Piano Recital: Alina Bercu
Beethoven / Chopin / Rachmaninoff
Aula KZO, Wetzikon ZH, 2019-02-01
As earlier instances, the Klavierissimo Festival 2019 / Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland featured a series of piano recitals. There were also teaching sessions by the main artists, as well as smaller recitals before or after the main events. The final day, on Saturday, 2019-02-02, featured several events. Here is the context of the recitals that I attended this year:
2019-01-31, 19:30h— Oliver Schnyder
2019-02-01, 19:30h— Alina Bercu (this report)
2019-02-02, 15:30h— Alice di Piazza
2019-02-02, 17:00h— Deszö Ránki
2019-02-02, 20:00h— Yulianna Avdeeva
The Artist: Alina Bercu
The pianist Alina (Elena) Bercu (*1990, see also Wikipedia) had her first piano lessons at age 7 in her native town, in Câmpina, Prahova, Romania. A mere two years later (1999), she gave her first concert with orchestra. At the same time, her family settled in Brașov, Transylvania. An obvious child prodigy, she went on to perform on major stages throughout Europe, America and Asia. At age 16, she started studying with Grigory Gruzman (*1956) at the Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt in Weimar.
The first half of Alina Bercu’s recital was devoted to two early Beethoven sonatas. The second half started with two of the most popular (and—logically—most beautiful) Nocturnes by Chopin. Then, the artist moved on to Rachmaninoff’s late romanticism:
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Piano Sonata No.4 in E♭ major, op.7 (1797)
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Piano Sonata No.5 in C minor, op.10/1 (1798)
- Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849): Nocturne No.7 in C♯ minor, op.27/1, CT 114 (1836)
- Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849): Nocturne No.8 in D♭ major, op.27/2, CT 115 (1836)
- Sergei Rachmaninoff (1875 – 1943): Six Moments Musicaux, op.16 (1896)
The venue for all recitals in the Klavierissimo Festival is the theater-like main convention hall of the local high school (KZO), a semi-circular, ascending auditorium. The venue is actually too big for the number of people attending the recitals (it’s out in the countryside)—however, this has the advantage of letting everybody sit where they want (and all seats have excellent view onto the podium), and for a Steinway D-274 concert grand, a venue of that size certainly offers better sound than a small hall with “bathroom acoustics”!
I opted for a seat in the right-hand side block, around row 10 (half-way up): this gave me a good view for taking photos. I am not desperate about watching a pianist’s hands, as I’m following the score while also taking notes and operating the camera.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.4 in E♭ major, op.7 (1797)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) published 32 piano sonatas. Among these, the Piano Sonata No.4 in E♭ major, op.7 from 1796 is the first one that the composer published as an “opus” by itself, under the title “Grande Sonate“. The Sonata op.7 is substantially longer than the early sonatas in op.2 and has four movements:
- Allegro molto e con brio
- Largo, con gran espressione
- Allegro — Minore — Allegro
- Rondo: Poco allegretto e grazioso
In the recital on the previous day, Oliver Schnyder had avoided big arm gestures or other body language, even kept his facial mimics under control, Alina Bercu showed impulsive playing with a lively body language and facial mimics, occasionally also big arm gestures. As far as I could tell, these gestures and mimics were spontaneous and harmonious, not at all “made up”—a joy to watch.
I. Allegro molto e con brio
Alina Bercu selected a good, fluent tempo, her articulation and phrasing were careful and detailed throughout (e.g., in the conscious observation of all staccato dots). Also in the dynamics, her playing was lively and full of detail. My only quibble is that rhythmically, the music sounded somewhat too “straight”, such as in the regularity of the first and fourth quaver in every bar. Sadly, she left out the repetition of the exposition: every time this happens, I find it a pity, as hearing the exposition twice helps the listener in understanding the overall (sonata) form.
II. Largo, con gran espressione
Again, the articulation was very careful, observing all details of the score (such as dynamics and sforzati), also rhythmically accurate / truthful. I noted that Alina Bercu purposefully expanded the turns in bars 10 & 12 and later, equivalent instances—maybe a tad too much? Overall, her playing was gentle in the expression, yet very expressive, but kept the calm throughout the movement.
Alina Bercu did not make attempts to highlight Beethoven’s dissonances in secondary voices, i.e., she did not turn out the composer’s occasional, provocative details. In the last bars, I had then slight impression of “a little too much pedal”—but I think this wasn’t the artist’s fault, but likely because the modern concert grand (here: a Steinway D-274 in excellent condition) is resonating longer than what the composer could anticipate, based on the fortepiano instruments at his time? Maybe one should occasionally use a little less sustain pedal than what the score might suggest?
III. Allegro — Minore — Allegro
Here now, both repeats in the Allegro (first pass) were observed, same with the repeat in the minore part. In the latter, Beethoven predominantly uses pp (with some ffp markings here and there). To me, the base volume was mp at best, if not even mf. With this, the middle part lost the murmuring, if not mysterious, even slightly menacing character.
IV. Rondo: Poco allegretto e grazioso
I liked the liveliness in agogics, articulation and dynamics! Expectedly, of course, Alina Bercu focused on the vivacity, didn’t seek out the pensive moments in this movement. In the middle part, the demisemiquavers in the left hand sounded strong, maybe a tad heavy (and too dominant in general)—was this because the artist tended to point out the highest notes in the rolling figures (i.e., beats 2 and 4) rather than beats 1 and 3? Yes, there are sf marks on the even beats—but I think that these apply to the chords, not the demisemiquaver line. Finally, also here, some of the p and pp moments were somewhat “on the strong side”.
Overall Rating: ★★★
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.5 in C minor, op.10/1 (1798)
After the “Grande Sonate” op.7 with its four movements, in 1798, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) returned to publishing three sonatas under a single opus number, op.10. The first one among these, the Piano Sonata No.5 in C minor, op.10/1 (as well as op.10/2) also returns to a three-movement structure:
- Allegro molto e con brio
- Adagio molto
- Finale: Prestissimo
I. Allegro molto e con brio
Good agogics in the main theme! Alina Bercu did the ascending grace notes very rapidly, like arpeggiando. The second theme with the rolling quavers sounded almost rhapsodic—and sadly, the exposition again wasn’t repeated (at least, there was a certain consequence in the artist’s decisions!). In the recap section, the quaver notes in the punctuated motif (octaves, descant) of the second theme were strangely broadened, didn’t have the expected upbeat character.
II. Adagio molto
As already the first movement, I found the Adagio molto less convincing than the “Grande Sonate” op.7—though, I can’t really specify why. Rhythmically, some of the turns in the right hand didn’t seem quite natural—did they interact with the semiquaver accompaniment, i.e., were they not free / independent enough? Certainly, the performance revealed the challenges in this movement: the difficulties are less on the technical side, but in conveying the overall structure, in not getting lost in detail / small phrases, and not letting the small note figures disrupt the big phrases.
III. Finale: Prestissimo
Some snags here, too: the Prestissimo may be tempting, i.e., there is a danger of exaggerating the tempo. Here, the semiquavers were often somewhat superficial. And the Alberti-basses in bars 9 – 12 sounded too strong / dominant. This is a movement in sonata form; still the repeat of the exposition was not repeated—again.
Given that Alina Bercu was moving on to technically challenging music by Rachmaninoff, this made me wonder whether the artist took Beethoven’s early sonata(s) too lightly?
Chopin: Nocturne No.7 in C♯ minor, op.27/1, CT 114 (1836)
Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) composed 21 Nocturnes (or rather 22, if one adds in the “Nocturne oubliée” in C♯ minor, op.A1/6). Among these, the two Nocturnes op.27 from 1836 (to me) are the most serene of the composer’s contribution to the genre. Alina Bercu performed both pieces in op.27—first, the Nocturne No.7 in C♯ minor, op.27/1, CT 114 , with the annotation Larghetto.
Ah—if only Alina Bercu had more patience with this music!!! Not only did the basic pace seem too fast, too fluent, but the performance seemed to lack depth and serenity—it was devoid of mystery, rather impatient most of the time, and I missed the agogic tension (e.g., a noticeable ritenuto that would permit indulging a local climax). The più mosso part is obviously faster—here, it sounded more like a part of a ballad, rather than the climax of one of the most serene Nocturnes ever written!
Chopin: Nocturne No.8 in D♭ major, op.27/2, CT 115 (1836)
After op.27/1, the Nocturne No.8 in D♭ major, op.27/2, CT 115 followed suit. Its annotation is Lento sostenuto.
Here, Alina Bercu definitely used agogics—but still: often enough, the semiquaver line felt rather regular. The tempo was somewhat fast again, and so was the build-up—as if the artist lacked patience for this music, depriving herself (not always, but often) of the indulgence of a (subtly!) delayed climax. Maybe the two hands were rhythmically too much tied together? For example: the leggierissimo demisemiquaver figures were disrupting the bass line. Also during the two short right-hand cadenzas in the second half, the bass line should at least pretend to run through independently… Maybe I have heard too many truly masterful performances of the Nocturnes op.27? This performance certainly told me how difficult, challenging these particular Nocturnes are!
Rachmaninoff: Six Moments Musicaux, op.16 (1896)
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1875 – 1943) composed his Six Moments Musicaux (Шесть музыкальных моментов), op.16 between October and December 1896. the annotations for the six pieces are as follows:
- Andantino in B♭ minor
- Allegretto in E♭ minor
- Andante cantabile in B minor
- Presto in E minor
- Adagio sostenuto in D♭ major
- Maestoso in C major
The pieces cover a wide range of characters, from Nocturne and Barcarolle to virtuosic study, theme and variations, as well as song without words. While early works, they already carry the characteristics of Rachmaninoff’s virtuosic style of piano writing & playing.
My observations in this first Moment musical resemble those in the Chopin Nocturnes (indeed, that first piece does have Nocturne character): There may have been a regular pace with the bass notes on the first beat in every bar—but apart from that, the left-hand triplets sounded far too irregular. OK, I concede: they may be fairly tricky, especially for pianists that are not gifted with Rachmaninoff’s huge hands! I think that the music also asks for more rhythmic independence between the two hands.
Yes, the cadenza in the middle was highly virtuosic. However, in the subsequent Andantino con moto, the semiquaver figures in the descant made the bass, the left hand almost disappear. Finally, in the score, the semiquavers in the last 6 bars start ppp. Really? That must have been mf…but OK, even though the textures sound relatively straightforward, a look at the score reveals that this is technically very, very challenging.
The highly virtuosic (again!) second Moment musical seems to suit this artist much better—and her performance demonstrates that she absolutely has the technical means to master Rachmaninoff’s score! (Hmmm… what about Beethoven, then?!)
III. Andante cantabile
Alina Bercu’s performance was even better in No.3, which is far less acrobatic and dramatic. Rather, the interpretation was atmospheric, melancholic and expressive—one of the best movements in the entire performance.
In the middle part (which Alina Bercu did not repeat, sadly), it spontaneously occurred to me that this piece may have inspired Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) to write some of his early piano music: I saw striking analogies to the Romanza (I think) from the Serenade in A!
From the annotation Presto one can guess that this is another, highly virtuosic piece. Alina Bercu mastered this really well—her performance in the semiquaver figures was astounding. A minor quibble: where the semiquavers are in the left hand only, maybe the right hand (melody) should be a little more independent, free, rhythmically?
More hidden links to Stravinsky’s Serenade in A, if I’m not mistaken…
V. Adagio sostenuto
Another Nocturne—even with some close resemblances to Chopin’s Nocturnes in op.27! Alina Bercu offered a very atmospheric performance. As already in Chopin’s op.27, I sometimes wished for a more independent right hand (and more indulging in little ritenuti). Maybe this would have avoided the slight impression of shallowness?
The performance ended with another highlight. A highly involved performance of this very virtuosic movement, with its three layers: the rapid demisemiquaver figures in both hands, a hidden melody in quavers, and heavy chords in triple-punctuated rhythm, which must not disrupt the flow of the demisemiquavers. Alina Bercu fared really well here, offered an impressive firework performance: congrats!
Encore — Satie: Gnossienne No.1, Lent (1893)
Rather than offering a flashy, sparkling last dance as encore, Alina Bercu turned towards a slow, pensive “Mystery piece”, the No.1 (Lent, i.e., slow) of the Trois Gnossiennes, which the French composer Erik Satie (1866 – 1925) wrote 1890 – 1893. That’s music without bar lines and without time signature—just the Lent and some cryptic text notes above the melody line: “Very shiny”, “Questioning”, “From the tip of the thought”, “Wonder about yourself”, “Step by step”, and “On the tip of the tongue” (all in French, of course).
The left hand defines a slow, swaying, “suspended” rhythm, based on a continuous line of whole notes in the bass. The right hand has a melody line that keeps starting in quavers, instantly slows down to crotchets, then half notes, and most of the crotchets and half notes have grace notes: a melody without goal, without hope, without purpose? A big question mark of sorts…
I liked that interpretation, with its swaying rhythm in the left hand, the erratic movements of the melody line, like a gentle wind randomly moving around dead leaves? An excellent encore piece, for sure!