Piano Recital: Werner Bärtschi
Beethoven / Febel / Killmayer / Keller / Bärtschi
Konservatorium Florhofgasse, Zurich, 2018-03-09
This recital by Werner Bärtschi (*1950, see Wikipedia for more information) is one that we decided to attend at short notice: Werner Bärtschi is very active in the music life of this part of Switzerland (Zurich, Schaffhausen, Wetzikon), both as pianist and as concert organizer. Neither my wife nor I have ever heard him play in concert.
The artist gave this recital in the big hall of the old Conservatory in Zurich, at the Florhofgasse, now the central location for Zurich’s public music school (an institution with 23,000 pupils). The recital was organized by the Gesellschaft REZITAL (“Recital Society”, formally a club), founded 1980, in which Werner Bärtschi plays a central role.
The venue was maybe half-filled, the instrument was a Steinway D-274 concert grand.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.1 in F minor, op.2/1
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote his first “official” piano sonata, the Sonata No.1 in F minor, op.2/1, in 1795, three years after he arrived in Vienna. The three sonatas from op.2 are dedicated to one of his teachers in Vienna, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809). The sonata in F minor has four movements:
- Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio
Here are some observations that I made during this movement. Bärtschi uses a rather poignant rubato (beyond normal agogics), i.e., a fairly strong rallentando towards the fermata in bar 8. In bar 40 (last phrase of the exposition) he switches to a slower pace. In general, he plays with a lot of agogics. The latter I see as positive in general. Slowing down over 2 bars for a fermata, however, is not a necessity, unless the composer asks for it. I did note that through these slow-downs, his playing has a tendency to lose momentum (e.g., towards the fermata in bar 107). Occasionally it appears to have a hard time to re-gain that momentum. The Coda even felt as if the tempo, the momentum had collapsed.
Expectedly, Bärtschi’s tunes his playing to the modern concert (Steinway) grand. He is excellent at exploring the sonority of the instrument (throughout the recital, I particularly enjoyed the full, round bass sonority). On the other hand, the performance also reflected the somewhat heavy mechanics of the modern grand. Note that my personal preference has shifted towards performances on fortepiano. Particularly for early classics, including the “early and middle” Beethoven. This sonata was composed with the light and agile mechanics of these instruments in mind.
I did not expect Bärtschi to perform this sonata like Scarlatti. Besides a certain heaviness in his articulation, his touch was controlled and careful. The latter to the point where occasionally, he dropped notes (especially repeated ones).
The note about the articulation also applied to the ornaments in the slow movement, where turns were rather broad. This is not aimed at the pianist’s abilities / agility, but rather at the characteristics of the modern piano mechanics.
Again, the tempo occasionally (with the strong rubato) appeared to break in (but this may be my expectation for a more fluent performance). Again, this full, dark sonority in the bass (which may not be appropriate, considering performances on fortepiano). In general, Bärtschi’s interpretation and performance seemed very considerate, thoroughly reflected, contemplated. It sometimes gave me the impression that the pianist dealt with this composition the way one might approach one of Beethoven’s last sonatas, rather than the work of a young, aspiring virtuoso.
III. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio
In line with the previous movement, I would not call the articulation agile. It was careful and considerate, though, with a certain tendency towards legato playing. The pianist paid a lot of attention to local contrasts between motifs and phrases. The Trio was nicely singing throughout, showed a lot of differentiation in dynamics.
Overall, flow, momentum, agility, wittiness (OK, it’s not a Scherzo just yet) seemed of lesser importance to the artist.
In his attitude towards bringing out the full sonority of the Steinway grand, the pianist certainly used enough sustain pedal. some of the staccato notes were rather portato. Also, I’m not so sure it is correct / desirable to play the downward scale in bars 20/21 with sustain pedal? This is the movement in which I missed the agility of a fortepiano the most. The primary characteristics of Bärtschi’s playing in this movement were impulsiveness in dynamics and (particularly) in his rubato.
Febel: “Expanding Universe”
The performance of “Expanding Universe” by Reinhard Febel (*1952) was a world premiere.
In the concert booklet, the composer describes “Expanding Universe” as follows (very free translation of excerpts from the text):
“Expanding Universe” describes the most popular / likely cosmological scenario, according which the universe started expanding from the Big Bang. It keeps expanding ever since, and into all eternity. Hereby, the distances between objects are getting larger and larger, until ultimately each object (atom?) ends up isolated in a big void.
This music describes the growing distance between objects through a constant, perpetual slow-down, ritardando. Figures, pattern are “thrown into” the music, are repeated and are slowed down, expanded, until only sparse, individual notes appear, separated by very large pauses. New pattern appear, are also slowed down the same way. For a long time, there is no “dilution”, as new pattern keep appearing, even leading to temporary intensification. Thereafter, the appearance of new pattern is slowing down, ultimately ceases, and in the end, only a few, individual notes (atoms) remain, finally losing contact with each other.
Rating the performance in this piece (as with the following ones, too) is pointless. Here in particular, this was a world premiere, so there is no comparison, no reference to compare with. Also, of course, I had no score or sheet music, so I can only describe my listening experience. However, the composer was present, pianist and composer know each other, so I regard this as authoritative performance.
The slowdown starts right with the first notes: repeated tones, gradually slowing down. New series of tones join in, first at the same level, later 2- and 3-tone pattern join in. All immediately start slowing down in their endless repetition. Then, more complex pattern follow suit.
It’s like minimal music, with the addition of a) constant slow-down, and b) the gradual accumulation of pattern. Pattern only momentarily accumulate on top of each other (particularly around two points where accumulations form a climax). Due to the constant slow-down, existing pattern are “diluted” (stretched) almost ad infinitum. To the point, where the appear as individual, isolated notes. These again may form scarcely spaced sound clusters between current and more recent pattern. These appear and slow down as well. In the end, a few isolated tones appear, spaced by large time intervals.
It’s an interesting idea and intellectual construct, also producing an interesting auditive impression. However, as a listener, one can merely gather the outline of the idea: one cannot possibly follow any (let alone all) pattern from their inception to the very end. It’s a bit “heady”, overall—too much of an intellectual exercise, perhaps?
Duration: just below 13 minutes.
Killmayer: “Am Grat“
Werner Bärtschi knew Wilhelm Killmayer (1927 – 2017) personally, since the 1970’s. Bärtschi originally meant to perform “Am Grat” (“At / on the ridge”) on the occasion of the composer’s 90th anniversary. Now, with the composer’s passing, this turned into an obituary.
The piece begins with two voices, at a slow, stepping pace, entirely static: no progression in tempo, merely through gradual addition of harmonies, later a third voice in the left hand (the right hand plays one voice only). The added harmonies and the dynamics to some degree lead through a broad climax. The two voices are typically far apart—on the ridge vs. below, or maybe the two sides of a ridge? The spectrum seems expanding, the voices moving father apart: part of the piece are notated on three systems. Harmonically, the amount of dissonance is limited. For the most part, I would characterize the piece as late-romantic in harmonies, with aspects that I elaborate on a little more with the encore below.
Duration: ca. 7 minutes
Encore #1 — Killmayer: Nocturnes “An John Field” — 5. “Im Schlupfloch“
As second “In memoriam” to the composer Wilhelm Killmayer (1927 – 2017), Werner Bärtschi at this point inserted a short piece, “Im Schlupfloch“ (“In the loophole”, or rather “In the hideout”), by that composer. It’s No.5 among the composer’s Nocturnes “An John Field“ (To John Field). John Field (1782 – 1837) was an Irish composer and pianist, born in Dublin, who later settled in Saint Petersburg, and later again in Moscow. He is referred to as the founder of the so-called Russian School of piano playing. The fact that Killmayer wrote Nocturnes devoted to John Field (himself actually the creator, and one of the early masters of that genre) indicates his penchant for romantic music and likely explains the romantic allusions in his music, as mentioned above.
Given the above, I was not surprised to hear a collection of fragments from Nocturne-like melodies. These varied between unison / single voice, in octaves, two voices in contrary movements, once in two canon-like voices, then briefly evolving into a short melody with chordal accompaniment. Really just fragments, hesitating in-between. The atmosphere was alternating between Nocturne-like, allusions to No.2, “Oiseaux tristes” from “Miroirs“ by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937), and once remotely even reminding of 8. “La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer“ from the Préludes, op.31 by Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888), a French romantic composer. A touching, nice, little miniature, overall.
Duration: ca. 5 minutes
Keller: “Selbstgespräche” (2006)
“Selbstgespräche” (“Soliloquies”) by Max Eugen Keller (*1947), composed 2006, is a piece for piano and electronics. It was commissioned by the Gesellschaft REZITAL. The latter is a device that takes input from the piano (through a microphone), then applies a selected, pre-programmed algorithm to the incoming sounds. The result is played through a pair of loudspeakers. All output is based on sounds that the piano produces, and so, in a way, the piano, the pianist listens to its / his own, modulated / altered sound, reacts to the output, and the reaction is again fed into the electronics. It’s more than a monologue, as the piano and the device respond to their own output. Hence the title “Selbstgespräche” or “Soliloquies”.
The electronic response appears delayed or immediate. It may sound like a distorted / modulated echo / reverberation, which feeds back into the device, in a loop. Through pedals / buttons, the pianist switches between a variety of algorithms / modes. The composer describes the result as “some kind of kaleidoscope, a constant dialog, circling in itself, yet progressing—about always the same set of themes and questions.”
Describing this piece in detail is way beyond the scope of this posting. Let me just separate out three aspects of the performance.
Trigger Sound Generation
With “trigger sound” I refer to the pianist’s primary actions to generate sound (a secondary action being to switch the electronic “response box”, placed on the piano, between its various, pre-programmed response modes). These trigger actions ranged from beating the wooden parts of the instrument, to playing individual notes, to playing clusters, then also rapid sequences of (seemingly random) tones / motifs. Typically, such an “event” would be followed by a delay, to allow for the response to appear, to decay into silence, or to appear and fade away. There were also periods where trigger actions would follow each other in rapid succession, such that the electronic responses overlapped, accumulating into a climax, then fading away.
The triggers, their volume, timing and succession obviously followed an elaborate scheme / dramaturgy, building up from individual events to clustered sequences, and back to scarce occurrences, fading into silence.
The electronically pre-programmed responses to trigger events appeared to range from instant response, with or without distortion (e.g., amplification of predominantly low frequencies), to delayed playback (with or without some type of distortion). The latter was either a singular event, but often it formed playback loops, i.e., repeated echoes, fading away gradually, sometimes also building up to a momentary climax. The echo(es) could follow after a substantial delay, but sometimes also followed in rapid succession, such as to for a regular, rhythmic pattern. Where such responses overlapped, rather complex, if not almost chaotic / aleatoric sound pattern could result.
The echoes, the sound colors etc. created the impression of a cave-like acoustic setting, sometimes also reminding of underwater acoustics. There were also episodes where I pictured utterings of animals, maybe up to the singing of birds. The variability of the sounds, their mixing, etc. was very large. I found the experience—interesting, very multi-faceted, entertaining.
Of course, there was an exact script, a score, a dramaturgy to the piece. However, at least in the ear of a conventional listener, there was very little “musical development” in the sense of recognizable, maybe recurring pattern (on a larger-than-momentary scale), a perceivable course of action. In other words: if I were to describe the piece in words, I would end up enumerating successive events. These may be momentarily related, but would barely form an overall “story”.
Some might question whether it is even music. That of course depends on the definition. If music is seen as a loosely organized & defined collection of sounds (be it noise of tones), then it definitely is music. If, however, music is defined as sequence of organized melodies and rhythms that speak to one’s musical mind, the question may well be legitimate. Yes, there were momentary rhythmic, even musical / melodic pattern, but these lacked a recognizable larger-scale organization. OK, in a wider sense, the piece does evoke pictures, create atmospheres (I would not talk of moods, really), and in that sense it is imaginative, talks to the listener’s fantasy. Whether that makes it music…?
I’m not an expert in electronic and semi-electronic music. I do remember listening to experimental music decades ago, when this was still revolutionary. This included musique concrète, aleatoric and other electronic music, purely percussive music (also minimal music, for sure). So, I would not say that it is uninteresting or boring. Quite to the contrary: it can well be entertaining. But does it inspire my musical intellect? Does it talk to my heart? Not really, I would say.
At least, Keller’s piece is not entirely electronic. The composer has pre-programmed its electronic responses. However, it’s still the pianist’s input and actions that control them (and their timing).
I may be out-of-touch with what is going on in the area of such music / performances. Still, my impression is that this type of music (or not) has seen its peak somewhere in the second half of the 20th century? I may be the wrong person to comment on this, though.
Duration: around 13 minutes
Bärtschi: “In Trauer und Prunk” (1983/84)
Werner Bärtschi (*1950) wrote the piece “In Trauer und Prunk” (In grief and pomp) in 1983 / 1984, as a study using experimental techniques on the piano, “in an attempt to integrate sound and noise effects into the existing musical language”. The inspiration to this piece is from a painting “Mein Porträt in Trauer und Prunk” by James Ensor (1860 – 1949). The title does not indicate contrasting or contrary, conflicting terms, but a “pathetic build-up of an intimate sentiment, an almost forceful exhibition of the introvert”.
Sound & Noise Effects
The “sound and noise effects” that Werner Bärtschi refers to include
- flageolet in the lower half of the piano—eerie, neutral, singing “flute” sounds
- plucking strings,
- flageolets and overtones in the descant, creating extremely high sounds, some almost painful to the listener
- “harping” strings, for deep roaring / grumbling sounds in the bass, but also a “whispering sound breath” higher up
- banging a wooden hammer onto the cast iron plates above the sound board
- muting descant strings with a small pillow
- other string manipulations, such as partial blocking, etc.
- ffff playing, up to twanging strings
- playing strings with little hammers / batons
As for the “tonal part”: Bärtschi used the full dynamic spectrum, from loud ffff tones down to very soft ones. Very often he would create a loud sound (single tone, a short sequence of notes, or a cluster), then listen how the sound dissipates, how the harmonics migrate to other strings, etc.
Where harmonies (in the traditional sense) were involved, the music ranged from dissonant clusters to reminders of late and post-romantic composers, maybe Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915), or Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) and contemporaries. One could hear melancholic sequences and melody fragments, but also syncopated, jazzy play with rhythms and harmonies, even march rhythms, but also aspects of minimal music.
Then again there were periods where I felt the loneliness of a forest bird, or (again???!! A coincidence?) a distant reminder of the eerie forlornness in 8. “La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer“ from the Préludes, op.31 by Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888). And maybe an attempt to depict the harmonies of the spheres in a world beyond?
This undoubtedly was the most personal part of Bärtschi’s performance, and I did find it quite interesting (entertaining sounds far too gross and trivial). There was a perceivable course of action, a sense of dramaturgy across the composition, an evolution, coherence. Not thematic evolution in the traditional sense—not even melodies or other features that would easily stick to one’s mind, though: I see this more as meditative / reflective music in a broader sense.
Besides the aspects of personal curiosity about Bärtschi’s compositions: it’s now 35 years since he created this composition. It did occur to me that maybe the time has passed on. Maybe it’s too strong a statement to claim that this music is starting to collect dust—but there was a time when this type of experimental music was (more) popular?
Duration: just below 13 minutes.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, op.111
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) composed 1821 – 1822. I have posted a detailed comparison of several recordings of that sonata. In that posting, you’ll also find a description and other information about the composition. In addition, I have discussed several concert performances of this piece. So, here, I’m just mentioning the tempo annotations for the two movements of Beethoven’s last piano sonata:
- Maestoso (4/4) — Allegro con brio ed appassionato (4/4)
- Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile (9/16)
I. Maestoso — Allegro con brio ed appassionato
In the initial motifs, the first two demisemiquaver upbeats were as steep as the composer must have intended. However, the third upbeat prior to the trill was distinctly slower, as if the pianist wanted to let the trill stand out more, stand by itself.
As already with the initial sonata, I noted Bärtschi’s preference for a rather pronounced rubato, i.e., some freedom in the tempo conduct. Examples: In transitioning to the Allegro con brio ed appassionato, the acceleration started already in bar 14. The poco ritenente (particularly bar 34) wasn’t so much “poco“.
Again, as noted above, the pianist likes full, round, bass sonority. I wasn’t able to observe his feet, but judging from the sound alone, he must have used plenty of sustain pedal to achieve that full-sounding sonority in the second half of the exposition. I don’t imply that he over-pedaled here—but it certainly created a sound and sonority that is far from that achievable on instruments at Beethoven’s time.
This was even more pronounced in the fugue (development part), which felt a bit on the “heavy, big” side. But again: I’m more into HIP performances on fortepiano, these days…
One should note that the sonata is technically very demanding, challenging even for international top-class pianists. One could tell this with that performance from a number of minor mishaps (quite likely to happen in a live situation), and I also wondered whether one or the other temporary slow-down was a reflection of technical challenges?
The movement ends with a diminuendo from ff to pp. Werner Bärtschi added an almost extreme allargando in the last bars, even though the score doesn’t even have a fermata on the last note.
II. Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile
Werner Bärtschi took the Arietta at a distinctly slow pace: he appears to fall into the camp that reads the annotation Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile, i.e., very calm, simple and singable. However, for the best of my knowledge (as also seen from Beethoven’s manuscript), the annotation features no comma, and hence, the meaning shifts towards “calm, very simple and singable” (with the only remaining, open question, whether the molto also applies to the cantabile). In that sense, Bärtschi’s tempo was too slow (one should also keep in mind that Adagio does not mean “slow”, but rather “calm”). Also, the resulting “atmospheric heaviness” precluded the “very simple” aspect of the annotation.
I did note at this point that the piano tuning had degraded in the bass register—the contemporary pieces may have been quite stressful to the instrument.
As a likely consequence of the slow initial pace, the tempo in the first variation (dolce) was stepped up a tad, creating a slight degree of unrest. However, towards the end of that first variation, Bärtschi slowed down, and the L’istesso tempo (!) variation started again slower, but then featured a fairly pronounced rubato. The pianist indulging in the instrument’s warm sonority? The rubato consisted of temporary slow-downs exclusively—Bärtschi resisted any tendency to accelerate.
As much as the initial annotation seems to indicate a serene, simple piece: the second L’istesso tempo variation, now in 12/32 meter, with its “jazzy” rhythm and syncopations is a technical challenge. One could tell this from the number of mishaps (despite taking back the tempo in the repeats). Here, Bärtschi’s tendency to use ritardando at form breaks was even more pronounced—likely now also for technical reasons.
The leggiermente, sempre pp aspect in the following, 9/16 segment didn’t really sound that light. One can attribute this in parts to the characteristics of the instrument, but the very moderate tempo certainly also played a role. That latter aspect had further consequences: it forced a spreading, a stretching of the music and put too much focus on the rolling demisemiquaver figures and local dynamic details. At the same time it increased the danger of the listener losing oversight. The pronounced rubato further prevented the impression of a continuous (not constant!) flow, of an overall dramaturgy. Molto semplice? Hardly.
It didn’t take this sonata to prove that Beethoven was a true master of the piano. He was one of the pioneers of modern piano playing technique, and his sonatas remain a challenge to this day!
Encore — Debussy: Préludes, Livre I, L.117, 10. “La Cathédrale engloutie“
As encore, Werner Bärtschi selected one of the most famous pieces by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), from Préludes, Livre I, L.117, the “mystery piece” No.10, “La Cathédrale engloutie” (The Submerged Cathedral). The annotation Profondément calme (deeply, profoundly calm) fits the picture of the legend it describes: that of a mysterious cathedral, entirely submerged off the coast of the Island of Ys. Debussy published this in 1910.
With this encore, Werner Bärtschi turned to music in which he truly appears to feel at home and at ease. Here, pianist and the audience could (again) indulge in the full sound, the dark, warm sonority of the instrument, listen to the resonances, the harmonics. The interpretation here did not seem to focus on the “mystery” or “underwater aspect” of the sunken cathedral, but rather on its vast dimensions, the past glory. My wife spontaneously stated: “The best performance of the evening!”—and I would not disagree with this statement.