Piano Recital: Konstantin Scherbakov
Beethoven’s Last Piano Works

Aula der Universität, Zurich, 2019-05-21

4.5-star rating

2019-05-22 — Original posting



Introduction

Within the framework of Musik an ETHZ und UZH (Music at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and at the University of Zurich), the last concert of the season was an all-Beethoven recital by Konstantin Scherbakov (*1963) played an all-Beethoven program. I don’t need to introduce the artist, as I have already written about four of his solo recitals over the past 4 years:

The program for this concert ran under the title “Beethoven’s Last Piano Works“:

Program

As the title suggested, the program exclusively featured compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827):

The initial announcement had Beethoven’s op.120 in the second half, after the intermission. This was changed in the final program. That was certainly a wise decision from the point-of-view of physical “power management”. There was one disadvantage with this order, though. Sadly, some people in the (well-filled) audience apparently just came for the highlight, the Diabelli Variations. So, a number of people did not return after the intermission. I found this rather odd (particularly towards the artist), maybe snobbish…

Setting, etc.

This was the third concert in the Aula (main convention hall) of the University of Zurich. I have written about the venue in my report from the first piano recital in this location, on 2019-03-27. My seat was the same as in the last concerts, in row 6 of the right-hand side block. The hall holds around 300 people, the piano was a mid-size Steinway B-211 grand piano.


Beethoven: 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, op.120

Early in 1819, the Austrian music publisher, editor, and composer Anton Diabelli (1781 – 1856) sent a waltz that he composed for this purpose to “all the important composers of the Austrian Empire”, asking each of these to compose one variation. He then intended to publish these in a patriotic volume called Vaterländischer Künstlerverein, as a charity in favor of orphans and widows of the Napoleonic Wars.

Beethoven allegedly initially refused, as he didn’t like the Waltz. However, he appears to have made sketches of a few variations in 1819, and some sources state that by summer 1819, 23 variations were complete, but then laid aside. Finally, in 1823, Beethoven took up the variations again and sent the complete set to Diabelli, who published the set as 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, op.120, now known as “Diabelli Variations”. It turned out one of the greatest works for keyboard instrument of all time. Many see this as Beethoven’s opus summum for piano.

Outline of the Variations

  1. Tema: Vivace
  2. Alla marcia maestoso
  3. Poco allegro
  4. L’istesso tempo
  5. Un poco più vivace
  6. Allegro vivace
  7. Allegro ma non troppo e serioso
  8. Un poco più allegro
  9. Poco vivace
  10. Allegro pesante e risoluto
  11. Presto
  12. Allegretto
  13. Un poco più moto
  14. Vivace
  15. Grave e maestoso
  16. Presto scherzando
  17. Allegro
  18. Allegro
  19. Poco moderato
  20. Presto
  21. Andante
  22. Allegro con brio – Meno allegro – Tempo primo
  23. Alla “Notte e giorno faticar” di Mozart: Allegro molto
  24. Allegro assai
  25. Fughetta (Andante)
  26. Allegro
  27. (Piacevole)
  28. Vivace
  29. Allegro
  30. Adagio ma non troppo
  31. Andante, sempre cantabile
  32. Largo, molto espressivo
  33. Fuga: Allegro
  34. Tempo di Menuetto moderato

The Performance

I’m not going to comment on the performance of each and every one of the variations (my reviews are long enough anyway!). Rather, I’m trying to highlight what I see as key aspects in Konstantin Scherbakov’s performance and interpretation.

I should add that Konstantin Scherbakov has recorded the Diabelli Variations back in 1997, 22 years ago. I have added a reference to the CD at the bottom of this review. Only after the concert, I briefly checked the CD recording (just the theme, at this point) and found that the artist hasn’t fundamentally changed his approach / philosophy since then.

General Approach

Many pianists seem to take these variations as an opportunity to show off their virtuosity. With many artists, the theme already appears as if these people wanted to make up Vivace from entire bars! Konstantin Scherbakov takes a radically different approach. Not because he wants to be different, though! He has no need to prove his virtuosity in an olympic effort. His performances of works by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), and even more so of post-romantic composers such as Sergei Lyapunov (1859 – 1924), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943), or Leopold Godowsky (1870 – 1938) give more than sufficient testimony of his virtuosic mastership.

So, here, Konstantin Scherbakov uses an extraordinarily measured, controlled, moderate pace. It is slower than any one recording that I know. However one can still see this as (just about) Vivace in 3/4 time. In the pianist’s defense, I would postulate several arguments (I did not discuss this with the artist):

  • the Waltz is by Anton Diabelli, not Beethoven. The latter took Diabelli’s Waltz (which he apparently found rather simplistic) as is. So, why not leave that theme as what it is: a work by a minor composer? After all, what counts here is not the original Waltz, but what Beethoven makes out of it in his Variations!
  • The start in a measured pace offers a far better chance to develop and shape the overall structure, to let the theme evolve organically into bigger dramatic arches spanning entire sets of variations.
  • Moreover, the artist can devote far more care and time for details in articulation, phrasing and dynamics, rather than demonstrating a loose set of acrobatic stunts.

Theme

As indicated above: a very measured, controlled tempo. It was resting in itself, never pulling ahead, calm in nature. Yet the artist was consequently forming harmonious phrasing arches over each of the two halves. With repeats, of course, as throughout the entire set. As expected, phrasing and dynamics were very careful, nothing was superficial, the articulation truthful to the notation, without exaggerations in the staccato.

Variations I – VI

The first three variations (I: Alla marcia maestoso, II: Poco allegro, and III: L’istesso tempo) felt like harmonious evolutions from the theme. They retained the calm, measured nature of the Waltz, never rushing. The sf marks in the march (I) avoided extremes. They merely emphasized notes in a phrase. II was gentle, III serene and gentle, with fond care for the little details in articulation and dynamics. Apollonian clarity and serenity, not through crisp, clear articulation, but in the atmosphere, the spirit: pure joy and delight!

Gently building up in Variation IV (Un poco più vivace), Konstantin Scherbakov started exploring more of the instrument’s sonority, while continuing to build from one variation to the next, from IV on to V and VI, playful, lively, but never pushing, and never even a trace superficial.

Variations VII – X

Variation VII (Un poco più allegro) felt like a dialogue between two characters in the right hand. One featured punctuated quavers, the other one quaver triplets. Konstantin Scherbakov highlighted the dialog with tiny breaks between the two pattern types. The little memory lapse in the second half was evident enough to cause a short, momentary adrenaline spike. Not just (presumably) with the artist, but with those listening attentively. This did not derail the artist (the following variation VIII with its leisurely grumbling bass line was not affected at all), but it may have caused some audience members to “sharpen their ears”, to listen more carefully…

Variation IX: more alluding to the pesante than really heavy, the volume gently grew, remained controlled in the ff ending. Variation X builds a first, more virtuosic climax. Yet it still retained some playful character, wasn’t extroverted.

Variations XI – XVII

The variation XI is a fresh start, a contemplative flower garden with warm sonority, amiable, lovely. The Un poco più moto in variation XII was very gradual, patiently holding back, even through the two crescendo sections. Also the Vivace , the attitude in XIII remained controlled, not storming forward, but structuring the variation through distinct agogics, i.e., little, deliberate hesitations.

Variation XIV (Grave e maestoso) demonstrated Konstantin Scherbakov’s masterful control of the instrument’s warm sonority listening into the resonances in the bass strings. At the same time, the articulation was precise (but never stubborn) in the punctuations, devoid of superficialities.

The Presto scherzando (XV) indeed was sempre pp: delicate, with gentle arches in the slurred segments. Diligence also in the more virtuosic variations XVI and XVII: full of warm musicality, rather than extroverted!

Variations XVIII — XXIV

XVIII, was such a beautiful little island between virtuosic pieces, a calm Bagatelle, reflective, pensive, pondering, with blooming emotions! XIX: not primarily brilliant artistry, but binding the cascading broken chords into harmonious phrasing arches. Moderation also in the Andante variation (XX): slowly stepping (6/4 = 3/4 + 3/4), not static: reflective, pensive. No despair or forlornness in endless agony! At this tempo, the variation keeps its relation to the Waltz theme.

In Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation, variation XXI with its contrasting segments seemed to anticipate Schumann’s Florestan vs. Eusebius character. The wild and determined Florestan vs. the pensive, gentle, considerate (and distinctly slower) Eusebius. Again (as in variation VII), the artist separated the opponents in the dispute with little pauses.

Variation XXII is Allegro molto, but an explicit reference to Leporello’s famous “Notte e giorno faticar” from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, K.527. Not surprisingly, Konstantin Scherbakov didn’t push the tempo, but rather stuck to the narrative from Mozart’s opera, with the help of diligent agogics. Real virtuosity at last (!) in variation XXIII with its flurrying (not furious!) semiquaver lines. In stark contrast then the Fughetta in variation XXIV. This brought surprising simplicity in atmosphere, despite the “intellectuality” in the polyphonic structure!

Variations XXV — XXVIII

Variation XXV keeps the harmonic progression from the waltz in the right-hand chords, the rolling left-hand bass quavers are mere accompaniment. Beethoven specifies p, but tutte le corde and leggiermente. It’s tricky because of the temptation to shift the focus to the bass line! Not a problem here, of course. Konstantin Scherbakov carefully followed Beethoven’s dynamic annotations. Yet, he managed to keep the focus on the chords, subtle and inconspicuous!

Lucid, gentle and truly piacevole the following variation XXVIEusebius? Florestan follows in the virtuosic variation XXVII. Variation XXVIII excels with rhythmic agility in its accented staccato sequences (a second, minute memory lapse here probably went unnoticed by many in the audience). The second part has a “thinner texture”. It felt as if the composer (not the artist) deliberately dropped the tension, let the momentum dissipate. The explanation for this followed after a long general rest:

Variations XXIX — XXXIII

The C minor variation XXIX (Adagio ma non troppo), shows warm, longing emotions, reflection, emerging memories, also melancholy, in a gentle dynamic arch. XXX is still in C minor, even more pensive, the second reminding of variation XX. The harmonic progression seems to come to a halt in variation XXXI, still in C minor. The slow harmonic progression now allows for endless chains of arabesques, “baroquish” fioriture, beautifully, carefully and consciously shaped by the pianist. By far the longest of the variations. Of course, Konstantin Scherbakov did both repeats. However, he kept the calm, the patience up to that infinitely subtle ending / transition into the fugue:

The fugue (variation XXXII) followed after another, short pause (the preceding ending was just too beautiful, too subtle!). Carefully controlled dynamics also here. No furious keyboard thundering, but diligent phrasing, discreetely shaping every theme entry. The cadenza and the closing formula gave another chance to indulge in the beautiful piano sound, the decaying resonances after the arpeggios. The artist is a master in bringing out the best in the instrument’s sonority!

The final variation XXXIII was not as humorous as perhaps expected, let alone joking. Rather, it seemed full of pensive moments, reflecting, sometimes almost moody, forlorn in memories. And the end felt relaxed, confident and comforting. What a journey this was from Diabelli’s simple waltz!


Beethoven: 11 Bagatellen, op.119

After his first “official” set of Bagatellen, the 7 Bagatellen op.33, Beethoven’s second series, op.119, is a collection of movements that Beethoven composed between the 1790’s – and the 1820’s. The first 5 Bagatelles existed in sketches from no later than 1803. He wrote the last five (7 – 11) in 1820. He composed the final one, No.6, in 1822. The complete set was published in 1823:

  1. G minor: Allegretto
  2. C major: Andante con moto
  3. D major: A l’Allemande
  4. A major: Andante cantabile
  5. C minor: Risoluto
  6. G major: Andante — Allegretto
  7. C major: Allegro, ma non troppo
  8. C major: Moderato cantabile
  9. A minor: Vivace moderato
  10. A major: Allegramente
  11. B♭ major: Andante, ma non troppo

The Performance

Beethoven kept all his ideas and inventions in his endless sketchbooks, reluctant to throwing stuff away. And he kept screening that material again and again. Most of these Bagatellen may not be “last works”, nor even “late works”. Nevertheless it was in his last years when Beethoven collected and arranged them into a set that he found worthy of publication. In that sense, the fact that these Bagatellen may “only” be among Beethoven’s last published works is by no means diminishing their value. Where I don’t comment on the interpretation, my associations may be indicative of Konstantin Scherbakov’s imaginative, colorful and careful, detailed performance. And it sure indicates how much I enjoyed the performance!

Bagatellen 1 – 6

Already Bagatelle 1 appeared as seen through the eyes of the mature composer: measured, mellow. It felt like memories from years ago, with wonderful pp sonority in the last bars. Careful, diligent, not so much jolly and witty also No.2, with ever so refined touch in the jumping left hand. No.3: a curiosity, in the outer parts like an exotic flower glooming in the dark, surrounding the affirmative segments. And all so careful in the dynamics!

No.4 may have been too small to become a movement in a “real” sonata. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful, little invention, calm in the basic pace, yet with a “talking narrative” in the ornamented melody line. No.5 with its “rider” motif closed the set of five early Bagatellen.

The central No.6 as the latest of the creations clearly is more complex, more mature, more diverse in its textures, up to the “curly cadenza climax”. Very nice, and really almost a movement for one of the composer’s late sonatas!

Bagatellen 7 – 11

No.7 is exotic. A reflective, hesitant beginning leads into a second part with an eerie atmosphere that momentarily reminded me of “Le chanson de la folle au bord de la mer“, the No.8 from the Préludes, op.31 by Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888)…

No.8 is a blissful miniature. Almost from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, op.15! In contrast, No.9 seems moody, hesitant, reflecting, idling playfully.

No.10 to me retains its connection to a recital by the late Hans Richter Haaser (1912 – 1980) gave in Aarau (the place where I went to high school) around 1970, in front of an almost empty hall. Richter-Haaser announced this as a lovely little curiosity, and as “the shortest piano piece ever”. He played it much faster than Konstantin Scherbakov, though. It was one of five (!) encores. That was quite unusual, back then!

The cycle ends with No.11, a playfully blooming, little beauty!


Beethoven: 6 Bagatelles, op.126

Beethoven’s last set of Bagatelles, op.126, are a late publication (from 1825), as the opus number suggests. They are compositions from 1823 – 1824. The composer dedicated the set to his brother, Nikolaus Johann van Beethoven (1776 – 1848).

  1. G major: Andante con moto, Cantabile e compiacevole
  2. G minor: Allegro
  3. E♭ major: Andante, Cantabile e grazioso
  4. B minor: Presto
  5. G major: Quasi allegretto
  6. E♭ major: Presto — Andante amabile e con moto

See also my review on Konstantin Scherbakov’s earlier recital, on 2015-03-24 for additional information on the pieces.

The Performance

Let me keep this short by referring to my earlier review from 4 years ago. Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation of the more mature op.126 hasn’t changed much since then. Maybe he is now focusing more on the gentle, warm expression, the details in articulation, dynamics and agogics? Perfection is not the goal, but musicality, letting the music “talk”, harmonious phrasing, and diligent, never extravagant sonority.

Highlights here were

  • the calm, serene legato cantilena and the utterly gentle arpeggios in No.3,
  • in No.4 the controlled rebellion with the contrasting, peaceful pastorale segments (which have their counter parts in No.6), and
  • the care for subtle details in the peaceful, calm agogics in No.5

Beethoven: Rondo a capriccioDie Wut über den verlornen Groschen“, op.129

Rondo a capriccioDie Wut über den verlornen Groschen” (The Rage over the Lost Penny), op.129, also “Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio“. This Rondo is late in opus number, but composed between 1795 and 1798. So, it only partially fits into the context of “Beethoven’s last piano works”. But yes, it is Beethoven’s highest opus number (i.e., last publication) of a composition for piano 2-hands. The only piano composition that followed was Beethoven’s own transcription of his Große Fuge in B♭ major for string quartet, op.133, the arrangement for piano 4-hands of the fugue, op.134, from 1826.

The Performance

Even in this Capriccio with its “furious, often desperate virtuosity”, Konstantin Scherbakov didn’t turn the music into a showpiece. It certainly is fun to listen to, also in its mood swings from raging fury to dolce cluelessness on to anger hidden in treacherous, luring calm that is resolved in the final “found it!!” closure.


Konstantin Scherbakov’s CD Recording of the Diabelli Variations

Konstantin Scherbakov: Beethoven, Variations for Piano — CD cover

Ludwig van Beethoven, Variations for Piano:
33 Variations on a Waltz by A. Diabelli, op.120
Five Variations on “Rule Britannia”, WoO 79
Seven Variations on “God Save the King”, WoO 78
Konstantin Scherbakov, piano

Naxos 8.554372 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 1998; booklet 12 pp., en/de/fr

Konstantin Scherbakov: Beethoven, Variations for Piano — CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link


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