Piano Recital: Ruvim Ostrovsky
Beethoven: Sonatas opp.78, 79, 81a, 90, and 101
2016-09-22 — Brushed up for better readability
This recital was organized by a small, private club. It took place in the main hall of the church community Zurich-Enge (next to the prominent “Sacré Coeur imitation” that one can see close to the center of the town).
I attended that recital partly because I helped the organizer by writing the work descriptions in the handout. So, in the text below, I have taken a “shortcut” by simply translating those work descriptions. The artist’s biography is an excerpt from the information provided by the organizer. In the text below, I marked my comments on the actual recital with light yellow background color.
Ruvim (Reuben) Ostrovsky (Рувим Островский) was born 1963, in Batumi / Georgia. He started playing the piano at age 5. From 1978 on, Ostrovsky received further education in Moscow. He concluded his formal education at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, with teachers such as Gleb Akselrod and Tigran Abramowitsch Alichanow (chamber music). In 1995, he finished his Ph.D., thereafter did research in musicology. This resulted in numerous publications. Parallel to that, he is pursuing an active career as soloist and chamber musician. Ruvim Ostrovsky is also teaching: between 1990 and 2004 at the Glazunov Conservatory in Petrozavodsk (Karelia), since 2004 at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, giving master classes, and also acting as jury member in international piano competitions.
The Program of the Recital
The five piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) featured in this concert cover a period of 1809 – 1816. We heard the compositions following Sonata No.23 in F minor, op.57, “Appassionata” (composed 1807, the last of the “big” and famous ones in Beethoven’s middle period) up to the first ones of the late sonatas. These are commonly thought to start with op.90 and op.101, then followed by the big Sonata No.29 in B♭ major, op.106, “Hammerklavier” (“Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier“).
1809 (when he composed op.78 and op.79) was the time when Beethoven was unsuccessfully courting Therese Malfatti. It was a period when the composer’s deafness had already become quite serious. The first outing about his progressing hearing loss had been with the “Heiligenstädter Testament”, in 1802. The Sonatas op.90 and op.101 emerged amidst the crisis of the composer’s late years, which has several causes:
- the emotional stress around the relationship with his “Immortal Beloved” (“Unsterbliche Geliebte”, around 1812), whose identity is unknown to this day;
- his now almost complete deafness and additional health issues (some really serious)
- the death of his brother, and thereafter the beginning fight around the custody for his nephew Karl.
This was a well-attended concert (some 200 people, I guess). The Steinway D was placed on a podium (the venue otherwise was a flat, rectangular room). Ruvim Ostrovsky is inconspicuous, modest, almost shy in his behavior. He briefly accepted the welcome applause, sat down and started playing without much ado. Also between the sonatas, the artist just briefly took the applause, then sat down again, starting the next sonata, less than half a minute after the preceding one.
Piano Sonata No.24 in F♯ major, op.78
Beethoven dedicated the short Piano Sonata No.24 in F♯ major, op.78, “À Thérèse” (1809) to Countess Therese von Brunsvik. Her sister, Countess Josephine von Brunsvik, was Beethoven’s pupil. For a short time, she also was Beethoven’s secret fiancée. That connection broke up due to the discrepancy in social levels. In his contacts with the Family von Brunsvik, Beethoven also met Josephine’s sister Therese. The sonata in F♯ major, op.78, only features two movements, with an overall duration of just 10 minutes:
- Adagio cantabile,2/4 — Allegro ma non troppo, 4/4
- Allegro vivace, 2/4
The first movement starts with a short, 4-bar preamble, building up tension that is released instantly with the serene, relaxed first theme of the following sonata form. The second theme is more dramatic, as are the subsequent parts, whereby Beethoven omits a formal recapitulation. A short, joyful and virtuosic Rondo concludes the composition. The sonata is not incomplete — the two-movement format is intended; still, this sonata is one of Beethoven’s least-known, but also largely underrated: along with the sonatas op.57 (“Appassionata“) and op.106 (“Hammerklavier“), this is the sonata the composer rated the most valuable among his many works in this genre!
Ruvim Ostrovsky’s playing struck me as featuring careful, soft articulation, avoiding harsh edges. It’s not “light” playing, but considerate, with a “natural” tempo. Nothing appeared excessively slow, nor excessively fast. Some of the ornaments also sounded slightly hesitant, almost a tad stumbling, but not superficial, for sure. In the first movement, I found it interesting how the artist slightly “overstated” the quaver triplet passage in bar 29ff., following the semiquaver quadruplets. He carefully avoided “accidental” rushing, which easily happens with these triplets. Also, Ostrovsky nicely used agogics to highlight peak notes in phrases (by holding back that note a little bit) — and the tempo administration in general appeared careful. Both parts of the sonata were repeated. This first movement appeared representative for all of the five sonatas. For general comments see the bottom of this text.
In the second movement, the interpretation clearly placed this sonata into Beethoven’s middle period—a tone that listeners immediately felt at ease with. The one interesting detail here was Ostrovsky’s deliberate, short hesitation after (some of) the three-note f fanfares, which made these “signals” stand out more, even without extra accentuation on the fanfares.
Piano Sonata No.25 in G major, op.79
Despite its three movements, the Piano Sonata No.25 in G major, op.79 (also 1809) is even shorter than op.78 (just about 9 minutes). It is the only one which the composer called “Sonatina” himself:
- Presto alla tedesca, 3/4
- Andante, 9/8
- Vivace, 2/4
The first movement appears to confirm the impression of an “easy” sonata: a sonata form with two peaceful themes of 11 and 22 bars, with an equally serene, lengthy development section. The Andante is written in A-B-A form, the “A” part somewhat melancholic, with almost Schubertian harmonics, while the “B” part is again bright, and very cantabile. The serene, playful Vivace is a Rondo, in which the ritornello returns twice, with more virtuosic intermezzos in-between, closing with a Coda featuring a silent ending that seems to ask a question.
In the Presto, as noted for op.78, Ostrovsky’s interpretation appeared considerate, never neglecting small note values. Nothing appeared superficial. It was maybe lacking some lightness—perhaps a “feature” due to the modern grand piano? Especially the opening motif, three staccato crotchets, appeared a bit heavy. One interesting section in this movement is in the second (repeated) part, where within 3/4 time, Beethoven suddenly switches to a four-beat rhythm. That’s clearly a joke; it is that joking aspect which I missed in this interpretation: that part was played as a “regular, serious feature”, rather than with a twinkling eye.
To me, the Andante in 9/8 time appeared too slow. I missed the “walking” feeling, especially in the parts where the left hand is playing a rolling semiquaver accompaniment. In the Vivace, the Rondo theme (ritornello) also seemed on the slow, cautious side, hardly “vivid”. But that may have been because at a faster tempo, the semiquaver passages in the intermezzos might appear superficial, are maybe not playable cleanly on a modern piano? To me, this movement should feel lighter, more youth- and joyful, if not even joking (as often in Beethoven’s last movements).
Piano Sonata No.26 in E♭ major, op.81a
The Piano Sonata No.26 in E♭ major, op.81a, “Les Adieux” was written 1809/10. Its surname / title appears to bring back memories of J.S. Bach’s “Capriccio über die Abreise seines geliebten Bruders” (Capriccio about the departure of his beloved brother, BWV 992). The descriptive movement titles appear to classify this sonata as “program music”:
- Das Lebewohl (Les Adieux, The Farewell). Adagio, 2/4 — Allegro, 4/4
- Die Abwesenheit (L’Absence, The Absence). Andante espressivo, 2/4, In gehender Bewegung, doch mit viel Ausdruck (In walking movement, but with lots of expression)
- Das Wiedersehen (Le Retour, The Return). Vivacissimamente, 6/8, Im lebhaftesten Zeitmaße (In the most vivid pace) — Poco Andante — Tempo I
Indeed, Beethoven writes the syllables “Le – be – wohl” over the first chords. However, for the rest of the sonata, the movement titles appear to be indirect only. The first movement switches between melancholic and more vivid sections. The second movement, “Die Abwesenheit“, appears to express loneliness, hope and despair. In strong contrast, the very virtuosic final movement shows the overabundant, exuberant joy upon meeting again after the return. Intuitively, one might assume that Beethoven refers to the temporary absence of a beloved woman (and/or pupil). However, he dedicated the sonata to his friend and patron, Archduke Rudolf of Austria. The latter was forced to leave Vienna temporarily because of the imminent arrival of the French troops.
The Adagio introduction was very restrained, which put extra weight on the ornament and small note values in general. The 2/4 time was hardly recognizable. The music appeared quasi senza tempo, often hesitant, very thoughtful. Also in the Allegro, the tempo was not pushed, never really storming forward. I noted the slightly lengthened / emphasized general rests in bar 34, putting extra emphasis on the staccato crotchets. Also, I was happy to note that the artist did not fall into the trap of accelerating with a crescendo, but rather doing the opposite. The movement ended in a wonderfully thoughtful, pensive-sad mood.
The Andante espressivo felt rather heavy, very emotional, grave, often quasi senza tempo, maybe with too much weight on the demisemiquaver passages (it’s hard on the modern piano to make these sound light without making the movement feel nervous!). In parts, this movement felt indecisive: I didn’t always feel at ease with the pace (too slow and at the same time too fast??). Maybe this was exactly the composer’s intent?
Finally, the outbursting Vivacissimamente probably was as good as it can be on the modern grand piano. A period instrument is far better at keeping those rapid passages light, agile, joyful; here, the small note values receive too much weight, overemphasizing the passagework against the harmonic and melodic content. This is one of the sonatas that would (in my opinion) definitely profit from a period instrument.
In an earlier blog post, I have compared various recordings of this sonata.
Piano Sonata No.27 in E minor, op.90
Five years after the sonata op.81a, after completing “Wellington’s Victory”, and after re-working his opera “Leonore” into “Fidelio”, Beethoven again writes a sonata with just two movements, Piano Sonata No.27 in E minor, op.90 (1814). However, this is somewhat bigger than op.78; it is dedicated to his friend and patron, Prince Moritz von Lichnovsky:
- Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck (With liveliness and with feeling and expression throughout), 3/4
- Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorzutragen (Not too swiftly and conveyed in a singing manner), 2/4
The Sonata in E minor, op.90, brings us into a different world: grave, often sounding “new”, unfamiliar. This obviously is the transition to the late sonatas, e.g., in the first movement with its unruly, obstinate gestures. Even more so also in the second movement which melodically reminds of (or anticipates) Schubert. Apparently, Beethoven felt it to be essential to be very accurate in the description of the desired expression. Therefore, he resorted to German annotation for both movements. This is the only sonata featuring German movement annotation exclusively. In the Sonata in A major, op.101 (see below), he used a combination of German plus Italian annotation. Thereafter, just one movement in the Piano Sonata in E major, op.109, uses annotation in both Italian and German language.
Here, Ostrovsky seemed to switch style. Certainly, in the introduction he seemed to accentuate the heavy, serious character of this music. Oddly, after the dramatic downward scales, he appeared to associate accelerando with a crescendo, which doesn’t feel “right” to me. The semiquaver accompaniment in bars 55ff. felt a bit heavy (modern concert grand, once more?). However, the heaviness, the ritenuto in the ascending staccato octaves in the left hand in bars 67 and 71 was definitely intended. It enhanced that somber motif.
Overall, I wasn’t always convinced about the artist’s rubato / tempo concept for this movement. It appeared to lack consistency, made me feel insecure. On the other hand, this definitely was the most difficult movement so far, from an interpretation (as opposed to technical) point-of-view. It is maybe even one of Beethoven’s most difficult movements altogether!
Of course, also the bucolic second movement retained the “taste” of the modern instrument. But the interpretation also wasn’t just peaceful, idyllic. It lived from vivid tempo variations, maybe even used too much rubato? It definitely appeared that a steady flow wasn’t the artist’s intent. But after the unruly first movement, the second part can’t be too peaceful and harmless, can it?
Piano Sonata No.28 in A major, op.101
- Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung. Allegretto, ma non troppo, 6/8
- Lebhaft, marschmäßig. Vivace alla marcia, 4/4
- Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll. Adagio, ma non troppo, con affetto, 2/4 — Zeitmaß des ersten Stückes. Tempo del primo pezzo; tutto il Cembalo ma piano. Alle Saiten, 6/8
- Geschwinde, doch nicht zu sehr, und mit Entschlossenheit. Allegro, 2/4
With this sonata, Beethoven not only has detached himself from the harmonic and melodic language of the middle period of his oeuvre. He also refuses to follow classic formal principles. He once described this sonata as a series of impressions and reveries.
I. Allegretto, ma non troppo
The first movement starts harmlessly and cantabile; a peaceful, basic atmosphere prevails throughout the movement. However, harmonically, the music never appears to reach any conclusion (cadence). It remains “hanging”, the flow hesitant, interrupted by fermatas.
II. Vivace alla marcia
The second movement is in A – B – A form. The “A” part (in F major) is dominated by punctuated marching rhythms, in a harmonic language that is typical for the composer’s late sonatas. There is no fugue, but many canonline imitations. The “B” part (in B♭ major) starts harmlessly, with lovely imitations. But soon it returns to the punctuated march rhythms of the “A” part.
III. Adagio, ma non troppo, con affetto — Tempo del primo pezzo
The slow movement is a rather melancholic fantasy in A minor. The annotation requests una corda (with the shift pedal). Compared to a modern concert grand, the una corda effect was much more pronounced on a fortepiano of the early 19th century. After a fully composed, rhythmically free cadenza, the music returns to A major, and Beethoven quotes a four-bar segment from the beginning of the sonata. That’s an idea that he uses (much more extensively) in the last movement of his Symphony No.9 in D minor, op.125. Here, this is just a short episode, followed by a stringendo and chains of trills that form the transition to the contrapuntal last movement.
This is the longest and technically most difficult piece in this sonata. It’s not a fugue in the strict sense, but still very complex, and largely polyphonic in four voices. If, as a listener, one masters this music, one is ready for the other sonatas and string quartets of Beethoven’s late period.
I. Allegretto, ma non troppo
In the first movement, Ostrovsky (for me) appeared to apply “inverse agogics”, i.e., accelerating towards focal points in phrases, rather than (my preference) holding back a little bit in front of a peak note. To me, this caused some excess unrest. Sure, Beethoven annotated the movement with “Etwas lebhaft” (somewhat vivid). However, he also added “und mit der innigsten Empfindung” (… and with the dearest sentiment), and this didn’t seem in agreement with that unrest.
II. Vivace alla marcia
In the first two segments (repeats), the Vivace alla Marcia definitely felt neither easy not light. The sf accents were almost forceful, with strong emphasis. It made the fugato sound heavy—a heaviness that the composer could hardly have conceived on his instruments. In contrast to that, the central part felt like an idyl, a wonderfully cosy, intimate discourse between two voices / persons. But of course, this is overcast by the return of the dramatic fugato part.
III. Adagio, ma non troppo, con affetto — Tempo del primo pezzo
The slow movement is challenging: the annotation is Adagio, ma non troppo. In the absence of a metronome annotation, what is “not too calm”? Adagio is not slow, but calm—but Beethoven explicitly adds “Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll” (slow and longing). The movement is in 2/4 time—but also including hemidemisemiquaver (128th) triplets. It is impossible to play this such that one can still feel the 2/4 time. Consequently, here, this felt very atmospheric, but “tempo-free”, i.e., devoid of a clear rhythmic structure. This is in line with the fact that the movement appears harmonically open-ended, inconclusive, without target, “never arriving”. As pointed out in the general remarks above, I hardly noticed the transition from “una corda” to “with all strings”, apart from the subtle dynamic alteration.
I don’t quite understand why Ostrovsky played the last 30 bars in the “exposition” (repeat part) of the last movement faster than the rest (he did this also in the second pass): this not only felt inconsistent (as if the tempo was “running away”), it also implied a somewhat odd slow-down when returning to the fugato. This faster section is annotated dolce—but to me, this does not imply a tempo change. It rather refers to articulation and dynamics. In contrast, the fugato in the “development phase” (if one interprets this as a sonata movement) seemed oddly slower, heavy (as if to indicate that “this is difficult to play”). And of course / consequently, the dolce sections in the last part (recapitulation / Coda) again felt oddly faster. The final three bars (Tempo I) were definitely rushing, too fast, not Tempo I.
Encore 1 — Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59, “Für Elise”
Ruvim Ostrovsky didn’t wait for many applause calls, but soon offered a first piece, Beethoven’s Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59, “Für Elise” as an encore. This seems commonplace, over-used, may even sound banal (especially after op.101!). However, to my amazement, this “worked instantly”: a coherent, atmospheric, simply excellent interpretation, with very nice agogics, with a wonderfully flourishing melody line, especially in the middle part! I was tempted to note that this was the best piece of the evening. This is not meant to the detriment of the preceding sonata interpretations. I rather mean to point out the quality that even a simple Bagatelle like this can have!
Encore 2 — 6 Variations in D major, op.76
Ruvim Ostrovsky played a second encore, Beethoven’s 6 Variations in D major, op.76, on the Turkish March from “The Ruins of Athens”. With this, he delivered another, real (closing) highlight to his recital: a simple, “robust” theme with a playful, often joking set of variations, in a marvelous, coherent and colorful interpretation. Clearly, not only the audience, but also the artist had real fun with this: it was pure joy to listen to this piece, thanks for that!
Ruvim Ostrovsky’s playing is solid, expressive, not excessively polished / aiming for (unnecessary) perfection. It’s basically a traditional interpretation, as opposed to “historically informed”—whatever this may mean on a modern piano. One can probably call it typical for the Russian piano school in general terms: Ostrovsky’s playing is solid, never superficial. He pays attention to details, fully adapted the playing to the characteristics of the modern concert grand.
In the other extreme, i.e., in interpretations on a fortepiano, or at least trying to approach the sound characteristics of a historic instrument from Beethoven’s time, there is more differentiation in sound, dynamics and articulation. In such performances, some tempos would be faster, and small note values (semiquavers and beyond) typically sound more lightly, almost like ornaments. All this is hard to achieve on a modern grand, so it would be unfair to expect “fortepiano features” on such an instrument. My heart is beating for historically informed performances. Nevertheless, I found Ruvim Ostrovsky’s interpretations interesting, appealing, solid, sound, without flaws, and I enjoyed the recital from beginning to end!