Piano Recital: Danae Dörken
Debussy, Bartók, Poulenc, de Falla, Chopin

Lukaskirche, Lucerne, 2019-11-21

3-star rating

2019-11-29 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

About the Concert

I’m not attending much of this year’s Lucerne Piano Festival, even though it’s apparently the last one of its kind. Apart from the tickets cost for regular concerts in the KKL and the travel time, etc., the one reason for my limited attendance may be the same that probably caused the organizers to discontinue the Lucerne Piano Festival: too many concerts!

These days, the schedule of Festivals in Europe (and elsewhere) is so dense that it is difficult to find a suitable time slot (who is claiming classical music is dead?!). It may also be harder to find sponsors offering financial support. And, of course, with so many festivals and concerts it isn’t easy to mobilize enough audience to make such an event economically viable.

So, this year, I’m merely attending three “Debut Series” recitals in Lucerne’s Lukaskirche—and this was the second one of the three (the first one was on the previous day).

Setting, etc.

Unlike the debut recital on the previous day, this time, the venue was not sold out. Still, there was a fairly big audience. I had a seat in the right-hand side block in the nave—the right-most seat in row #9. The acoustics are good in that position, even though not directly in the focus (projection line) of the Steinway D-274 concert grand. And also the visibility was just OK: as I was mostly either scribbling notes or reading the score on my iPad, it was enough to be able occasionally to glean at the pianist through the people. I could even observe the artist’s pedaling, if and where I wanted to.


The Artist

The second one of the Debut Series artists was the German-Greek pianist Danae Dörken, born 1991 in Wuppertal, Germany. For details about the artist’s biography, her education at the piano, her teachers, competitions, and about her career as a soloist so far, see her Web biography. This was my first encounter with Danae Dörken.


Program

Danae Dörken started with French Impressionist music, one of Debussy’s key set of compositions. After an excursion to Romania / Hungary with Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances (actually from the Hungarian population in Transylvania), she turned back to France, for Poulenc’s Nocturnes. After a dance from de Falla’s El amor brujo, Chopin’s third piano sonata concluded the official part of the program:


Concert & Review

Danae Dörken, Debut Recital @ Lucerne Piano Festival, 2019-11-21 (© Peter Fischli / Lucerne Festival)
Danae Dörken, Debut Recital @ Lucerne Piano Festival, 2019-11-21 (© Peter Fischli / Lucerne Festival)

Tall, firm and self-assured, Danae Dörken stepped onto the podium, almost sporty, despite the high heels and the somewhat girlish look of her black dress. At the instrument, she was performing with vivid facial mimics, emphatic gestures and lively movements with her entire body and head.

Debussy: “Images” pour piano, 1ère série, L.110

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) wrote a collection of Images (pictures) for piano, collected in two sets of three pieces each. The first part, “Images” pour piano1ère série (L.110), features the following movements / pieces:

  1. Reflets dans l’eau
  2. Hommage à Rameau
  3. Mouvement

The Performance

1. Reflets dans l’eau

One of the first things that I noted was that up to the Quasi Cadenza (bar 20), just about every bar has one or several pp annotations, the cadenza even retracts to ppp. It is true that every second wave rises with a crescendo fork and descends with decrescendo—but the overall “theme” clearly ought to be pp.

In my view, the entire beginning was too loud, rather mf than pp. In bars 16/17 (the countermoving sequence of chords), the pianist almost reached f, if not more. With this, the music seemed to lack poetry and atmosphere, sounded too clear. Should there have been more agogics, more rubato? I did not check whether the artist used the sostenuto (middle) pedal as indicated by the score. True, that suggested pedaling may not be by the composer (though, Debussy’s writing really mandates it)—but they reflect the need to make the impressionist harmonies sound “as within a dreamlike cloud”.

I concede that technically this piece is vastly more challenging than it sounds to the inexperienced listener. Sure, Danae Dörken’s playing was technically excellent, clean, and she seemed to follow the legato & phrasing annotations, but still, to me, the music didn’t have that “impressionist scent”.
★★★

2. Reflets dans l’eau

Clear, transparent—but my impressions resembled those of the first movement: too clear, often too loud (the piece begins pp expressif et doucement soutenu)—”in the style of a Sarabande, though not rigorously”—really?
★★★

3. Mouvement

Here, the clarity in Danae Dörken’s playing pays off: to me, this was the best movement among the three. The annotation reads “Animé (avec une légèreté fantasque mais précise)”. Precise it was, indeed—whether or not the fantasque (capricious, fanciful, or whimsical) aspect, is another question. Also, the pp again was barely followed—but that’s very hard to achieve here.

Apart from the issue of dynamics, I certainly can say that the artists playing was technically superb.
★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★


Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances, Sz 56 / BB 68

Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) wrote his collection of six Romanian Folk Dances, Sz 56 / BB 68 in 1915. He later (1917) also created an orchestrated version of the pieces. The dances are named as follow:

  1. Bot tánc / Jocul cu bâtă (Stick Dance)
  2. Brâul (Sash Dance)
  3. Topogó / Pe loc (In One Spot)
  4. Bucsumí tánc / Buciumeana (Dance from Bucsum)
  5. Román polka / Poarga Românească (Romanian Polka)
  6. Aprózó / Mărunțel (Fast Dance)

The Performance

Danae Dörken seemed to feel more “at home” in Bartók’s folk dances than with Debussy. Or: Bartók’s music appears to suit her better. Does this relate to the closer geographic proximity to her Greek ancestry?

The first dance (Stick Dance) was clear, capricious, with poignant “Hungarian” agogics. The latter were (pleasingly) even more prominent in Brâul (Sash Dance). That second dance has repeat signs. Danae Dörken shifted the repeat up by an octave, along with gentler articulation: a nice idea!

Topogó / Pe loc (In One Spot) was very nice, gentle and atmospheric, again with the appropriate, swaying agogics: no idea why the German title reads Der Stampfer (the Stomper)!?

In Bucsumí tánc / Buciumeana (Dance from Bucsum), I found it a pity that the quaver triplets in bars 4, 5, 8, 9, etc. appeared degraded to punctuations: this way, they lost their triplet character. The dances 5 and 6 appeared attacca forming a single build-up / acceleration towards the almost whirling end. The score is very explicit about the use of the sustain pedal, the music is generally f, with accentuated rhythms and sf annotations—are twanging strings unavoidable with this?

Rating: ★★★½


Poulenc: Huit Nocturnes, FP 56

Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963) wrote the Huit Nocturnes, FP 56, in the years 1929 – 1938. The annotations are as follows:

  1. C major: Sans traîner
  2. A major (“Bal de jeunes filles“): Très animé
  3. F major (“Les Cloches de Malines“): Modéré mais sans lenteur
  4. C minor (“Bal fantôme“): Lent, très las et piano
  5. D minor (“Phalènes“): Presto misterioso
  6. G major: Très calme mais sans traîner
  7. E♭ major: Assez allant
  8. G major (pour servir de Coda au Cycle): Très modéré

The Performance

I. C major: Sans traîner

Here now, Danae Dörken’s playing was atmospheric, subtle, and dynamically differentiated—spot-on! Only in the final 6 bars (twice as slow, 3/4 and 4/4), the mf (after pp) abruptly seemed to disrupt the serene, calm atmosphere.

II. A major (“Bal de jeunes filles“): Très animé

Dans un halo de pédale—indeed! I liked that part of the piece, as well as the avec passion in the second half. The preceding très souple et très allant is hard to realize, I guess. Wishful thinking on the part of the composer?

III. F major (“Les Cloches de Malines“): Modéré mais sans lenteur

The left hand is p, “sweet and melancholic” (the score explicitly specifies “use lots of pedal”). At the same time, the right hand (which joins in at bar 4) has an annotation mf and “clear”. Danae Dörken mastered the challenge of these partly conflicting annotations really well. There is a pp in bar 18, and a few bars later, there is a sudden mf with expressif (for the descant only?). Here, this rather turned into a f, which didn’t quite seem to fit the overall atmosphere.

The first part ends in a fermata on the last note, followed by another fermata on a pause of a full bar. That is even specifically annotated long silence. That pause definitely was far less than a full note—is it so hard to bridge that gap? The subsequent, second part (f) is meant to be “agitated and mysterious”. How these can be combined, I don’t know. Danae Dörken took the Agité for the bars with the strong markings, the mystérieux for the ppp segment—fair enough. There is another general rest with the annotation silence prior to the ppp—too short again. Then, before the initial theme returns, there is a third general rest, labeled très long silence, i.e., very long silence. True, this was the longest pause—but very long??

IV. C minor (“Bal fantôme“): Lent, très las et piano

A little (too) concrete?

V. D minor (“Phalènes“): Presto misterioso

Combining Presto and misterioso is tricky. I picture music that ghastly passing by. Danae Dörken’s playing was certainly precise and virtuosic—but Poulenc specifies p up to mf, only a few, scattered bars are f or ff. I think this was rather too loud again: I missed the misterioso aspect.

VI. G major: Très calme mais sans traîner

From looking at the artist, I guess that this must have been a movement to her liking, judging from her very emphatic gestures, body and arm movements! However, also here, the annotation is predominantly p or pp (even murmuré / très doux), with intermittent, short eruptions to ff. With this, I was missing the Nocturne / pp aspects, except for a few moments in the center.

VII. E♭ major: Assez allant

Fluent, with waves in the dynamics. I started wondering whether Danae Dörken felt that the size of the venue asked for more volume??

VIII. G major (pour servir de Coda au Cycle): Très modéré

With the title referring to this as a coda, I pictured (and expected) a piece reminding of “Der Dichter spricht”, the No.15 from Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, op.15. Danae Dörken came close to that—though I could well imagine more atmospheric interpretations.

Rating: ★★★


de Falla: Danza ritual del fuego from the Ballet El amor brujo

In 1914, Manuel de Falla (1876 – 1946) composed a “Gitanería” (gypsy piece), which he named “El Amor Brujo“. Later, 1916, he transformed this into an orchestral version with three short songs for mezzo-soprano. In 1924, de Falla created a “ballet pantomímico” from this music, which by now is the most well-known version. Finally, around 1930, de Falla created a suite for piano “El Amor Brujo” (G.69), using four popular movements from the ballet:

  1. Pantomima
  2. Danza del terror
  3. Romance del pescador
  4. Danza ritual del fuego

The Performance

Here, my expectations originate from the enthralling recordings by Arthur Rubinstein (1887 – 1982). Even though these may not fulfill all of today’s standards, they do indeed convey the fanaticism of a ritual dance, the heat of the fire, the heat of the emotions—while retaining clarity, a precise touch…

Technically, that performance was good—though, I think that this should be clearer, could be wilder. The start was rather slow, if not sluggish before picking up momentum (and this happened with every return of the initial theme). The performance was building up drive and momentum—but that seemed to happen at the expense of clarity.

Rating: ★★★


Chopin: Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, op.58

The Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, op.58 (B.155, CT 203) by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) is from 1844. It’s the somewhat less popular, less extroverted, maybe less brilliant of the composer’s three sonatas (or rather two that are regularly performed in concert). The four movements are as follows:

  1. Allegro maestoso
  2. Scherzo: Molto vivace
  3. Largo
  4. Finale: Presto, ma non tanto

The Performance

I. Allegro maestoso

In my first impressions, that movement seemed to be short in power. Plus, there were some small, but still strange rhythmic distortions, such as around the triplet in bar 17. I also felt that the articulation often lacked clarity, which may have been caused by a slight excess in sustain pedal, combined with a softness in touch / articulation, perhaps also insufficient internal dynamic balance. The music often sounded rather mellow, even veiled.

Danae Dörken did not repeat the exposition, which is a pity, but may be due to restrictions in the length of the recital (so I don’t want to blame the artist here). Strangely, while in the preceding pieces, the playing often sounded (too) loud, here, there didn’t seem to be enough power for a real f or ff, for real build-ups and accents. Also, some of the dense textures remained unclear, melody lines occasionally were hard to follow. Exhaustion or a shortage of dynamic control and balance?

II. Scherzo: Molto vivace

Also the Scherzo seemed short in dynamic bandwidth—and clarity: e.g., near the end of the virtuosic E♭ major parts, the accents on quavers 2 and 5 in every bar were hardly present. The dramatic / rhapsodic parts of the movement in general sounded a bit flat, lacked precision and engagement. The central, serene B major section, though, was much better, closer to expectations.

III. Largo

The Largo followed without interruption, attacca. Also here, I can’t really say that I was over-excited about the performance. The dynamics again felt narrow at both ends: I missed both a real pp, as well as a real ff. With this, the artist’s gestures, and her mimics seemed exaggerated, made me even more aware of what I was missing in the interpretation: poetry, atmosphere, enchantment, maybe also more of the artist’s own personality. And there were also rhythmic inaccuracies, lacking poignancy, as well as occasional distortions: e.g., in bar 4 of the final B major segment, the sequence of three semiquaver quintuplets were grossly imbalanced, far from any reasonable agogic distortion.

IV. Finale: Presto, ma non tanto

Sure, the artist has fast fingers—but many of the semiquaver chains and figures sounded superficial, unclear, “washed out”—was the tempo a tad fast? Loss of control due to exhaustion? The confirmation for this: towards the end, the number of small mishaps gradually increased. Over the whole, I missed a compelling overall perspective.

Overall Rating: ★★★


Encore 1 — Grieg: Lyric Pieces, op.65: 6. “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen”

As (first) encore, Danae Dörken announced a piece by Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907): from Book VIII of the Lyric Pieces, op.65, the well-known No.6, Bryllupsdag på Troldhaugen (Wedding Day at Troldhaugen). I have heard this in concert once before, in a Piano Recital in Vevey, on 2016-07-01—also as encore. Here, it definitely wasn’t more than a last dance: full of superficialities, lacking rhythmic clarity and poignancy, just storming forward, often rushed. Sure, it was “merely an encore”. However, as the saying goes: what remains in people’s memory are the first and the last pieces. In that sense: wouldn’t it be better to select a simpler (but atmospheric) piece, just to ensure that the “final imprint” is a positive one?
★★½


Encore 2 — Manolis Kalomiris: Prelude No.1

Well, Danae Dörken had a chance to correct the impression from the (first) encore, as she could follow up with a second one. Here now, she turned towards her home country, Greece: She played the Prelude No.1 (Molto agitato ed appassionato) by the Greek composer Manolis Kalomiris (1883 – 1962; for more detail see the Greek Wikipedia site).

Indeed—here now, she seemed to be “at home”: a performance full of emphasis, passion, the left hand forming waves in a stormy sea, as accompaniment for an equally vehement chord sequence in the right hand: still an encore, but an enthralling one—thanks!
★★★½


Conclusions

Prior to concerts, I often run into fears that I might not be able to say anything about a performance. However, as readers of my blog can probably tell, I should rather be worried about not being able to boil down a vast amount of comments to a reasonable size review. This, however, was one of the few instances where a performance left me somewhat clueless, and indeed, my scribbled notes from the recital are very thin. Consequently, compared to typical reviews in my blog, my comments may seem unusually sketchy.

There were few, if any real deficiencies in the artist’s performance, and technically, she is definitely able to master the repertoire that she selected. However, obviously, the performance failed to “speak to me”. Should I then rather not comment at all? Well, I’m sticking to my rule of commenting on all concerts that I attend.

Also: should I sweep bad comments under the carpet? Or worse: should I produce good comments just to please the artist or her agent, etc.? There are several points to mention here:

  • Embellishing a review is of no help to anyone. It makes me lose credibility, though. And it would be unfair to those artists who really deserve a higher rating.
  • I want to be truthful to my personal opinion and impressions about a performance.
  • If a performance is not entirely successful, an artist should have the right (and maybe the need) to know that (and ideally why) he/she did not reach parts of the audience. In my experience, most artists highly appreciate that aspect of a good and thorough review.
  • Finally: it’s all just my humble and personal opinion…

Addendum: Danae Dörken Performing Kalomiris



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