Piano Recital: Oliver Schnyder
von Weber / Mendelssohn / Prokofiev / Fauré

Aula KZO, Wetzikon ZH, 2019-01-31

4.5-star rating

2019-02-06 — Original posting


Introduction

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:

The Artist: Oliver Schnyder

I don’t need to introduce the pianist in this recital, Oliver Schnyder (*1973, see also Wikipedia)—I have reviewed quite a number of his public performances over the past four years:

The last one was a last-minute jump-in recital, in lieu an artist who suffered an accident.

Program

Even though I’m fairly familiar with Oliver Schnyder’s playing, I was certainly curious to hear him again, especially as I hadn’t heard him play any of the pieces in this year’s program (with the exception of the encore):

Venue, etc.

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 on the right-hand side of the center block, in the rear-most row: 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.


Carl Maria von Weber: Piano Sonata No.4 in E minor, op.70, J.287 (1822)

The Composer

Wikipedia describes  Carl Maria (Friedrich Ernst) von Weber (1786 – 1826) as “composer, conductor, pianist, guitarist”. Nowadays, Weber is mostly known for his operas—his compositions for solo piano have essentially disappeared from the concert scene, allegedly because the composer had very large hands and wrote music to suit his hands & fingers, which makes them a challenge for most pianists.

The Composition

In preparation for this recital, I listened to recordings of the Sonata No.4 in E minor, op.70, J.287 from 1822. One of the most recent recordings turned out rather disappointing. I heard a sequence of short segments without apparent connection, which made the music sound like an opera with an endless sequence of recitatives, short arias, another recitative, etc.: the overall structure seemed lost in all the segmentation and the superficial, irregular playing. It may well be that the technical challenges were part of the reason for the artist’s poor performance & interpretation. It was only through the 1960 (!) recording with Leon Fleisher (*1928) that the music suddenly started making sense. Indeed, this made me realize that this is a very interesting, great piece of music!

The sonata features four movements:

  1. Moderato — Con anima
  2. Menuetto: Presto vivace ed energico — Trio: Leggiermente e mormorando
  3. Andante (quasi Allegretto) consolante
  4. Finale: Prestissimo

For some years, Leon Fleisher was Oliver Schnyder’s teacher. This was the main reason why I listened into that recording—and I’m happy I did so! I was of course curious to see whether the pianist would be able to carry forward some of that brilliant heritage!

The Performance

I. Moderato — Con anima

The sonata starts with simple, descending quaver scales with the annotation con duolo (with pain). Though distinct agogics (accelerating and again slowing down in every scale), Oliver Schnyder underlined the expression of pain. That introduction only lasts 16 bars, until a short / fast crescendo moves into the dramatic main theme, full of punctuations and semiquaver figures (con agitazione). The artist took these at a fluent tempo (amazingly fluent and controlled also in the semiquavers), powerful in the ff, with very subtle touch in the soft segments, and always maintaining the distinct, expressive agogics.

The second theme is derived from the descending scales in the introduction, but now no longer with that painful expression. At the end, the exposition turns very dramatic again. A long, dramatic pause leads back to the introduction, in which the expression of pain now felt even stronger. The long rest is missing in the transition to the development part—nevertheless it was very clear and obvious when the latter was reached. A sonata with classic clarity, yet romantic in the expression.

In sum, already the first movement demonstrated how well Oliver Schnyder mastered this sonata, but the performance also showed that the pianist had a clear vision of the overall / thematic structure, which he was able to convey to the audience: a compelling start! — ★★★★½

II. Menuetto: Presto vivace ed energico — Trio: Leggiermente e mormorando

An unusually dramatic Menuetto: a forceful Scherzo, rather! Oliver Schnyder’s playing was very powerful, urging forward, definitely presto to the limits of what is technically feasible. Yet, the artist retained clarity in the articulation, an impressive performance!

Also the Leggiermente e mormorando was rolling along very fluently (leggiermente) under a legato veil—really murmuring (as much as a grand piano can do!). Not all of the quaver figures may have been clearly audible—but the mormorando annotation, along with the legato notation precludes that: stunning, also here! — ★★★★½

III. Andante (quasi Allegretto) consolante

The Andante refers to the 2/4 notation, the quasi Allegretto to the fact that most of the movement feel like 4/8, and the consolante (comforting) to the overall tone / atmosphere: in Oliver Schnyder’s interpretation, that movement started semplice, unpretentious, like a folk tune, in stark contrast to the first movements. The intermittent ff fit into the context, wasn’t exaggerated in any way. The demisemiquaver figures / ornaments in the middle part were very fluent, but again retained clarity. In my view, the pianist kept an ideal balance between simplicity (folk tone) and expression / drama.

Momentarily, the apparent simplicity of this music made me ask whether the pianist was saving power reserves for the virtuosic finale—but of course, Oliver Schnyder’s physical reserves are plentiful, and he doesn’t have a need to economize on his reserves. — ★★★★½

IV. Finale: Prestissimo

At a first glance, many of the quavers and quaver triplets seemed superficial at the pianist’s fast pace. However, the annotation indeed is Prestissimo, and so, the impression of grace notes and inverted mordents is correct—these small notes are merely explicit “ornaments” (not in the baroque sense, of course). Oliver Schnyder’s playing was agile to the limits (again!), retained the focus on the big structures / lines, never got lost in details of articulation at the level of motifs (a sheer impossibility at this pace anyway!). Enthralling playing, and fascinating music, indeed! — ★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

I found it most interesting to learn that along with the last piece in the program, the Ballad, op.19 by Gabriel Fauré, Oliver Schnyder “acquired” (learned / memorized) this sonata specifically for this concert—and he performed it entirely by heart: amazing! His performance didn’t show any signs of insecurity—the artist seemed thoroughly familiar with this challenging sonata. The performance may not quite have reached the level of Leon Fleisher’s studio recording—however, it definitely was very close, especially considering that it was live!


Mendelssohn: 17 Variations sérieuses in D minor, op.54 (1841)

Compositions by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) bear a substantial heritage from Carl Maria von Weber. Under that aspect, Oliver Schnyder’s choice of the next piece, Mendelssohn’s 17 Variations sérieuses in D minor, op.54 from 1841 seemed a very logical choice. I won’t comment on every single variation—but here is the annotation of the whole set:

  • Theme: Andante sostenuto
  • Variation 1: —
  • 2: Un poco più animato
  • 3: Più animato
  • Variation 4: —
  • 5: Agitato
  • 6: A tempo
  • 7: Con fuoco
  • 8: Allegro vivace
  • Variation 9: —
  • 10: Moderato
  • 11: Cantabile
  • 12: Tempo del Tema
  • 13: Sempre assai leggiero
  • 14: Adagio
  • 15: Poco a poco più agitato
  • 16: Allegro vivace
  • Variation 17: —
  • Coda: Presto

The Performance

Let me summarize Oliver Schnyder’s performance in these 17 variations on a theme in D minor. I liked the clarity in the articulation, the pianist’s sense for the “right” tempo, the natural transitions between the segments. I equally liked the clear structuring, the dramatic arches not only in every variation, but also the bigger arches over a sequence of variations, e.g., the seamless build-up towards variation 9, the next one towards variation 13. Only in variation 14 (Adagio), Mendelssohn starts anew after a fermata and a pause—thereafter, Mendelssohn would not be Mendelssohn, if the music would not go through a dramatic, virtuosic built-up, culminating in a fulminant Coda, in true fireworks! Actually, the composer closes with five calm, comforting bars at the end, bringing the listener “down to earth” again.

A dramatic, impressive performance, technically masterful, and virtually flawless: congrats!

Rating: ★★★★½


Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No.6 in A major, op.82 (1940)

The Sonata No.6 in A major, op.82 from 1940 is the first in a set of three by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953). The popular set is now called the “Three War Sonatas”—not just because of the time at which it was composed, but also because the music very much reflects the harsh times: often violent, if not brutal, percussive. The four movements are

  1. Allegro moderato — Poco più mosso — Più mosso del tempo I — Andante — Allegro moderato, come prima
  2. Allegretto
  3. Tempo di valzer lentissimo
  4. Vivace — Andante — Vivace — Più tranquillo

The Performance

I. Allegro moderato — Poco più mosso — Più mosso del tempo I — Andante — Allegro moderato, come prima

The question with the “war sonatas” is: how brutal, raw, rough should these be? Compared to some extreme performances, I found Oliver Schnyder’s performance to have a good balance between tamed clarity / clean articulation and the dissonant outbreaks, such as in the opening theme. He did not force the brutality, kept it (a tad) civilized, avoided over-stressing the dynamics of the instrument. Then, even in that movement, there are lyrical parts, such as the Poco più mosso, and 21 bars into that section, at the legato, I really liked the singing sonority.

The one little “snag” in this movement: around the center of the movement, after the two glissandi, where the demisemiquavers start to dominate, the performance seemed to slow down a tiny bit, losing some momentum. Did the artist start on the fast side, was he carried away in the parts preceding that section, or did he perhaps “forgot” to adjust the tempo a little earlier? With all the technical difficulties in this music, though, it is easy to get caught in mastering the challenges! I should say that I’m talking about nuances, though. It was definitely a technically impressive performance, even though the first part seemed somewhat more compelling than the second half. — ★★★★

II. Allegretto

A classical / classicist view (I think one can call this movement classicist), serene, humorous, natural: beautiful music! I particularly liked the singing, starting with the scarce, hidden melody in the first bars, but especially in the subsequent legato part. And then the joyful folk tune with the descending arpeggiandi in the accompaniment. Isn’t there a marching band, a funfair scenery? The middle part is more reflective, pensive, as if the composer suddenly remembered that the war hadn’t ended—luckily, the movement turns out its humorous side again for the last part. Excellent music, excellent performance! — ★★★★½

III. Tempo di valzer lentissimo

A tricky movement, already in the annotation! The suggested waltz character and the lentissimo (very / extremely slow) don’t really go together. But then, the movement is in 9/8 time, i.e., the lentissimo applies to the 3 x 3/8, while the waltz (more the caricature of a waltz) must be in 3/8 time? 75 years ago, may have focused on the dissonances—but now, certainly (and definitely in Oliver Schnyder’ s interpretation!) the beautiful, sometimes melancholic cantilenas dominate: isn’t this music too beautiful for a “war sonata”?? I found this performance particularly compelling in the natural transitions (e.g., around the f pesante), and in the shaping of the big, dynamic arches. — ★★★★½

IV. Vivace — Andante — Vivace — Più tranquillo

Oliver Schnyder offered a technically masterful performance. The movement initially feels playful if not sometimes harmless, with the simple melodies that almost feel like children’s songs—at the same time, the music has a restless component: signs of an impending disaster? Gradually, the scenery changes, and all of a sudden, one realizes that the music seems to describe a battle, gunfire, fighting.

The fighting moves into the background, and at the Andante, the theme from the first movement feels like a sad reminiscence. Melancholy, sadness, mourning dominate, then the music dies off—only for the fighting to return with more vehemence than before, even with growing violence, interrupted only by  short segment with reminiscences of the children’s songs. The violence in the last bars of the composition (not the artist’s playing, of course!) is devastating, unprecedented in the strength of the expression, the realism in depicted scenery: there’s definitely gunfire here, even machine guns.

It was anything but a simple virtuosic show—even though maybe not quite as compelling as the middle movements? Some of this may be in the heterogeneity of the composition, though. — ★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Fauré: Ballade in F♯ major, op.19 (1877)

Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924) dedicated his Ballad in F♯ major, op.19 from 1877 to Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921). It apparently is one of Fauré’s most important works for piano, even though it is better known in the version for piano and orchestra that the composer created four years later, in 1881. The annotations are

Andante cantabile — Lento — Allegro moderato — Andante — un poco più mosso — Allegro — Andante — Allegro moderato

The Performance

Especially after the Prokofiev sonata, the musical language in this ballad sounds simple, easy. That picture is deceptive, though: the piece has its challenges, not just technically, but also in the complexity of its form, the juxtaposition of only loosely related segments.

I liked the flow, the emotionality, the big arch in Oliver Schnyder’s performance, especially in the first part(s). The artist also was excellent at mastering the polyphony in the first Allegro moderato, where one could clearly distinguish the competing voices in the right hand—and at the same time, he was convincingly shaping the intensifying drama in that section, as well as the big arch in the virtuosic Andante. Rubato and agogics helped in the build-up waves in the even more dramatic and virtuosic Allegro, culminating in a short, but brilliant cadenza that really continues through the second Andante.

Strengths…

To me, the most convincing aspect in Oliver Schnyder’s performance was in the emotional, dynamic and dramatic arches, the emotional and dramatic flow. Technically, the artists didn’t seem to face substantial challenges, even in the complex, dense piano score of the second half.

As I was told (and as the pianist confirmed), this was the second of the pieces that the pianist added to his repertoire specifically for this recital. And he stated that the biggest challenge was in memorizing the score (all performed by heart, of course!). Indeed, he experienced a very short memory lapse (hardly noticeable, though) in the middle of the final Allegro moderato; it took him a while to re-gain the full security after that. However, this barely affected the impression of an enchanting, fascinating—though complex—piece of piano music!

Rating: ★★★★


Encore — Brahms: No.2, Intermezzo in A major, from 6 Klavierstücke, op.118

As encore, Oliver Schnyder announced “a little Intermezzo by Brahms”. This turned out to be the No.2, Intermezzo in A major, from the 6 Klavierstücke (Pieces for Piano), op.118, which Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) created in 1893—and one of the last works published during the composer ‘s lifetime. The annotation is Andante teneramente. Brahms dedicated this to his close friend, Clara Schumann-Wieck (1819 – 1896). Oliver Schnyder already chose this as (first) encore in his recital in Zurich, two years ago.

As a whole, this recital formed a large arch, from the early romantic compositions by Carl Maria von Weber and Felix Mendelssohn, to the dramatic climax in Prokofiev’s Sonata No.6, followed by the emotional climax in Fauré’s ballad. The encore could not possibly be joyful, ebullient or highly virtuosic! The No.2, Intermezzo, from Brahms’ op.118 proved to be the ideal, the most harmonious conclusion, and an excellent fit to the program: calm, very touching, with a subtle melancholy, full of warm emotions, but also with sweet and bitter-sweet memories from happy times in a distant past—one of Brahms’ most beautiful, lyrical inventions. Thanks a lot for this experience—and for all the musical richness in this recital!



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