Christoph Croisé & Oxana Shevchenko
Brahms / Tchaikovsky / Stravinsky / Chopin

Schönenwerd SO / Switzerland, 2016-09-25

3.5-star rating

2016-10-04 — Original posting
2016-10-07 — Added information on Chopin’s op.3 (version played)


Outline


Introduction

The Artists

I have had the pleasure and the privilege to hear the two artists in this recital, Christoph Croisé and Oxana Shevchenko, in concert several times over the past two years. In lieu of re-introducing the artists, let me just give links to these earlier concerts that I attended:

The Venue

When I realized that the two young, promising artists would give a recital in Schönenwerd, I could simply not resist. This is one kilometer from where I entered this world, and from where I spent the first 20 years of my life! The venue was the Casinosaal in Schönenwerd. That’s a hall built by the Bally Shoe Factory, decades ago, when Bally still existed in its original form. The company—founded here 1851, and dominating the village and its neighborhood for over 120 years—fell prey to economic realities some 20 – 40 years ago.

The Casino hall, a small, theater-like venue, probably built for holding shareholder meetings, etc., has seen uses as room for social events, theater, cabaret, music, etc.; the room has undergone a renovation and is in fairly good shape now. It features a small stage, a floor with space for some 200 seats (in this concert, there were chairs for some 80 – 100 people), and a balcony with more space.

The Program

The program for the recital featured two pieces (Brahms, Tchaikovsky) that are also present on the debut CD of the two artists (see the addendum below). One piece (Chopin) was also featuring at Christoph Croisé’s debut recital in Lucerne on 2015-08-27. It was good to hear the Chopin again: that’s the only piece from the Lucerne program that Christoph Croisé has not posted on YouTube. The recital post includes a link to a YouTube playlist with the entire concert program, excepting this piece.

I have never heard the Suite Italienne by Stravinsky played by these artists. However, I remember well a concert some 45 years ago where Pierre Fournier (1906 – 1986) played this in Aarau. It was my first encounter with this composition, though I knew Stravinsky’s music to the ballet “Pulcinella” beforehand. It’s good to see that Christoph Croisé is constantly expanding his repertoire.

The concert was organized by the Hans Huber Stiftung. This is a local foundation, commemorating the late-romantic Swiss composer Hans Huber (1852 – 1921). Hans Huber was born in Eppenberg, next to the village of Schönenwerd.

The Instruments

Christoph Croisé played a cello by Mattio Goffriller, Venice, 1712. It’s a precious instrument with a full, warm tone, far bigger than required for this venue! The piano was a small Steinway A-188, the lid fully open.

The Acoustics

The acoustics of the venue were not favorable for this recital. Concerts with piano and cello are often problematic, as the piano—especially a concert grand—tends to overshadow the cello. Often, pianists resort to half-closing the lid in order to establish a good balance. In this concert, however, the lid was fully open. Yet, for a substantial portion of the recital, the piano sounded rather weak in comparison to Christoph Croisé’s cello. I checked with the pianist after the concert, and we came to the following conclusions:

  • The cellist was sitting in front of the curtain, whereas the piano stood behind the level of the curtain. The latter dampened some of the piano sound. Opening the lid was not enough to compensate for this.
  • More importantly even, this arrangement made it hard for the pianist to hear the cello. So, Oxana Shevchenko often needed to reduce the volume in order to maintain auditive contact with the cello.

This also means that a bigger piano would not have helped. It might have been better, maybe, if the cello had been playing on the left of the piano, rather than in front of it. With this arrangement, the piano could be placed more at the front of the stage. Maybe this venue is simply not ideal for this type of recital?


The Recital

Johannes Brahms: Sonata for Piano & Cello No.1 in E minor, op.38

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed his Sonata for Piano & Cello No.1 in E minor, op.38 between 1862 and 1865. It is Brahms’ full intent to have the piano mentioned first in the title, as that instrument is more than mere accompaniment. The sonata features three movements:

  1. Allegro non troppo
  2. Allegretto quasi Menuetto — Trio — Menuetto da capo
  3. Allegro — Più Presto

The principal theme of the first movement is based on “Contrapunctus 4” from Johann Sebastian Bach‘s last work Die Kunst der Fuge” (The Art of the Fugue), BWV 1080. The last movement is an elaborate fugue. Also the theme of that fugue is based on “Contrapunctus 13” from the same work by Bach.

The Performance

I. Allegro non troppo

The cello starts this piece softly, “espressivo, legato“, with the accompaniment of staccato chords from the piano. Christoph Croisé seemed to start cautiously. Of course he could trust the sonority of his instrument, and no doubt: the instrument easily filled this venue. Within a few bars, he seemed to gain confidence and filled the elegiac, earnest tone of the Allegro non troppo with emotional content. The tone of the instrument appeared almost too sonorous for passages where Brahms asks for pp. However, that impression was due to the acoustics of the venue, see above.

The ending of the exposition, where Brahms switches to G major, really touched me: the piano seems to transcend into another world, and the cello then follows suit. There is a very similar, enlightening moment at the beginning of the Coda (bars 240ff.). Here, Brahms adds bars that intuitively (remotely) reminded me of Brahms’ wonderful Sapphische Ode” (“Rosen brach ich nachts mir am dunklen Hage“), op.94/4—one of Brahms’ most beautiful inventions.

Too bad the artists did not repeat the exposition—I personally think that this not only sets the proportions in the composition right, but it also helps the listener in understanding the structure of the movement. It was in the development part, Christoph Croisé definitely let loose the emotionality, and the tone of his instrument, exposing the beauty of Brahms’ music. I also very much liked Oxana Shevchenko’s quietly flowing, simple and cantabile accompaniment in the middle segment in that part.

II. Allegretto quasi Menuetto — Trio

I enjoyed the light articulation, semplice, almost dancing in the Menuetto, despite the often moody character. The Trio was wonderfully singing in the cello. The piano part is rhythmically somewhat tricky, played masterfully and carefully by Oxana Shevchenko. The accompaniment features a somewhat hidden, “limping” middle voice: I wished for better acoustics to make these details stand out more!

III. Allegro — Più Presto

The final movement (fugue) at last gave the piano a fair chance to be heard. Here, the piano often is the dominating part, where it either plays alone, or where the cello clearly is the accompaniment. Here, we now heard Brahms’ “big gestures”, his typical, wide-spanning piano score. But still, where the cello had the lead part, Oxana Shevchenko had to take back the volume, in order to hear the cellist’s playing. This sometimes made the piano sound too small, even in this movement (but not as much as in the first two, luckily).


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Pezzo capriccioso, op.62

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) composed the Pezzo capriccioso, op.62, in 1887. The piece was initially written for cello and orchestra. The earnest tone in the initial part is a reflection of Tchaikovsky’s grieving about a friend suffering from syphilis. The transcription for cello and piano premiered in 1888, with the composer accompanying the cellist Anatoliy Brandukov (1859 – 1930). Brandukov is also the dedicatee of the piece.

Note that the entire composition has a single tempo annotation, Andante con moto. The beginning feels pensive, almost melancholic. However, there are two sections in the second half that sound extremely lively in the cello, which then plays demisemiquavers almost exclusively. Besides the annotation “pp, sempre spiccato” these are explicitly marked “Non cambiar il tempo“.

The Performance

What I liked about the performance in this concert: the differentiated dynamics, the expressive grazioso in the cello, the “swinging” agogics, the strong contrasts. I also liked the longing, elegiac, melancholic, sometimes moody tones with excursions to extreme vibrato in the expressive cadenza. I equally enjoyed the discreet, always accurate and adapted piano accompaniment. The long (first) virtuosic spiccato section appeared effortless, playful—fascinating! In general, Christoph Croisé’s intonation is firm and flawless. Only in the final spiccato segment—the Coda, so to say—he got carried away a bit, allowing for some superficialities in the intonation.


Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise brillante in C major, op.3

As the opus number indicates, the Polonaise brillante in C major, op.3 is one of the first “official” (published) compositions by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849), written in 1829. It features a slow introduction (which Chopin added 1830), which precedes by the actual Polonaise (Alla Polacca):

  1. Introduction: Lento (1/4 = 89) — (attacca)
  2. Alla Polacca: Allegro con spirito (1/4 = 96)

The artists did not play the original version, but (as far as I could see) a revised with additional, very virtuosic runs in the cello part (and segments moved from the piano part to the cello).

[Addendum 2016-10-07: Christoph Croisé just told me that the version he played is a revision by the American Cellist Leonard Rose (1918 – 1984). Thanks for the information!]

The Performance

The initial, ascending leggierissimo parades on the piano appeared effortless, yet harmonious and careful, with flowing agogics / phrasing. Maybe it was the ear which had adapted to the acoustic setting, or maybe it was Chopin’s score, putting more weight on the piano part: in this piece, the balance between the two instruments seemed better than in the Brahms sonata. One should note, though, that Chopin’s music impresses more through the fine detail in dynamics and phrasing, rather than through the “big, wide-spanning gestures” as in Brahms’ sonata.

I liked the momentum in the Alla Polacca part; for Christoph Croisé, the virtuosic additions in the “enhanced” version of the piece (see above) appeared to present no challenge at all. I don’t want to elaborate on his performance — for additional comments see also my review for the concert in Lukaskirche in Lucerne on 2015-08-27.

It is entertainment music, after all, more than a profound artwork. In a way, this felt like an anticipated “last dance”—indeed, the program listed this as the final piece. As one could guess from the mimics between the two artists at the end, the swapping of the pieces was accidental: Christoph Croisé expected to play Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne (see below). When Oxana Shevchenko started with the introduction to Chopin’s Polonaise, he instantaneously switched to Chopin. Of course, it helped that the cello only sets in at the end of the second bar. Christoph Croisé played all pieces by heart. But still, the admirable effortlessness in his switching to an entirely different piece made me smile!


Igor Stravinsky: Suite Italienne for Cello & Piano

In 1920Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) completed his music to the ballet “Pulcinella“, based on an 18th century play, and based on 18th century music, that was then all (or mostly) believed to be written by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710 – 1736). Out of the 20 numbers forming the ballet, Stravinsky collected 8 into the orchestral “Pulcinella Suite”. 1932/33, he worked with the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1903 – 1976) to create his Suite italienne for cello and piano from that suite. This is reduced again to 6 “numbers”, see below. He also created a version for violin and piano, which initially had the title “Suite d’après des thèmes, fragments et morceaux de Giambattista Pergolesi“.

The above title (for the violin version) indicates that the underlying pieces were then still ascribed to Pergolesi. However, research has since shown that the music is mostly by composers other than Pergolesi. The actual composers appear to be Domenico Gallo (1730 – 1768), Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer (1692 – 1766), Carlo Ignazio Monza (1680/96 – 1739), and possibly Alessandro Parisotti (1853 – 1913). The Suite for cello and piano has the following movements:

  1. Introduzione
  2. Serenata
  3. Aria
  4. Tarantella
  5. Minuetto —
  6. Finale

The Performance

The Introduzione exposed the melodious tone of the cello. The artists played with distinct agogics—or did they try finding a tempo that felt comfortable to both? The Serenata is a moody piece, an accompanied monologue by the cello, expressing loneliness, with two melancholic segments that to me seemed to indicate remembrance. In contrast, the Aria is a lively piece, full of humor, irony, joking, sometimes with a “riding” rhythm, virtuosic. Oxana Shevchenko provided the perfect accompaniment: she is at home with this style of music! The middle part of that movement is a beautifully singing, chorale-like melody—elegiac, yet with a certain ambiguity / irony in the atmosphere. Here, in the ff parts, I sometimes wished for more volume from the piano (see my remarks above).

The Tarantella felt a bit heavy, especially in the cello part. Christoph Croisé played out many rhythmic details—but I think the character of a Tatantella asks for a faster tempo, more agility (which I’m sure Oxana Shevchenko would have been comfortable with!). I liked the subtle dynamics, agogics and articulation in the piano accompaniment of the Minuetto—though the cello part sometimes felt a bit static, schematic. I was very pleased to watch Oxana Shevchenko live up in the Finale (directly following the Minuetto). She is totally “at home” in the rhythmic liveliness and diversity, the rapid changes in character and mood. Here, when Oxana Shevchenko “let loose”, it seemed tricky for Christoph Croisé to follow!


Encore #1 — Rodion Shchedrin: In the Style of Albéniz (1973)

Rodion Shchedrin (*1932) is a prolific Russian composer (now also a citizen of Lithuania and Spain). He has created a wide range of compositions, from opera, orchestral and vocal music to chamber music and instrumental works. The enthralling ending of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne led to a strong applause, so the two artists played “In the Style of Albéniz” by Shchedrin as encore. This was originally written for violin and piano (1973), later arranged for cello and piano.

Starting with a big, dissonant gesture, the piece is exhibiting Shchedrin’s very typical, personal idiom: moody, ironic, joking, many short-term changes in character, alternating between highly rhythmical and singing, very strong dynamic contrasts, sometimes with swinging dance rhythms, rapidly changing tempo. Fascinating music, for sure, in a strong, convincing interpretation, now allowing both artists to unleash their playing!


Encore #2 — Camille Saint-Saëns: Le cygne

The second encore was No.13. “Le cygne” (The Swan) from “Le carnaval des animaux” by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921). Originally a piece for two pianos and cello (part of an orchestral suite, composed 1886), this has been arranged for a variety of instrumental settings. That popular piece seemed almost inevitable. I didn’t do the count, but I suspect that “Le cygne” was the encore in about every second duo recital with cello that I attended.

This music may be overly popular, there is of course a reason for that—it is a nice, simple, maybe touching, if not even captivating melody. So, I don’t mind hearing it from time to time—and certainly not at the end of such an enjoyable concert! The silent, subtle ending of this piece was a perfect transition from a very diverse concert program back into an evening full of nice memories…

Christoph Croisé & Oxana Shevchenko in Schönenwerd, 2016-09-25
Christoph Croisé & Oxana Shevchenko in Schönenwerd, 2016-09-25 (photo: r.k.)

Overall, this was another, very interesting recital by these two artists, and I enjoyed it very much—thanks to both Christoph Croisé and Oxana Shevchenko for this experience!


Addendum 1: CD

The first part of the concert (Brahms & Tchaikovsky, shown with *** in the content listing below) is also featured the following CD that the two artists have produced:

Visions — Christoph Croisé / Oxana Shevchenko; CD cover

Visions — Compositions by Prokofiev, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Paganini, and Popper

Christoph Croisé (cello), Oxana Shevchenko (piano)

Quartz Classics (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2015
Booklet 20 pp. (de/en) — Note that amazon currently only offers downloads (MP3), without the booklet. The hardcopy CD is now available from JPC.de

amazon media link
“spacer”

The contents of the CD

I have given this CD a partial review in my earlier posting of 2015-08-31.


Addendum 2

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Pezzo capriccioso“, op.62 is available on YouTube, with Christoph Croisé and Oxana Shevchenko playing. This is a performance on the occasion of the recording of the above CD. I have also written about this recording in comparison to the actual CD in my short review of the above CD.



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