano.
This interpretation instantly caught my attention, through the clarity in her playing (particularly in Allegro part of the first movement), the uncomplicated, direct expression, the virtual absence of obscuring through excess use of the sustain pedal (as seen with some other artists). Oxana’s interpretation sounded different from all others that I have heard—yet so natural, lucid—not titanic, not overly dramatic, nor extroverted or trying to show off. I simply found it one of the best, most compelling interpretations of this sonata (even though other approaches are certainly valid and valuable as well!), and I still do!
By now, more than 7 years later, Oxana’s interpretation has softened slightly. It now sounds (even) more natural, more harmonious in a way, in parts also more impulsive. One could see this as a very gradual move towards a “more standard” interpretation. For example: in 2009, her staccato in the first movement could have been seen as slightly “academic”, which I would claim is now definitely not the case). However, a recital is not the same as the situation in a competition: e.g., her “active relaxing” prior to starting may have been an attempt to cope with the tension during the competition. Also, in a competition, young artists may (subconsciously) focus on clarity in phrasing, articulation and dynamics, rather than on expression and a personalized interpretation, whereas later, these focal points (should) become means of expression.
Specifics in Weinfelden
Apart from some slight signs of exhaustion from the four recitals in five days (and all the rehearsing in-between), the main difference to the performance in Rüti on 2017-02-01 was in the quality of the piano: prior to the concert, the tuning of the Yamaha grand sounded more or less OK, but here, it was definitely sagging, which was particularly obvious in the third and fourth movements (and the preceding Stravinsky pieces weren’t such a dramatic stress for the piano, I believe!).
Stravinsky: Chorale (1920)
1920, the journal La Revue musicale published a special edition in memory of the passing of Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918). Stravinsky’s contribution to that edition was this short Chorale. Later, Stravinsky incorporated the piece into his Symphonies d’instruments à vent (“Symphonies of Wind Instruments”), again dedicated to the late Claude Debussy, as last movement.
A very interesting, short piece, like a combination of a church chorale and a funeral march in its solemn, stepping pace. As appropriate for the piece’s designation, it expresses pain in its obstinate dissonances. Yet, when I listen into the piece, dive into the music, let myself be carried by the harmonies, the composition (to me) seems to express utter beauty, the harmony of the spheres: very nice, and much too short! From listening to Oxana’s interpretation, I also understand why Stravinsky later expanded this into a larger setting for wind instruments!
It’s amazing to hear how much even in a dissonant piece such as this one, the piano tuning can affect the outcome of a performance in the ear of a listener: dissonances aren’t just dissonant—they can and should just as well be pure, and here, they weren’t!
Stravinsky: Serenade in A (1925)
Stravinsky wrote his “Serenade in A” in Vienna, 1925—it’s a work with four movements:
- Cadenza finala
The Serenade is neither in A major nor in a minor, but it evolves around the tone A as “tonal Pole”, or “tonal center”.
Fascinating music! The Hymn is nothing that one would associate with a serenade: more like a choir of trumpets, if not an entire brass music, strongly rhythmic, dissonant, yet seemingly tonal, based on catchy motifs, simple structures, yet multi-faceted: at times it strongly reminds of the Sonate our piano from 1924. It’s definitely very virtuosic—and very well mastered by Oxana! The first three movements all end using an interesting feature: prior to the last chord, a specific key in the bass must be pressed without the hammer touching the string. When the last chord ends and is muted, that key stays pressed, and one can hear the silent string resonate, mirroring the last chord(s).
Also the Romanza is barely fulfilling common expectations suggested by the title: yes, there are parts in which one can picture a guitar player singing in a nightly serenade. But then, there are these ghastly, virtuosic staccato segments, and suddenly, we find ourselves in a beautiful harmonies and a melody that is almost too nice and cantabile: a multifaceted piece, with some seemingly odd (composed) ruptures in the flow. Very, very nice music, not as virtuosic as the first movement, but very demanding in the interpretation: nothing an artist will just play well prima vista!
My favorite piece in this composition, full of drive (at times almost jazzy), fun, joy! It reminds me of Bach’s Interventions for two voices in the two competing voices running mostly in semiquavers, with very nice, catchy melodic fragments, hidden in the constant, busily running figurations in the right hand, while the left hand constantly plays broken (minor and major) chords.
No, not a boisterous, loud ending, nothing like the cadenza in a concerto! Rather, an almost lyrical pice, often running in parallel thirds and sixths—yet harmonically intricate! The movement builds up in volume and intensity, as well as harmonic complexity—just to finish almost abruptly after the climax.
Overall, to me, the Serenade in A is a masterpiece, at the level of the Sonate pour piano from 1924: too bad it’s just around 10 minutes! The long silence up to the applause indicated that the audience really enjoyed this music: luckily, people aren’t all that critical towards bad piano tuning!
Oxana Shevchenko @ Kirchgemeindehaus Weinfelden TG, 2017-02-05 (photos © Rolf Kyburz)
Liszt: Transcriptions of Lieder by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
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, Lied “Du 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, Lied “Der Erlkönig”, op.1, D.328 (Liszt, S.558/4)
Well—what can I say? “Du bist die Ruh” often touches me to tears—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, and 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, if not better than the vocal version (tuning aside, of course!)—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): 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 and ending of the recital!
As already in the first recital in the series, Oxana Shevchenko offered the third movement, “Mars: Chant de l’alouette” (“March: Song of the lark”, Andantino espressivo) from the piano cycle “Les Saisons” (The Seasons), op.37a (or op.37b) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893): a wonderfully contemplative piece, allowing the listeners to calm down after all the intensity and drama in the Lied transcriptions. In Oxana’s interpretation, the piece builds up to a nice, almost lively climax, which I really liked (after all, the lark is alive!). After that, the piece calmed down again, into a silent, pensive ending.
Oxana then offered a second encore from the same cycle by Tchaikovsky: the fifth movement, “Mai: Les nuits de mai” (“May: the night if may”, Andantino — Allegretto giocoso — Poco meno mosso — Andantino): another lyrical piece from the cycle. It was indeed contemplative, but without exaggeration, i.e., retaining some youthful atmosphere, lightness and flow: I really liked that interpretation—an excellent closure to that concert and the recital cycle!
In the aftermath, more attention should have been paid to the piano tuning and regulation: apologies to the artist for not having been meticulous enough on this! It would have felt much better to end the recital cycle with a good, well-sounding instrument. But in the given circumstances, it was impossible or economically not viable to control every detail in every location. Again: apologies!
That said: I have thoroughly enjoyed these three programs in four recitals on five exhausting days—thanks again, Oxana, for the invaluable experience with so much wonderful music!
The material used for announcing the recital, as well as used for distribution in the concert (all in German) included
- A flyer, covering all four recitals: Overall Flyer (PDF)
- A program leaflet: Weinfelden Concert Leaflet (PDF)
- The work description for the repertoire in all four recitals: Work Descriptions (PDF)
- A sheet for ordering Oxana Shevchenko’s existing two CDs: CD Order Sheet (PDF)
- Finally, an extra sheet for pre-ordering the set of Stravinsky CDs, once available: Stravinsky CD Pre-Order Sheet (PDF)
I have posted separate notes about the recitals in this small series:
- 2017-02-01: Recital in Rüti, ZH (Amthaus)
- 2017-02-02: Recital in Uster, ZH (Gemeinderatssaal)
- 2017-02-03: Recital in Zurich (Jecklin Forum)
- 2017-02-05: Recital in Weinfelden, TG (Kirchgemeindehaus, this posting)
Finally, I plan on posting a separate note on organizational & related aspects around these recitals.
Mozart’s Allegro in B flat major, KV 400 is also present on Oxana Shevchenko’s Debut CD. Oxana recorded this after her success at the Scottish International Piano Competition 2010:
Delphian DCD34061 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2010
Booklet: 8 pp. English
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—
- Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937):
- From “Miroirs”:
- No.2, “Oiseaux tristes” (4’03”)
- No.4, “Alborada del gracioso” (6’47”)
- No.5, “La vallée des cloches” (6’11”)
- La valse, Poème choréographique (11’05”)
- From “Miroirs”:
- Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975):
- From 24 Preludes, op.34:
- No.1 in C major (1’26”)
- No.2 a minor (0’49”)
- No.5 in D major (0’33”)
- No.7 in A major (1’20”)
- No.20 c minor (0’38”)
- No.24 in d minor (1’22”)
- From 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87:
- Prelude No.12 in g sharp minor, Andante (4’01”)
- Fugue No.12 in g sharp minor, Allegro (3’36”)
- From 24 Preludes, op.34:
- Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886):
- Fantasy on 2 Themes from Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (14’08”)
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791):
- Allegro in B flat major “Sophie and Constanze”, KV 400 (4’26”)
- Thea Musgrave (*1928):
- Snapshots (5’10”)
(Total duration: 65’29”)
Oxana Shevchenko played Beethoven’s Sonate No.13 in E flat major, op.27/1, “Quasi una fantasia” in 2009, at the International Ferruccio Busoni Piano Competition in Bolzano. There, she won the fourth prize, the international critique’s prize, as well as the prize for the best performance of a work by Ferruccio Busoni. Here are movements 1 & 2, recorded in Bolzano:
And here are movements 3 & 4 from the same performance: