Gaspard Dehaene
Bach / Mozart / Chopin / Beethoven

Aula der Universität, Zurich, 2022-05-12

0.5-star rating

2022-05-25 — Original posting


Gaspard Dehaene (© Hiroshi Koike)

Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeAula der Universität, Zurich, 2022-05-12, 19:30h
Series / TitleMusik an ETHZ und UZH — Piano Recital Gaspard Dehaene
OrganizerMusical Discovery
Reviews from related eventsPrevious recitals in the Main Convention Hall (Aula) at Zurich University
Concerts organized by Musical Discovery

The Artist: Gaspard Dehaene, Piano

Gaspard Dehaene (*1987, see also Wikipedia.fr) grew up in Paris, into a musical family. He is the elder son of the French pianist Anne Queffélec (*1948). At age 16, the encounter with Chopin’s Ballade No.4 made him abandon his childhood passion, tennis, in favor of a career as pianist. He studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris (CNSMDP), in the classes of Bruno Rigutto (*1945) and Denis Pascal (*1962). Further studies took him to Jacques Rouvier (*1947) at the Mozarteum University Salzburg. From there he moved on to the École Normale de Musique de Paris, where he studied with Rena Shereshevskaya (Рена Шерешевская, *1954), for whom he now is teaching assistant.

The artist has since successfully launched a career as pianist in solo recitals, performing with orchestras, as well as in chamber music. He has participated in prominent festivals, particularly in France, and he has performed in prominent concert halls throughout Europe, as well as in Japan, Russia, and in the United States. Since 2019, Gaspard Dehaene also is official Steinway artist. For details see the artist’s Web biography (French), as well as the French Wikipedia.


Program


Setting, etc.

There were around 100 visitors in the venue, the main convention hall (Aula) of Zurich University. It looks as though the organizer was able to regain the pre-pandemic audience size, which is of course good to see!

As always in this venue, I chose my favorite seating area, near the front of the right-hand side block. This time, I was even closer to the instrument, in row #3 (which gave me a free view for taking photos). This position had the added benefit of not being in the instrument’s most direct projection area.

The instrument was the University’s mid-size Steinway grand piano, model B-211.


Johann Sebastian Bach, ca. 1722
Johann Sebastian Bach

Concert & Review

Bach: WTC II—Prelude & Fugue No.22 in B♭ minor, BWV 891

Composer & Work

Gaspard Dehaene opened his recital with a prelude/fugue pair by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). Bach wrote two collections of preludes and fugues through all major and minor keys (24 pairs both), each called The Well-Tempered Clavier. Book II (BWV 870 – 893), the second of these collections, dates from 1739 – 1742. The artist selected Prelude & Fugue No.22 in B♭ minor, BWV 891.

Bach on the Modern Piano

Bach couldn’t even remotely picture the sound of a modern piano. He wrote his two volumes of the “Well-Tempered Clavier” for baroque instruments such as the harpsichord or the clavichord. These instruments offer a completely different sonority, as well as radically different characteristics in articulation. This has consequences on the choice of tempo and phrasing, as well as ornamentation. Also, dynamics were not a means of expression on the baroque instruments (other than switching between two stops / keyboards). Rather, baroque “language” used refinements in articulation, ornamentation, and touch (a.k.a. Klangrede, see Nikolaus Harnoncourt, 2018).

Some people misread the “Well-Tempered” in the title. Despite the fact that Bach was writing preludes and fugues for all major and minor keys around the circle of fifths, he did not use equal temperament tuning. The latter is now standard on all modern keyboard instruments, but wasn’t actually “invented” at Bach’s time—see my note “What Tunings Did Bach Use?”. This means that modern keyboard instruments can simply not reproduce the extra purity in some keys (typically those around C major) in baroque tuning schemes. At the same time, modern instruments lack the extra color from the subtle impurities in “distant” keys, including B♭ minor.

The Performance

Despite the above restrictions, pianists inevitably encounter Bach’s works in their education. And, of course, we cannot preclude pianists from performing Bach’s work in concert. However, I think that the listener should be see this as “transcription”, i.e., a “translation into a different musical language”. Hereby, some artists sincerely try imitating the soundscape of baroque keyboard instruments. Others, however, deliberately move away from the baroque world, indulging in romanticisms, etc.

In fact, it is not infrequent that pianists include Bach in their recitals, preferably as the opening piece. One reservation I have about this is, that it degrades Bach’s compositions to “warm-up pieces”. Or, perhaps, as an “easy” way to establish a first contact with the audience?

I. Praeludium

Even though he did not indulge in excess dynamics, Gaspard Dehaene’s interpretation was essentially a romantic one. A tempo that was more fluent than in typical harpsichord performances, calm in the flow, and with gentle, well-rounded sonority. There was no Klangrede in the sense if detailed articulation and agogics at the scale of motifs. Rather, the artist largely used legato articulation—piano esthetics, in other words. That’s largely, what I expected. Gaspard Dehaene lost some drive / tension from around bar #25 onwards. On the other hand, despite a “straight” (rather than arpeggiated) touch, the performance remained transparent, making sure that all three voices got an adequate amount of attention.
★★★

II. Fuga à 4

Bach marks the head of the theme in this fugue with staccato dots. I would describe these notes in Gaspard Dehaene’s interpretation as “firm, accented portato” (or mezzo-staccato), while the remainder of the theme was close to legato. With this, the fugue theme remained identifiable, despite the higher complexity in the denser four-voice texture. Compared to baroque instruments, the transparency of the performance profited from the added dynamic emphasis on the theme head. The broadening and crescendo on the final bars was maybe a little too romantic?
★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart c. 1780
W.A. Mozart

Mozart: Rondo in A minor for Piano, K.511

Composer & Work

As a “bridge” from Bach to Chopin, Gaspard Dehaene selected a work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791). The Rondo in A minor for Piano, K.511 dates from 1787, according to Mozart’s own work catalog.

The Rondo is in A-B-A-C-A form, whereby each of the segments (A, B, C) is again in ternary (a-b-a) form. The only tempo annotation is Andante.

The Performance

Calm, flowing—and sincere to Mozart’s notation. However, when I thought about performances on historic instruments from Mozart’s time (fortepianos), the f segments often sounded a tad gross, maybe heavy. Also, I found the dynamics somewhat levelled, i.e., there was limited contrast between f and p / pp. In the context of a modern interpretation (with a sonority that one would usually associate with romantic works), though, Gaspard Dehaene’s interpretation was certainly atmospheric and sensitive.

Rating: ★★★½

Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin

Chopin: Barcarole in F♯ major, op.60, B.158, CT 6

Composer & Work

The biggest part of Gaspard Dehaene’s recital prior to the intermission was dedicated to works by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849). The artist first selected Chopin’s well-known Barcarole (also: Barcarolle) in F♯ major, op.60, B.158, CT 6. Written between 1845 and 1846, it is one of Chopin’s last works.

The Performance

Expressive, engaged, with rounded, full sound. To me, it felt as if this was closer to the artist’s mind and heart than Bach and Mozart? Here now, exploiting the sonority of the Steinway B-211 was certainly justified. In Gaspard Dehaene’s interpretation, this felt like a concert piece rather than music for smaller, private settings, such as salons. That of course does not apply to the central, lyrical and intimate A major section.

Occasionally, the artist’s touch sounded a tad hard. Even though I was not sitting right in front of the instrument, the music momentarily felt a bit “loud”. However, Gaspard Dehaene certainly has all the technical means to master the technical and musical challenges in this demanding piece!

Rating: ★★★½

Chopin: Three Mazurki, op.63, B.162

Composer & Work

1846, around the time when he composed the Barcarole, Chopin also wrote the Three Mazurki, op.63, B.162. These turned out to be the last set of Mazurki that were published during the composer’s lifetime.

  1. No.39 in B major, op.63/1, CT 89
  2. No.40 in F minor, op.63/2, CT 90
  3. No.41 in C♯ minor, op.63/3, CT 91

The B major Mazurka op.63/1 has the character of the original Mazur folk dance, with “inconsistent” rhythmic accents. The other two (F minor and C♯ minor) are of the melancholic and slow Kujawiak type, see also Wikipedia.

“After the op.63”, eight more Mazurki, Nos. 42 – 49, follow: op.67 and op.68, each a set of four. These were published in 1855 only, after the composer’s death. Only two of these were actually composed after op.63, in summer 1849. The Mazurka No.43 in G minor, op.posth.67/2 (B.167, CT 93), and the Mazurka No.49 in F minor, op.posth.68/4 (B.168, CT 99). The latter is known as “Chopin’s last composition”.

The Performance

Mazurka No.39 in B major, op.63/1, CT 89 — Vivace

To me, the sonority felt a tad “big” for a Mazurka—a “concert piece” that I expected to be a bit more “folksy”, and maybe more intimate?

No.40 in F minor, op.63/2, CT 90 — Lento

The artist performed this quasi attacca: I liked the strong agogic swaying in every bar. Pensive, reflective, atmospheric, “suspended mood”.

No.41 in C♯ minor, op.63/3, CT 91 — Allegretto

Moody, atmospheric—not just with agogic swaying, but also with distinct rubato that underlined the mood swings.

Interestingly, the lento vs. allegretto annotations didn’t really appear to apply to the actual tempo, but to the character of the melody voice!

Rating: ★★★

Chopin: Ballade No.4 in F minor, op.52, B.146, CT 5

Composer & Work

The last one of Chopin’s ballades, Ballade No.4 in F minor, op.52, B.146, CT 5, is a work from 1842 (revised in 1843).

The Performance

Gaspard Dehaene concluded the Chopin segment with the Ballade No.4—the piece that 19 years ago made him switch from tennis to the piano, hence music that must be close to his heart! Here’s a few remarks from my notes: in general, more than on agogic swaying, the artist relied upon distinct (often strong) rubato as a key means of expression. For the second theme (bars 8ff), Chopin writes a tempo. However, the artist rather increased the tempo freedom, the rubato in order to display the mellow, gentle character of that segment.

I particularly liked the reflective middle part, after which the artist built up a broad climax. As far as I could see, Gaspard Dehaene followed the composer’s (sustain) pedal instructions / annotations. Was it limitations of that particular instrument, or maybe the acoustics (and my seating position?) that made me occasionally miss some clarity? Momentarily the music sounded a tad too legato?

Rating: ★★★½

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.29 in B♭ major, op.106 (“Hammerklavier“)

Composer & Work

The famous Piano Sonata No.29 in B♭ major, op.106, Hammerklaviersonate by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) doesn’t require an introduction. For information on the composition from 1818 see also earlier posts, such as from a recital on 2018-01-31. The movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Scherzo: Assai vivace – Presto – Prestissimo — Tempo I
  3. Adagio sostenuto
  4. Introduzione: Largo — Un poco più vivace — Allegro – Fuga: Allegro risoluto

The Performance

After the intermission, Gaspard Dehaene tackled the biggest piece of his recital. Many would regard it the “Mount Everest” of the classical repertoire altogether, both technically, as well as musically. One could not see signs of this upcoming challenge in the artist’s face or gestures. He entered the hall with a neutral, friendly (also factual) expression, obviously focusing on the demands of the next piece. During the performance, though, his face showed clear signs of the “film of emotions” that passed through the artist’s mind, as some of the concert photos indicate.

My primary impression was that of “big (modern grand piano) concert sonority”. I could not resist the thought / question whether as “Steinway artist” Gaspard Dehaene felt obliged to demonstrate and exploit the instrument’s power and capability? Of course, one would hope that this wasn’t the artist’s primary objective! Still, as already before, in f/ff I often had the feeling of “loud”, occasionally bordering on noisy. I wondered about this: the size of the venue does not require extra power in playing. Also, the instrument was “only” a mid-size grand (B-211). Maybe the problem was that the pianist applied “concert grand touch and power” to a smaller instrument? I doubt that the instrument was just badly regulated?

I. Allegro (₵, 1/2 = 138)

As for the interpretation: Gaspard Dehaene’s tempo, the concept (articulation, phrasing) in general followed the examples of the majority of today’s “big” interpretations. The pianist certainly has all the technical means to master this sonata. While the touch often appeared rather hard, for the best I can tell, the artist was truthful to the composer’s pedaling annotation and dynamic instructions. Yes, there were occasional, typically minor mishaps—but one should keep in mind that the sonata is truly “titanic”, technically (and commendably, the artist did not seek to ease his task by omitting the repeat of the exposition).

The artist appeared to try following Beethoven’s challenging (some would call it “impossible”) metronome markings (see the note below). This had the consequence that on the modern grand, some of the fast motifs (such as chord repetition) were hard to articulate properly. I was tempted to view some of the imperfections in the articulation as superficialities. However, one can just as well blame this on the composer’s tempo annotation, combined with the heavier mechanics of a modern instrument (compared to the instruments that Beethoven used).
★★★

Note: Recent research (Martin-Castro & Ucar, 2020) may have found an explanation for Beethoven’s “impossibly fast” metronome numbers. But no, I don’t think the recent, exotic theory of Beethoven (and other composers) only counting the “tics” in the metronome’s “tic-toc” (Winters, n.d.) is correct.

II. Scherzo: Assai vivace (3/4, 3/4 = 80) – Presto – Prestissimo — Tempo I

Also here, Gaspard Dehaene’s performance followed every crescendo / decrescendo fork. However, large parts of this (short) movement are p, if not pp—and these felt rather loud, relatively speaking. Was the artist seduced by the frequent, momentary swellings (“< >”)? The metronome mark is challenging also here (see above)—not all of the semiquaver in punctuations were articulated clearly.

Beethoven wants the sustain pedal down very often, even in extended segments in the first part. Again, Gaspard Dehaene observed these truthfully. However, I don’t think the ascending Prestissimo scale ought to be performed with sustain pedal. Actually, both the Presto and the Prestissimo are devoid of “Ped.” marks.
★★★

III. Adagio sostenuto (6/8, ♪ = 92)

The annotation also spells “Appassionato e con molto sentimento“, while at the same time specifying Una corda mezzo voce. However, I don’t think the “Appassionato e con molto sentimento” precludes soft playing. Up to the return to F♯ minor in bar 85 (and the long demisemiquaver passage that follows), the movement only has around 10 bars with sustain pedal marks. To me, the performance felt too legato, i.e., using too much sustain pedal (even though it may only have been used to achieve legato).

The tempo may have been “slow enough” in general—overall, though, I often sensed a certain restlessness. To me, there was too much drama (even excess “loudness”), and not enough reflective, pondering calm, “long breath”. The pace may have followed Beethoven’s annotation, However, as mentioned above, one may need to apply some caution towards Beethoven’s metronome annotations.

My notes may sound rather negative—however, I do take into account that this movement is the biggest (musical) challenge in this sonata, and many, even big artists fall short in this part of the sonata (more than in the monumental first and last movements).
★★★½

IV. Introduzione: Largo (, 1/16 = 76) — Un poco più vivace — Allegro – Fuga: Allegro risoluto (3/4, ♩ = 144)

The critical part here is of course the fugue, which Gaspard Dehaene took rather fast (see again above), to the point where the semiquaver figures started to sound blurred (if not a tad superficial), lacking clarity. The artist does not lack the dexterity and the physical reserves required for this movement. However, I feel that a slightly slower pace would have helped the clarity in the articulation and detail.

Also here, the performance often tended to sound “loud”—an attempt to demonstrate the monumentality of the composition? I don’t think this is a question of power and volume. I should say that the instrument may also have its shortcomings—for example, the sonority in the lowest bass (e.g., around bar 108) was occasionally bordering on unpleasant.
★★★+

Overall Rating: ★★★

Franz Schubert, 1846, 3D Portrait
Franz Schubert, 1846

Encore — Schubert: Hungarian Melody in B minor, D.817

The “Hammerklavier” sonata did not fail with the audience. Gaspard Dehaene received a strong ovation. One could sense the artist’s relief after mastering Beethoven’s “monster sonata”. Gone was his factual expression—he looked happy, smiling, likable!

After a while, the pianist addressed the audience—in fairly clear German! He not just thanked the audience for their presence, but also mentioned how happy he was to have been able to play here at last (the recital had been shifted by over a year, due to the pandemic).

He stated that there was another reason for this concert to be special to him: two weeks earlier, he had become the father of a son named Louis (same as Beethoven, though that was apparently not the reason for the choice of name). Congrats to this successful launch into a profoundly life-changing experience, and best wishes for the “newly born parents” and their son!!!

Composer & Work

Gaspard Dehaene stated that after the compositions in his recital it seemed best just to add a calm, more peaceful piece. He selected the Hungarian Melody in B minor, D.817 by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). This is a short, isolated piece with the annotation Allegretto—Schubert wrote it in 1824.

The Performance

A calm, reflective, slightly melancholic piece in some performances. Gaspard Dehaene’s interpretation was devoid of resignation. It felt placid, relaxed, peaceful—understandably, after successfully mastering Beethoven’s most challenging sonata. There also must have been an influence by the recent exhilarating personal experience. The audience sure felt the same, together with the artist!
★★★½


Acknowledgement

The author would like to express his gratitude to the organizer, Nina Orotchko (Musical Discovery) for the invitation to this recital.


Literature

  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt. (2018). Musik als Klangrede : Wege zu einem neuen Musikverständnis : Essays und Vorträge. Bärenreiter.
  • Martin-Castro, A., & Ucar, I. (2020). Conductors’ tempo choices shed light over Beethoven’s metronome. PLOS ONE, 15(12), e0243616. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0243616
  • Winters, W. (n.d.). AuthenticSound – YouTube. www.youtube.com. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://tinyurl.com/yk4jnvwu

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