2018-11-28 — Original posting
Lukaskirche, Lucerne, 2018-11-22
Piano Recital: Schaghajegh Nosrati
Bach / Alkan
The Artist: Schaghajegh Nosrati
The artist in this recital was Schaghajegh Nosrati (*1989, see also Wikipedia), a German pianist with Iranian roots, who grew up in Bochum, Germany. Her parents had been facing serious political persecution after the Iranian revolution in 1979, and in 1983 they canceled their studies and fled to Germany. Schaghajegh had her first piano lessons at age 4. From age 8 on, she received piano education in Recklinghausen, Germany, and in 2007, she started piano studies at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover, in the class of Einar Steen-Nøkleberg (*1944). In 2017, at the same institution, she did her concert diploma with the Polish pianist and teacher Ewa Kupiec (*1964). Schaghajegh Nosrati is now teaching at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover.
Career, Artistic Focus
Schaghajegh Nosrati received additional, vital artistic input from prominent pianists such as Robert D. Levin (*1947), Angela Hewitt (*1958), Murray Perahia (*1947), Daniel Barenboim (*1942), and Sir András Schiff (*1953). The latter is an important mentor to her. At this year’s Lucerne Easter Festival, as well as on a tour to prominent venues in Germany and Austria, she performed Bach’s concerti for two keyboard instruments with András Schiff and his Cappella Andrea Barca.
At age 17, she came out as the winner of the first prize, as well as a special prize for performances of modern music at a competition in Essen, Germany, and in 2014, she won the second prize at the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in Leipzig. She has since started a career as concert pianist. Her repertoire spans from baroque to modern music. She mentions a special affinity to Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943). A particular focus in her repertoire is on works by Bach, as well as compositions by lesser known composers such as Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888). The program for this recital exclusively consisted of works by Bach and Alkan:
Schaghajegh Nosrati’s recital stood under the title “Concert sans orchestre“, i.e., concert(o) without orchestra. Apart from the two encores, it consisted of “just” two compositions:
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971
- Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888): Concerto pour piano seul, op.39/8 – 10
My wife and I had seats in row #7 of the right-side lateral block in the nave. I noted that Sir András Schiff attended his protégée’s recital, together with his wife, the violinist Yuuko Shiokawa (*1946).
A Note on the Photos
Sadly, there was no press photographer in this concert. As a substitute, the Press Office for the Lucerne Festival has offered me photos from Schaghajegh Nosrati’s appearance at this year’s Easter Festival in March, where the artist performed Bach’s concertos for two keyboard instruments, together with her mentor, Sir András Schiff and his Cappella Andrea Barca. In this recital, the artist was wearing an all-black, full-length gown.
The Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971, is one of the most popular keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). The “Concerto in Italian Style” features three movements:
For more details see one of my earlier postings for a comparison of several CD recordings of this work.
Clearly, my preferred instrument for Bach’s keyboard works is the harpsichord (or the clavichord, or the organ, as appropriate). However, for this recital, I of course adjusted my expectations for the modern concert grand. The instrument here was a Steinway, model D-274.
Indeed, as expected, Schaghajegh Nosrati presented an interpretation that was very much adapted for the modern piano:
I . (Tempo ordinario)
Let me try characterizing the interpretation. The tempo was more fluent than that for a typical harpsichord performance. This shifted the focus away from articulation at the level of motifs, towards bigger phrases and arches. This is OK, of course, as it is impossible to imitate / “emulate” the articulation of a harpsichord on a modern piano. The artist softened the articulation by playing full chords with arpeggiando—this is somewhat questionable, as on a harpsichord, these chords form strong accents (even with a slight arpeggiando). The fluent tempo made it impossible to make the staccato semiquavers audible. This made the right hand sound more legato, the music fluent, moving forward, if not a tad urging.
Also, on a harpsichord the short notes (demisemiquavers) and ornaments usually have the purpose of highlighting a note (e.g., the peak note in a phrase). Here, they really (mostly) were “just” ornaments, embellishments, rolling figures in a phrase, maybe also transition figures. Schaghajegh Nosrati also was somewhat liberal in the dynamics. Bach thought of a two-manual harpsichord, limiting dynamics to piano and forte annotations. Mostly, these apply to both hands, though occasionally, the left hand is meant to play on the soft manual / stop, while the right hand plays forte. There were the artist inverted this in favor of the left hand / bass. However, in general, Schaghajegh Nosrati kept the dynamics close to Bach’s annotation, avoided romanticisms and exaggerations.
Intuitively, I found the tempo rather (a little too) fluent, especially as on a modern piano, the strings resonate much longer, theoretically allowing for a slower tempo. However, one tends to listen to the quavers, while the movement is in 3/4 time, which justifies the tempo that the artist selected. One should think that a slightly fast(er) tempo would shift the focus away from the ornaments towards the underlying melody. Yet, here, I felt that the rich ornamentation in the cantilena was a bit too much in the foreground, distracting from the melody. The soft left-hand accompaniment didn’t do much to alleviate this.
However, my main quibble was that the movement lacked some calm, occasionally sounded slightly impatient. A slower pace would also have allowed the ornaments to flourish more intensely / expressively (e.g., through additional agogics). In general, though, I really liked the artist’s approach to baroque ornamentation.
A playful movement, again at a fluent tempo, moving forward, with focus on momentum and flow. There was little time for Klangrede, i.e., for expressive, detailed articulation and differentiation through agogics (short ritenuti, etc.). But Schaghajegh Nosrati used careful, detailed dynamics to highlight themes in the 2- or 3-voice polyphony, to shape phrases, and to set the melody apart from accompaniment.
Overall Rating: ★★★½
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888) was a contemporary (and neighbor) to Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) and Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). He mostly lived in seclusion (there are only two known photographs), but was the author of a series of major, monstrous works for the piano. One of these big, huge works is a series of 12 studies through all minor keys, the 12 Études dans tous les tons mineurs, op.39. These 12 “monstrosities” include a “Symphony for piano solo” (op.39/4 – 7), and the Concerto pour piano seul, op.39/8 – 10 (Concerto for piano solo), with the following three movements:
- Allegro assai (G♯ minor) — ca. 29′
- Adagio (C♯ minor) — ca. 12′
- Allegretto alla barbaresca (F♯ minor) — ca. 10′
The durations alone are quite telling. One commenter called this “the most cruelly taxing piano work before the time of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892 – 1988) and Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924)”. Instead of adding more of a description here, I refer to my earlier posting where I discussed recordings of this and others of Alkan’s piano works.
Before I even start discussing this performance (and I’ll say it again at the end): I can’t stress enough how highly I respect the artist’s courage and perseverance in tackling Alkan’s monstrous “studies”! These are not only technically challenging, but (even more) power-draining, exhausting in their almost constant full-fingered, wide-spanning, fast and fortissimo playing, all too often with permanent jumping. And that over the duration of half an hour in the case of the first movement! And there are only few moments where the artist can shortly relax or recover. Moreover, Schaghajegh Nosrati played all this by heart—amazing! Plus, her repertoire includes other monsters in Alkan’s oeuvre, too!
8. Allegro assai (G♯ minor)
It took Schaghajegh Nosrati a few moments / bars to switch from Bach’s clear, (relatively) simple textures to Alkan’s strong, “harmonically filled” language. The first bars, the initial fanfares (quasi trombe!) were slightly blurred in the touch. But after some 10 bars, she was “fully in the music”. The artist played with differentiated dynamics, using agogics and rubato, exposing the beautiful cantilenas. Sure, not everything was 100% perfect and “clinically pure” (that takes a true supervirtuoso!). However, what counted here was the musical flow, the expression.
Primarily, let me state that Schaghajegh mastered this score really very well, the few, rare mistakes in this myriad of notes were hardly noticeable (if at all). There was nothing really to point at. At most, I found minor limitations. For example, I felt a slight “disconnect” at the transition around the general rest in bar 138. I also noted an occasional, slight loss in tension (e.g., in the molto espressivo segment starting at bar 166), or an equally rare, slight loss in momentum (e.g., in bars 436ff).
The espressivo in bar 910 is followed by a lengthy, lyrical segment up to the return of the main theme in bar 996. Here, I found that the music “had lengths” (it got better around bar 978). It could be that Schaghajegh Nosrati took back the tempo a little bit too much at bar 910. However, I mainly attribute this to a slight weakness in the composition. However, I also have a sneaky suspicion that Alkan inserted that lengthy, lyrical segment in order to make the fulminant ending stand out even more?
Finally, in this movement, there were very few misses towards the end (around bars 1200 – 1205, and again around bars 1275 – 1278). However, it requires following a score to hear some of these, and very few people may have noted them. And what do these mean within the myriad of notes in 1343 bars???
… and Highlights
On the other hand, there were also many real highlights, such as the flawless dramatic leggiero semiquaver garlands starting in bar 189, the transition from these to the lyrical segment (legato molto) at bar 292, or how the artist managed to highlight the dialog between the left hand and the hidden middle voice in bars 476ff. I also found the surprising transition from the dramatic local climax at bar 508, across the general rest and the sostenuto bars to the subsequent, wonderful lyrical cantabile segment really successful and convincing. More than the subsequent transition at bar 550. However, I found the following intermezzo and its transition back to blazing virtuosity (ff at bar 576) really excellent.
Another highlight followed in bars 580ff, an eruptive, even explosive climax with dramatic, short stringendi. Shaghajegh Nosreati played this with absolutely stupendous virtuosity. The a tempo in bars 626ff again exposed the beautiful melody of the main theme in the top voice. The other fingers in the right hand are busy with semiquaver figures, while left hand plays quaver triplets. That’s hardly even imaginable to non-pianists! Bars 704ff had a nice dialog between the melody (in octaves) in the bass and the really hidden voice in the upper right-hand notes.
Quotes and Finale…
I also enjoyed how the tension built up in the bars leading up to the ff in bar 816, after which there is this jubilant eruption, overfilled with joy, leading into a climax (bars 826ff), which to me is a quote from the final bars in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.26 in E♭ major, op.81a, “Les Adieux” (see my earlier post for details).
Closer to the ending, I liked the subtle p, pp, and ppp playing, the singing cantilena in bars 1008ff, the luminous “angel’s voice” near the top of the keyboard. Surprisingly, at bar 1068, the singing stops, and Alkan inserts a solemn, homophonic chorale, all ppp. It takes two “attempts” (bars 1076 – 1079, bars 1088ff) for the mezza voce singing melody to take over again. But thereafter, a beautiful, melodic segment forms a transition to a highly virtuosic, brilliant and dramatic coda, starting with the a tempo, con brio at bar 1114—a towering, overwhelming finale. Was I impressed, overwhelmed? You bet! The audience was about to break out in applause.
The Listener’s Challenges
Alkan’s music is not comparable to any of his contemporaries, or even any other composer. Not just in its dimension, but primarily in the textures, the themes, and in the harmonies, Alkan sets himself apart from all others. At first, one may find his endless (often ff) chord sequences, frequently in tremolo or staccato chains, tiring. And this movement goes on for 1343 bars / half an hour! It’s a challenge not just for the pianist, but also for the listener. However, what initially may sound gross really is Alkan’s genuine, personal style, his language. There are definitely nice cantilenas, melodic segments. However, these often don’t last more than 1 – 2 pages in the score. Then, Alkan typically switches to a dramatic segment again, with mostly motivic (rather than thematic) work / textures.
With this, also the listener is facing a challenge: getting “into” this language, looking for themes, melodies and bigger structures in the often pompous soundscape. Some People are not willing to surpass these barriers for exploring Alkan’s world. They better stay at home. Trying to “suffer through” these long movements in rejection will only cause annoyance and more upsetting. See below for an illustrative example.
9. Adagio (C♯ minor)
More than in the first movement, Alkan differentiates between “orchestral” segments (such as the 10 introductory bars) and solo (“piano”) segments. The latter are melodious, with sections that resemble a recitative (bars 20ff), an aria (bars 37ff), even a veritable Lied (bars 47ff), and even a beautiful operatic aria (bars 82ff). Schaghajegh Nosrati played all these with careful, diligent and highly differentiated dynamics, highlighting (but not over-emphasizing) the “vocal” melodies, applying gentle, “speaking” agogics.
However, Alkan wouldn’t be Alkan, if there wasn’t a sudden turn to a more earnest mood (bars 94/95), followed by a theatrical section, where the melody line is highly expressive and accompanied by dramatic tremolo figures in the left hand. A serious “funeral march” follows, full of tension / suspense, with violent drum beats and a melancholic, expressive cantilena in the right hand. An excellent movement, both as composition, as well as in the performance. Without dynamic exaggerations, Schaghajegh Nosrati was able to create a veritable “opera feeling”. She even managed to increase the tension and the expectations for the final movement!
10. Allegretto alla barbaresca (F♯ minor)
Here, the “solo” starts with an introduction full of virtuosic “acciaccaturas”, in a kind of slow waltz with strong, expressive agogics. the “orchestra” steps in with an 8-bar “fanfare”, imitating noisy rebecs. The solo returns in waltz (or Mazurka?) mode. And inevitably, it gets more and more virtuosic, breaks out into a cadenza with glittering triplet garlands (bars 60 – 69). But that’s far from the end. An acrobatic and dramatic build-up with crossing hands and blazing demisemiquaver chains.
The “orchestra” is allowed another short, noisy fanfare (bars 118 – 125), then the “soloist” takes over and dominates the scene up to bar 258. It first imitates the beginning, up to the waltz with the “acciaccaturas” (I really liked how Schaghajegh Nosrati accelerated in each and every one of those, towards the accent on the first beat of the following bar!).
Rolling, virtuosic demisemiquaver chains that alternate between the two hands for an accompaniment to a very expressive, operatic recitative. The atmosphere gets more and more tense. A melodic aria leads to a dramatic turn, building up to a veritable tornado, until a ff lightning stroke leads into a flashback with the main theme of the first movement (bars 198ff). After four bars, the Allegretto theme returns, mixed with a cantilena that has a few interesting Hungarian or Slavonic turns. The final build-up begins in bar 227 with a variation of the main theme, followed by another, highly virtuosic, glittering cadenza.
A last 8-bar “orchestral intermezzo” (bars 259ff) leads into the flamboyant coda and a furious ending.
The parforce tour of over 50 minutes fully deserved the long applause. Not just for the physical and mental effort and achievement, but even more so for Schaghajegh Nosrati’s highly virtuosic performance, and for musically mastering this monstrous composition!
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Encore 1 — Alkan: Esquisse No.11 in in B♭ major, “Les Soupirs“, from Esquisses, op.63, 49 Motifs en 4 Suites, Book 1
After this huge artistic effort, pianist and audience deserved an opportunity to calm down. Schaghajegh Nosrati chose another piece by Charles-Valentin Alkan! Not a virtuosic one, though, but one of the 49 Esquisses (Sketches), op.63 (49 “motifs” in 4 books), which Alkan published 1861. The Esquisse No.11 in in B♭ major from book #1 has the title “Les Soupirs” (The Sighs). It is annotated Assez lentement (quite slowly).
Indeed, a calm, reflective piece. It did not really remind me of sighing, though. It rather felt like a Barcarolle, or maybe the gentle swaying of a cradle. Unpretentious music, beautifully relaxed, serene, transfigured in a way. The ideal music for this occasion. And it was good to discover Alkan’s contrasting, lyrical trait!
Encore 2 — Alkan: Toccatina in C minor, op.75
As the audience asked for more, Schaghajegh Nosrati selected yet another piece by Charles-Valentin Alkan. She now returned to the composer’s virtuosic, if not acrobatic side, playing the Toccatina in C minor, op.75., from 1872. The annotation of this “little Toccata” is Quasi prestissimo. It’s a piece at least as busy as the busiest piano music by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847). It’s just vastly more intricate in the very fast semiquaver chain in the right hand that runs almost through the entire piece. Alkan specifically wanted this running line to be all p and without nuances. The left hand adds contrasting quaver staccato motifs until it joins the other hand in the Coda with mirrored semiquaver figures. The piece ends with a joking surprise that put a smile on the faces in the audience.
In a concert on the following day, a piano teacher sitting in the row behind me couldn’t resist commenting to her neighbor on Schaghajegh Nosrati’s recital. She felt devastated by the fact that she was “forced to listen to about an hour of the worst, most boring, most content-less, most non-sensical music ever“. Apparently, that woman was close to losing her temper during the concert (and even still the day after!). She was most upset about the fact that Schaghajegh’s mentor, Sir András Schiff (*1953), who had been sitting close to her, apparently hadn’t talked his protégée out of this music.
András Schiff has indeed attended Schaghajegh’s recital. I don’t think he had the slightest intent to criticize his protégée. After the recital, he went to see her, to congratulate. It was heart-warming to see that he hugged her, obviously encouraging her, continuing to support her on her path!
Alkan’s music definitely is not at the musical level of that of his contemporaries, such as Liszt and Chopin (his neighbors for years, after all!). However, as a piano teacher, that woman could have informed herself about the music on Schaghajegh’s program beforehand. Therefore, if she finds Alkan’s music so horribly poor and boring, why then did she attend the concert at all??
Is Playing Alkan Such a Bad Idea?
First and foremost, I can’t stress enough that I have the highest respect for Schaghajegh Nosrati’s courage and boldness to tackle a repertoire that otherwise only a small handful of supervirtuosos (such as Marc-André Hamelin, *1961) or artists specializing in Alkan’s music (such as Jack Gibbons, *1962) are covering. Schaghajegh Nosrati not only shows interest in this exotic repertoire, but she mastered the enormous challenge of tackling two of the most monstrous pieces in Alkan’s oeuvre, the Concerto pour piano seul, op.39/8 – 10 (in this concert), as well as the Grande Sonate, op.33, “Les quatre âges”, which is of almost the same dimensions.
Clearly, with Alkan alone, one can hardly expect to run an international career as a keyboard virtuoso. On the other hand, it definitely (I think) is an interesting niche that sets her apart from the hundreds, even thousands of young pianists competing on the music market today. And her encores show that Schaghajegh Nosrati isn’t just “cherry-picking” the virtuosic cornerstones in Alkan’s oeuvre, but that she at least shows interest in other, even less known works by this composer. The fact that she pursues this repertoire over several years indicates that she also has the determination to stay on that path. I think that indeed, keeping Alkan in a niche of the concert repertoire is well worth the effort.
My sincere congrats to Schaghajegh Nosrati for having the guts and the perseverance to tackle Alkan’s music!