Oliver Schnyder, Christoph Croisé, Meta Fajdiga
2016-09-23 — Brushed up for better readability
Arosa is a little ski resort village in a valley in the East of the town of Chur (reachable via narrow road, or by train). The village is holding a Music Festival, this year between 2016-01-27 and 2016-03-18), including three “Academy Concerts” (January), four “Classic Concerts” (February), and four “Jazz&Rock Concerts” (March). The festival is organized by ArosaKultur, in cooperation with a number of other institutions. Today’s concert is the result of a cooperation with the “Orpheum-Stiftung zur Förderung junger Solisten” (Orpheum Foundation for the support of young soloists). I have described this foundation on the occasion of an earlier concert at the Tonhalle in Zurich (2015-09-04).
The three artists in this concert (“Orpheum Young Soloists on Stage – classic concert III”) are or have been receiving support by the Orpheum Foundation:
The promising, young Swiss cellist Christoph Croisé is currently in the Orpheum support program. I have enjoyed his playing in two concerts already: his debut concert in Lucerne (2015-08-27), and a second concert at Zurich’s Tonhalle (2015-11-07), both with the pianist Oxana Shevchenko. For more detail see these concert reviews.
This concert is my first encounter with the Slovenian pianist Meta Fajdiga, now also under support by the Orpheum Foundation. She started her piano education at age 7 and did her Bachelor studies at the Music academy in Ljubljana (Tatjana Ognjanovič). Since 2013 she is studying in the class of Konstantin Scherbakov at the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (ZHdK). Meta Fajdiga has attended master classes with various artists, such as Konstantin Scherbakov, Igor Lazko, Oliver Kern, Paul Badura-Skoda, Stephen Kovacevich, and Zoltan Kocsis. While still in education, she has already made various appearances in concerts, both as soloist and as chamber musician, in countries such as Slovenia, Italy, Slovakia, and Switzerland. She has won prizes at various national and international competitions (see here for details).
Finally, the Swiss pianist Oliver Schnyder is a prime example for an artist with whom the support by the Orpheum Foundation was instrumental in launching his (now very successful) international career. He is appearing as soloist, see the concert report from Zurich Tonhalle on 2015-04-21 (with Julia Fischer) and on 2016-01-26 (with Sir Roger Norrington). At the same time, he also is active as chamber musician, with his own formation, the Oliver Schnyder Trio, see also my report from a concert in Greifensee on 2016-01-23 (with the tenor Daniel Behle). Apart from that, he is also holding his own concert series in Baden/CH, under the label Piano District.
This concert was held in the protestant Church of Arosa. That’s a small church above the center of the village, a venue for maybe 200 – 250 visitors. It was built 1907 – 1909 in Art Nouveau style. For this concert, a Steinway A-188 piano was placed in the choir, some two steps above the church floor. In this church, the choir also houses the pipe organ, with the main body at the far end. A Brustwerk occupies the right hand side of the entrance to the choir.
Schubert: Piano Sonata in C minor, D.958
The Piano Sonata in C minor, D.958 by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) is the first of the composer’s last three sonatas. These were all written in the last months of his short life, and all clearly express the composer’s fight against his terminal illness. Schubert knew that he would not live much longer. These sonatas are dominated by feelings of struggling with his fate, despair, resignation, and sadness. Of course, the sonatas feature extended sections with Schubert’s typical, beautiful, song-like melodies. However, there are also these moments of utter despair, such as when abysses open in sudden general pauses. There, life appears to come to a temporary halt, as if the heart would stand still for moments.
The Sonata in C minor features the following movements:
- Allegro (3/4)
- Adagio (3/4)
- Menuetto: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Menuetto da capo
- Allegro (6/8)
Performance & Acoustics
Oliver Schnyder (as mentor to the two Orpheum artists) opened the concert with this sonata.
My initial reaction to the interpretation was that I found this “a lyrical interpretation, rather than a very dramatic one”. However, soon I realized that this wasn’t what the artist felt and played, but mostly the listener’s perception.
The acoustics of the church are very soft, with diffuse, noticeable reverberation. This worked to the detriment of Schubert’s monumental music. The acoustics made the music sound like played with an excess of sustain pedal. I watched the pianist’s feet, the pedaling was careful, not excessive, as far as I could see. Worse than that: the reverberation “filled” the general rests, made them feel less frightening / devastating.
Also, I felt that the acoustics caused the dynamics to be attenuated, less dramatic. For example, the difference between p and f often appeared to be minimal. The dynamic differentiation between the voices / hands could often have been more pronounced. But some of this could also have been the artist’s reaction to the soft acoustics.
The overall effect was that the music sounded more harmless than intended, more like an earlier one of Schubert’s sonatas. Of course, the acoustics retained the beauty of Schubert’s melodies and harmonies. But still, I think what I heard did not do justice to the artist’s playing. Maybe the placement of the piano in the choir was non-ideal, and a position on the main floor would have been better?
Playing at a much slower pace might have compensated some of the acoustics—but that also alters the character of the music! Given the length of the program (the concert lasted for well over 1.5 hours), the decision not to repeat the exposition is understandable. I would not blame the artist for this!
In the Adagio, the tempo was probably at the upper limit with the given acoustics. The properties of the venue again softened the articulation, in particular in staccato passages. They possibly also caused the pianist to play some of the pp louder than intended by the composer.
III. Menuetto: Allegro — Trio
This continued in the Menuetto, which appeared (almost) too fast in this environment. Many of the quaver figures—probably intended to sound ghastly—felt slightly superficial, maybe a bit “washed out”. I know that Oliver Schnyder would hardly play superficially! Some of the sforzati in the Menuetto stood out quite strongly, making the music dramatic and lively. At the same time, the music sounded less desperate, maybe lacking some feeling of forlornness. This again might have been the artist’s attempt to compensate for the impact of the acoustics.
For me, the final Allegro was the best movement in this performance, except that the acoustics (again) made it sound slightly over-pedalized. It gave the impression of the music ghastly rushing by. Yet, the artist was able to make Schubert’s melodies and melody fragments sing (in scenes that reminded of the Lied “Erlkönig“). Oliver Schnyder made this movement sound urgent, dramatic. As already in the previous movements, he was putting less emphasis on the “despair / loneliness” (something that I find so pronounced in Svjatoslav Richter‘s interpretations of late Schubert sonatas).
The pianist accelerated towards those dramatic, rapid staccato sequences of rising chords. Prior to the Coda, he let the music calm down a bit, just to pick up a faster pace again for the final segment: a fatal (driven) ride into the Orcus.
I think, Oliver Schnyder’s performance that evening can best be summarized as substituting urgency and drama for the possibility to playing out dynamic contrasts and demonstrating the scary views into the abyss of death (in those “deadly rests”). The latter option was (sadly) defeated by the acoustics of the venue. It was still a gripping, compelling interpretation!
Schubert: Fantasia in F minor, D.940
Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor, D.940 for piano four-hands was also written in 1828. It is considered one of the composer’s most important works for piano. One can view it as consisting of four movements, though all four parts are played without pause / interruption (attacca). The last part (Tempo I) is based on the theme of the first one:
Allegro molto moderato (4/4) — Largo (4/4) — Allegro vivace (3/4) — Tempo I (4/4)
As this really was a concert for the two younger artists, Oliver Schnyder stepped back into a less active role, now being supporter and (excellent) accompanist. He left the lead role to Meta Fajdiga, who appeared to control tempo and agogics. After the initial bass motives, she set in with a slightly slower pace. This was the only “discrepancy” (if it is worth calling it this way!); thereafter, the “accompanist” kept his part perfectly in tune with the lead part. This is (I think) the way in which Schubert wrote the piece. I really enjoyed Meta Fajdiga’s very discreet agogics, careful articulation, her expressive playing (avoiding dynamic excesses). I also noted a nice rubato, the excellent coordination between the two players.
Allegro molto moderato
I felt that in this piece, the acoustics had a less detrimental effect. In an acoustically dryer venue, though, I would have expected somewhat stronger dynamic contrasts in the initial Allegro molto moderato, maybe also more violent eruptions.
The eruptions were saved for Largo section, which was indeed dramatic. It was fascinating to watch and hear the perfect coordination between the two rapidly alternating parts in this piece which (in the double-punctuated, outer parts) remind of a baroque French Overture. In a drastic contrast, the middle part was very warm, lyrical, with an almost joyful, singing melody in the top voice. This inevitably (in this late composition) reverted to the tone of the French Overture with its punctuations and dramatic trills, really filling the venue with its sound.
The Allegro vivace part (performed with all repeats) felt very expressive, vivid—without falling out of the earnest tone of the Fantasia, though. It featured a nicely contrasting, short, but serene intermezzo (con delicatezza) in the center. This was taken at a slightly slower pace. The music then reverts to the dramatic, Scherzo-like tone, building up to a short transition, culminating in two long general rests (at last!).
Some scare of Schubert’s general rests could also be felt in the final Tempo I part. The artists carefully set apart the different structural parts. After the section with the initial theme (this time starting perfectly in tune, tempo-wise), the short F major section appeared at a slightly slower pace. The subsequent, complex, fugato segment was maybe a bit hard to follow in this acoustic environment, hampering the transparency. The only critical remark about the interpretation here is a slight accelerando in the polyphonic part (unmotivated, to me). I noted this in the big build-up, prior to the resignative, dramatic ending. Overall, it was an impressive performance, winning over the adverse acoustics!
Rachmaninoff: Cello Sonata in G minor, op.19
The Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, op.19 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) has been discussed at length on the occasion of a short CD comparison in an earlier blog post. I’ll therefore refrain from repeating myself here. I just wanted to list the movements / structure:
- Lento, 3/4 (1/4 = 48) — Allegro moderato, 4/4 (1/4 = 112) — Con moto (1/4 = 132) — Moderato (1/4 = 92) — Allegro molto (1/4 = 144)
- Allegro scherzando, 12/8 (3/4 = 88) — 4/4 (3/4 = 1/2) — 12/8 (1/2 = 3/4)
- Andante, 4/4 (1/4 = 46)
- Allegro mosso, 4/4 (1/4 = 144) — Moderato (1/4 = 100) — Tempo I — Meno mosso (1/4 = 92) — Tempo I — Moderato — Più vivo — Meno mosso — Vivace (1/4 = 160)
In this highlight of the cello literature, Christoph Croisé was accompanied by Oliver Schnyder on the Steinway (with fully open lid). Christoph Croisé was placed in front of the piano. This certainly helped the cellist to keep contact with the pianist (Christoph did often make eye contact with the accompanist). It seems to be his preferred position in duo playing, but it must have made it very hard for the pianist to follow the cello, especially in this adverse acoustic environment.
I. Lento — Allegro moderato — Con moto — Moderato — Allegro molto
The cello starts this sonata, “sneaking in” softly (p) and initially with a totally flat tone, the vibrato only setting in during the following bars. Every time I heard Christoph Croisé play so far, I really enjoyed his expressive playing, the beauty of his tone. That sound is of course also owed to his excellent instrument by Mattio Goffriller, Venice, 1712. I particularly enjoyed the well-projecting, singing tone in the higher registers, and the full, warm sound in the bass register. All this also applied to this performance, of course. In the first movement though, the piano with its highly virtuosic accompaniment part was sometimes in danger of covering the cello tone. I mostly noted this in the intermediate register, despite the moderate tempo selection.
I felt that the playing in the first movement was somewhat restrained, in order to cope with the acoustics. It would have been nice to have more clarity and insight into the highly complex (typical of Rachmaninoff!) accompaniment part. Of course, this did not apply to the section where the piano played alone, which made it clear that Oliver Schnyder had no problem at all in mastering the technical challenges in this piece. For the same reasons as in the Schubert sonata, it was understandable that the exposition in this movement was not repeated, as beautiful as this music is!
II. Allegro scherzando
From a point-of-view of acoustic balance (in this venue in particular), the Allegro scherzando was probably the toughest movement. The piano has a busy part (with grumbling basses and cascades of chords in the right hand), while the cello part features pizzicati and short quaver interjections, some of which were hard to hear. Christoph Croisé played firmly, though. Was it just my feeling that in the rapid parts, the cello playing was a tad defensive? It’s an impression that I also had from Christoph Croisé’s body language. Maybe, Oliver Schnyder’s piano part (can’t really call it accompaniment here!!) was slightly more aggressive / moving forward than the cello. I had the latter sensation primarily in the section after the more lyrical middle part. There, Christoph Croisé could definitely play out his highest pitch singing tone.
The slow movement, of course, could hardly fail—such beautiful, serene music: one of Rachmaninoff’s most beautiful inventions, for sure! The piano part alternates with the cello in carrying the melody voice. Where the melody is with the cello, the piano is mostly (very compassionate) accompaniment. Here, acoustic issues were easily forgotten / ignored: for me, it was the highlight of the sonata, if not of the evening. It made one forget about the death-soaked atmosphere in the Schubert pieces: simply marvelous music!
IV. Allegro mosso — Moderato — Tempo I — Meno mosso — Tempo I — Moderato — Più vivo — Meno mosso — Vivace
The final movement is extremely virtuosic and busy on the piano. It’s also another piece with very nice, longing melodies on the cello. Both artists appeared to be in their element, the playing was very engaged, active and expressive. There was perhaps a minor exception to this in the first Meno mosso section, where I felt a slight loss in tension. The acoustics sometimes did obscure the piano part, though, and some of the cello’s p interjections were hard to hear & follow. But it appeared that Christoph Croisé had “played himself free”. Both artists were enjoying themselves: a magnificent piece, with grandiose inventions by the composer!
Encore — Schubert: Sonata in A minor, D.821, “Arpeggione” (Allegro moderato)
In response to the enthusiastic applause, Christoph Croisé and Meta Fajdiga played the third movement, Allegretto, from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D.821, “Arpeggione”. With this, we have heard all possible duo combinations with these artists.
I have already commented on Christoph Croisé’s interpretation of the “Arpeggione” sonata in my review of his concert at Zurich’s Tonhalle in 2015-11-07 (with Oxana Shevchenko at the piano). In that earlier performance, I found the tempo to be a bit on the slow side for an Allegro moderato (it almost felt like an Andante). Here, the pace was maybe still at the lower limit, but slightly more fluent. It felt more natural to me, except that the ritardando in the final bars was a bit excessive, in my opinion.
Meta Fajdiga’s accompaniment was excellent, never obtrusive, well-coordinated. She even made one forget about the acoustic and balance issues in this venue. It was excellent duo playing, overall. At this point, Christoph Croisé also must have been more relaxed & free than in the Zurich debut performance, where this piece was in the center of the concert.
Overall, this was a concert with its share of problems, almost entirely imposed by limitations of the venue. Still, it was well worth coming to Arosa for this event!
Earlier reviews from concerts featuring the Rachmaninoff sonata include
- a concert at Wigmore Hall on 2012-04-28, with Han-Na Chang and Finghin Collins
- a concert at Zurich Tonhalle on 2014-09-14, with Thomas Grossenbacher and Yuja Wang