Sherniyaz Mussakhan, Georgiana Pletea
Debussy / Pärt / Schubert / Ravel / Franck

Aula, Alte Kantonsschule, Zurich, 2022-04-09

0.5-star rating

2022-04-16 — Original posting



Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeAula, Alte Kantonsschule, Zurich — 2022-04-09, 11:30
Series / TitlePodium für Junge Talente — Rahn Kulturfonds
OrganizerMusical Discovery / Musik an der ETH und UZH
SponsorRahn Kulturfonds, Zurich
Reviews from related eventsRecitals in this venue
Concerts and recitals organized by Musical Discovery

The Artists

Sherniyaz Mussakhan, violin

The violinist Sherniyaz Mussakhan (*1993) was born in Kazakhstan. He received his concertmaster diploma from the HÉMU in Sion, studying with Pavel Vernikov. He then went on to the Musik-Akademie Basel, where he obtained his soloist diploma, studying with Rainer Schmidt (*1964). 2015, together with the Latvian violinist Jana Ozolina, he founded the YES (Young Eurasian Soloists) Chamber Orchestra (also YES Orchestra, Eurasian Soloists Chamber Orchestra). For full details on the artist’s career, achievements, etc., see his Web biography.

This was my first encounter with Sherniyaz Mussakhan as soloist. I have, however, written about several concerts where he performed as concertmaster of the YES Orchestra.

According to the concert leaflet, Sherniyaz Mussakhan is performing on an 1850 violin by Charles Jacquot (1804 – 1880). I noted a peculiarity with that violin: its peg box does not feature the usual scroll, but the sculpted head of a bald man:

Sherniyaz Mussakhan (peg box, Violin Charles Jacquot, 1850) @ Aula, Alte Kantonsschule, Zurich, 2022-04-09
Peg box, Violin Charles Jacquot, 1850 @ Zurich, 2022-04-09 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Georgiana Pletea, piano

The Romanian pianist Georgiana Pletea (*1993) grew up in Bucharest and started playing the piano at age 7. Since 2012, she has been studying with Adrian Oetiker at the Musik-Akademie Basel, where 2017 she obtained the Master Degree in pedagogy. She currently continues her studies towards a Master of Arts degree as soloist. For full detail see the artist’s Web Biography.

Georgiana Pleatea’s instrument in this recital was the small size Yamaha grand that the Institution (Zurich University) placed in this venue.


Program

The original program had these pieces in different order: Pärt — Debussy — Schubert — Franck — Ravel. There was no announcement about the changes—though the two composition swaps were obvious instantly. So: no big deal. And: at least in the aftermath, at least the first these changes made sense—see below.


Setting, etc.

I have written about concerts in this venue before (see the links above). Let me repeat excerpts from my earlier description here. The small Aula is a room that offering around 100 seats. In other words: it offers a capacity similar to the one of the Semper-Aula at the ETH. However, it is substantially more compact, square-shaped. Walls and ceiling feature rich, beautifully restored, classicist decoration. The walls have been equipped with inconspicuous sound panels that avoid over-reverberating acoustics.


Concert & Review

Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor, L.140

Composer & Work

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918): Violin Sonata in G minor, L.140

The Violin Sonata in G minor, L.140, by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), is one of a set of six sonatas that the composer planned and started writing in 1915. These sonatas were meant as homage to French composers of the 18th century. Ultimately, Debussy’s death prevented the completion of this project, which now features just three sonatas:

  • Sonata for Cello and Piano, L.135 (1915)
  • Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, L.137 (1915)
  • the Sonata for Violin and Piano, L.140 (1917), played in this concert

The latter sonata has three movements:

  1. Allegro vivo
  2. Intermède: Fantasque et léger — Scherzando
  3. Finale: Très animé

The premiere of this sonata was on 1917-05-05, with the violinist Gaston Poulet (1892 – 1974), and with the composer at the piano. This was Debussy’s last public performance.

The Performance

I. Allegro vivo

The beginning of Debussy’s first movement bears the marks dolce (sostenuto for the piano, espressivo for the violin). Soon, however, the two instruments “tighten the grip” (en serrant), and we found ourselves in an expressive segment (dolce vibrato). I experienced that movement as an iridescent play between pallid, but also dreamy sections and highly expressive, often dramatic passages. In the former, Sherniyaz Mussakhan used very little vibrato, sometimes none at all, exposing the warm, characterful tone of his instrument.

That of course changed in the dramatic parts, where the composer explicitly wants vibrato. But even there, I found the vibrato targeted, never too conspicuous. A highly atmospheric performance, in which Georgiana Pletea was a highly supportive and attentive partner. It was of course also due to the composer’s circumspect writing that the two parts cooperated without ever obstructing each other. On the violin, Debussy exploits the full tonal range, exposing Sherniyaz Mussakhan’s firmness in intonation, up to the very exposed, highest tones around the climax (prior to [6]).
★★★★

II. Intermède: Fantasque et léger — Scherzando

Also the second movement features these mood swings between retained, reflecting moments, and expressive outbreaks. The violinist’s expressive playing was remarkable, even where he didn’t (or couldn’t) apply vibrato. And again, Georgiana Pletea proved an excellent partner, agile, attentive, clear in the left-hand staccato / marcato. I also noted the excellent cooperation across Debussy’s Rubato, the frequent tempo changes. And the music, of course: fascinating!!
★★★★

III. Finale: Très animé

Virtuosic, requiring high, iridescent agility on both parts, emphatic playing. I noted the violin’s full, relatively warm tone even in the highest range: never it appeared thin or excessively poignant. The pianist is of course not to blame for the fact that the lowest, pounding notes in the bass lacked definition and sonority. The mid-size grand piano can hardly do any better.

At [5] (Peu à peu: Très animé, and sourdement agité, beginning of the coda) the sustain pedal seemed rather excessive, unnecessarily blurring the bass notes. An attempt to enhance the instrument’s sonority? My other quibble: Throughout the sonata, Debussy frequently notes glissando / portamento transitions (linking notes in ascending intervals with a straight line). Sherniyaz Mussakhan performed these rapidly, often hardly noticeable. If the composer specifies them, shouldn’t they be (a little) more conspicuous?
★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Pärt: “Fratres”, for Violin and Piano

Composer & Work

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (*1935) composed Fratres“, for violin and piano in 1977, as three-part music without fixed instrumentation, initially for chamber orchestra. It is most frequently heard in the version performed in this concert, i.e., for violin and piano, from 1980. However, between 1977 and 2010, Pärt endorsed some 8 versions for ensemble, as well as 9 versions for solo instrument and accompaniment, see Wikipedia. “Fratres” (“Brothers”, in Latin) is a prime example of a composition in the Tintinnabuli (chimes / little bells, in Latin) style, which Pärt invented.

The Performance

Both the Debussy sonata, as well as Fratres open in a reflective mood—yet, they could hardly be more different! The extended arpeggiando playing on the solo violin instantly throws the listener into Pärt’s meditative Tintinnabuli style. This is very characteristic, very special and unique to this composer. I now found that performing this after Debussy’s more familiar piece highlighted the peculiarity in Pärt’s work, its connection to minimal music. In that sense, taking Debussy’s composition as opening piece seemed a good decision.

The initial, iridescent arpeggiando pattern soon grows more expressive, highly intense, urging. This lasts until the piano takes over at once, with forceful bass tones. A section of serene chord sequences follows, while the violin joins in with flageolets and pizzicato chords: peaceful, lucid, heavenly, so beautiful!

A third segment takes up the chord sequence on the piano, but now as accompaniment to vehement / highly expressive and urging arpeggiando. Again, dark bass notes link to another, serene “aeolian harp” segment follows, pondering, hesitant, reflective, then apparently fading out. However, now, the violin takes up the piano chords / harmonies with most intense, urging double-stop playing—ravishing beauty. The piece keeps repeating its harmonic pattern up to the end, now in melancholy, transcending, transfiguring into eternity.

Rating: ★★★★½

Schubert: Fantasy in C major for Violin and Piano, op.159, D.934

Composer & Work

I have discussed recordings of the Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, op.posth.159, D.934, by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) in an earlier posting; rather than reiterating that, I’m just giving the list of movements, which are typically played attacca:

  1. Andante molto
  2. Allegretto
  3. Andantino
  4. Tempo I – Allegro vivace – Allegretto – Presto

This is Schubert’s last work for violin and piano. It appeared in print only after the composer’s death. I have discussed concert performances of this Fantasy in earlier concerts. The above list of “movements” is somewhat arbitrary. Some recordings perform this in one track, others use four tracks (as shown above), while Wikipedia combines Andante molto and the Allegretto into a first movement.

The Performance

To me, there is no doubt that this is one of the most difficult pieces in the entire repertoire for violin and piano. The challenges are both musical and technical. It’s hard to maintain the tension across this long, lyrical piece. And technically, the difficulties are in intonation purity in the extended sections at highest pitches on the violin. On the piano, it requires infinite subtlety in the touch, both for the balance, as well as for the extended pp tremolo segments and the long hemidemisemiquaver passages. The balance between refinement / serenity / subtlety and suspense…

I. Andante molto

The initial piano tremolo already hinted at the main problem with performing this on a modern piano: it is near-impossible to perform this really pp and with the required smoothness that could match the infinitely subtle and ravishingly beautiful entry of the violin. The performance was very atmospheric, sure, but I often could not resist the thought that occasionally, the piano sounded a bit too loud. I can’t just blame this on the pianist: as mentioned, it’s a problem with the modern instrument. Closing the lid might help the balance, but would also affect the sonority (color), and the articulation clarity (many pianists even refuse to half-close the lid).
★★★½

II. Allegretto

The Allegretto features similar challenges, such as balance issues, the piano being a tad loud, particularly in f and ff. However, it adds plenty of “ordinary technical difficulties”, especially in the piano part. In general, Georgiana Pletea mastered her part really well. However, there were moments where one could sense the challenges. Not just through occasional, minor mishaps, or in excess volume, but also in (rare) slight slow-downs (“unintended ritenuti“), causing a momentary, gradual loss in drive and tension.
★★★½ (piano: ★★★; violin: ★★★★)

III. Andantino

Simply beautiful, this Lied theme in Sherniyaz Mussakhan’s interpretation! It was impossible for the piano to mirror the subtlety, the lightness of the violin voice on the piano (e.g., in variation I). And in variation II, some of the violin pizzicati were hardly audible. That’s no surprise, given the difficulties in the busy piano part. These also may have caused a slight slow-down in the second half of that variation.
★★★

IV. Tempo I – Allegro vivace – Allegretto – Presto

Schubert didn’t spare the artists from power-draining intricacies in the piano part. After well over 20 minutes, I noted occasional losses in precision in the pianist’s touch, and also here, there were occasional losses in tempo / tension.
★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★½

My remarks above may sound overly critical. I blame some of this on the instrument. On the other hand, even famous artists struggle with this piece: it’s no surprise that this is rarely performed in concert (and even rarely recorded). Under that aspect, these artists’ effort is highly commendable. And Schubert’s music as beautiful as ever!


Ravel: “Tzigane“, Rhapsody for Violin and Piano, M.76

Composer & Work

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) composed his Tzigane” (“Gypsy”), Rhapsodie de Concert for violin and piano, M.76 in 1924. It was commissioned by the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi (1893 – 1966), great-niece of the violinist Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907). Jelly d’Aranyi is also the dedicatee of the composition. The Tzigane is now mostly known in the version for violin and orchestra, which Ravel created a few months after the original for violin and piano.

The Tzigane starts with an extended violin solo (Lento quasi cadenza), initially all on the g string, with strong rubato. There are tempo variations between Lento and Vivo, very expressive playing (Molto espressivo, Portando), also frequently using flageolet. Only in the last part, the piano joins into the cadenza. In the second (main) part, both the piano and the violin alternate in the lead role. The annotations here are Moderato — Allegro — Un poco più moderato — Allegro — Tempo I — Allegro — meno vivo, grandioso — Moderato — (strong rubato) — Presto. The score is full of explicit rubato annotations (accel. / rall., etc.).

The Performance

Sherniyaz Mussakhan’s playing had all the attributes that one commonly associates with “Gypsy Music” (I put this in quotes, as some regard this term as being politically incorrect). The first page (up to [2]) is entirely on the g string. The violinist’s performance was truly expressive in vibrato, dynamics, articulation and extreme rubato. And the sonority of the instrument made me think of the sound of a viola. Impressive! What follows is technically highly challenging, with extended octave, sixth, and fifths parallels, flageolet, double-stop tremolo.

And when the piano joined in, the technical challenges—particularly for the violin—seemed to multiply! However, the artists didn’t disappoint, offering an enthralling performance, jointly engaging in the accelerandi which built up to whirling dances in several waves: fascinating! Sure, with the artists’ Kazakh and Romanian roots, some might claim that this was “natural”, i.e., to be expected. But still, it wasn’t just fascinating music, but equally enthralling as a performance. It was the highlight of the concert: congrats!

Rating: ★★★★

Franck: Violin Sonata in A major, FWV 8

Composer & Work

In an earlier post from 2012-07-30, I have briefly touched upon a few recordings of the Violin Sonata in A major, FWV 8, which César Franck (1822 – 1890) composed 1886. That work is mostly known as Sonata for violin and piano, though the composer also created a version for cello and piano. As indicated in my earlier post, there are voices claiming that the original version is the one for cello. The sonata—one of the most beautiful chamber music compositions of the 19th century—features four movements:

  1. Allegretto ben moderato
  2. Allegro
  3. Ben moderato: Recitativo-Fantasia
  4. Allegretto poco mosso

I have written about concert performances of this sonata (violin version) in the review of a recital on 2018-09-04. I also witnessed a performance of the violin version on viola and piano, see the review from 2017-11-21.

The Performance

I. Allegretto ben moderato

Atmospheric—with the tempo maybe focusing on “Allegretto” rather than the “ben moderato“: the performances I remember are slower. However, I could easily adopt this pace. The piano part doesn’t sound overly complex. However, it still comes with its set of challenges (e.g., requiring a large finger span). Not every dolcissimo really felt this way. True, this may be difficult to achieve with those wide-spanning chords. However, one may also blame some of this on the instrument, which didn’t offer optimum sonority in the low bass.
★★★★

II. Allegro

Sherniyaz Mussakhan’s sonority in this movement was excellent: full-bodied, warm and expressive. The piano part is highly virtuosic. It may have been the technical difficulties that caused the pianist to get carried away: for example, she ignored the pp annotation at [2]. I also felt that she tended to use a lot of sustain pedal. I had no doubt that she has the dexterity to master this part. However, occasionally, I was hoping for a little more clarity. That said: the coordination with the violin was excellent. Not just in the timing (across rubato and transitions), but also in expression, dynamics, and agogics.
★★★

III. Ben moderato: Recitativo-Fantasia

A beautiful violin recitative, with very careful and attentive dynamics in the piano part. And I liked the free rubato / agogics in the “accompagnato” part. The Fantasia part (a tempo moderato) was very lyrical, dreamy, with expressive outbreaks: excellent!
★★★★

IV. Allegretto poco mosso

Allegretto poco mosso: as in the first movement, the artists seemed to focus on the “Allegretto” rather than the “poco mosso*. In other words, the tempo seemed to the limit, at the point where the dolce cantabile and the molto cantabile did feel as lyrical and singing as it could be. Not only did I feel an occasional unrest, but the pace also started to affect the execution of the challenging piano part. Apart from occasional mishaps, it was often rather loud (not just in the pp), sometimes lacking clarity. Overall, the final movement didn’t quite match the performance of the other (particularly the slow) movements.
★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Conclusions

I understand that the artists meant to end the recital with Frank’s both brilliant and popular sonata as the highlight of the recital. However, in the aftermath, maybe it would still have been better to end the recital with the Tzigane, as originally planned? And, a tempting thought: why not place the Frank sonata at the beginning of the concert, when there is no physical exhaustion yet?


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