Alexandra Dovgan, Leia Zhu, Paavo Järvi, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Chopin / Tchaikovsky / Ravel
Tonhalle am See, Zurich, 2023-04-01
2023-04-11 — Original posting
Alexandra Dovgan und Leia Zhu im Konzert der Orpheum-Stiftung — Zusammenfassung
Im ersten ihrer Konzerte von 2023 im ausverkauften großen Saal der Tonhalle am See präsentierte die Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists gleich zwei Jungtalente—außergewöhnlich jung selbst für die Orpheum-Stiftung. Begleitet wurden die beiden Solistinnen dabei vom Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich unter dessen Chefdirigenten Paavo Järvi (*1962).
Im ersten Teil des Konzerts präsentierte die russische Pianistin Alexandra Dovgan (*2007) ihre Interpretation des Klavierkonzerts Nr.2 in f-moll, op.21, von Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849). Am meisten gefiel der zweite Satz, währen im Finale das angeschlagene Tempo etwas ambitioniert schien. Als Zugabe wählte Alexandra Dovgan die virtuose Étude in dis-moll, op.8/12 des Russen Alexander Skrjabin (1872 – 1915).
Nach der Pause stand die britisch-chinesische Violinistin Leia Zhu (*2006) im Zentrum des Geschehens auf dem Podium. Die Geigerin, deren Karriere als Solistin trotz ihres jugendlichen Alters schon in vollem Gange ist, spielte eines der berühmtesten Werke der Konzertliteratur für Violine, das Violinkonzert in D-dur, op.35 von Pjotr Iljitsch Tschaikowsky (1840 – 1893): brilliant und sehr souverän (Zwischen-Applaus bereits nach dem ersten Satz!). Erstaunlich auch ihre Wahl der Zugabe: von Paul Hindemith (1895 – 1963) der dritte Satz (Finale: Lebhaft) aus der selten gespielten Sonata für Violine solo, op.11/6: anspruchsvoll und höchst virtuos!
Orpheum-Konzerte schließen in der Regel mit einem Orchesterwerk—so auch hier. Unter der Leitung von Paavo Järvi demonstrierte das Tonhalle-Orchester sein Können mit “La Valse“, poème choréographique pour orchestre, M.72 von Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937). Eine klare Bestätigung des internationalen Leistungsniveaus des Ensembles.
Table of Contents
- Concert & Review
- Chopin: Piano Concerto in F minor, op.21, B.43, CT 48
- Encore — Scriabin: Étude in D♯ minor, op.8/12
- Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, op.35
- Encore — Hindemith: Sonata for Solo Violin op.11/6, III. Finale, Lebhaft
- Ravel: “La Valse”, poème choréographique pour orchestre, M.72
|Venue, Date & Time||Tonhalle am See, Zurich, 2023-04-01 19:30h|
|Series / Title||Young Soloists On Stage — Orpheum Foundation|
|Organizer||Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists|
|Reviews related to this event||Earlier Concerts organized by the Orpheum Foundation|
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich in Concert | in Media Reviews
Paavo Järvi in Concert | in Media Reviews
This was the first of the two regular, orchestral concerts that the Orpheum Foundation is offering in 2023 (see the link in the box above for reviews on the Foundation’s previous concerts). Given the participation of the Tonhalle Orchestra and its Music Director, Paavo Järvi, it was no surprise to note that the event was sold out, filling the 1430 seats of the great hall of the Tonhalle am See.
The concert started with a short address by the president of the Orpheum Foundation, Dr. Hans Heinrich Coninx. Thereafter, Eva Oertle (flautist and presenter at Swiss Radio SRF 2 Kultur) did the moderation, introducing the two soloists and the works they played.
Orpheum concerts usually present one or two promising, young artists at the beginning of their career. However, according to the presenter, Eva Oertle, it is the first time that there are two artists as young as those in this concert:
Alexandra Dovgan, Piano
The Russian pianist Alexandra Sergeyevna Dovgan (Александра Сергеевна Довгань, *2007, see also Wikipedia.de) was born in Moscow, into a family of musicians. Both her parents are professional pianists, and also her junior brother is playing the piano. Already at age 4, Alexandra received first piano lessons from her parents, and one year later, she entered the Central Music School at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. She received support by prominent foundations named after Mstislav Rostropovich (1927 – 2007) and Vladimir Spivakov (*1944).
From 2014 on (aged 7 – 11), Alexandra Dovgan won top prizes at several international competitions, first in Russia, but then also in Kazakhstan and in Austria. From 2018 on, the young artist had the chance to work with prominent orchestras and conductors, first in Saint-Petersburg, and subsequently in big concert halls throughout Western Europe, in cities such as Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Stockholm, and Zurich. For more information see Alexandra’s German Wikipedia entry.
A Prominent Mentor
The concert booklet includes a statement by Grigory Sokolov (*1950), originally quoted at the Website of the artist’s agency: “This is one of those rare occasions. The pianist Alexandra Dovgan can hardly be called a wonder child, for while this is a wonder, it is not child’s play. One hears a performance by a grown-up individual and a Person.“
In 2018, it was Grigory Sokolov who shared the stage with the 11-year old Alexandra Dovgan for a piano recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. In 2022, Alexandra made her first appearance in Zurich, with a solo recital at the Tonhalle am See. Chopin’s concerto in F minor has been a part of her repertoire since she was 11. Last year, she toured throughout Europe and Japan with this work.
Leia Zhu, Violin
The British-Chinese violinist Leia Zhu (*2006, see also Wikipedia) was born in Newcastle upon Tyne. Her parents are not musicians. However, Leia’s interest in music arose early-on, before she was 4, and on weekends, she attended the Junior Guildhall of Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She made her public debut at age 4 at the North East Last Night of the Proms in Newcastle City Hall. Leia Zhu studies with the Ukrainian-Israeli violinist Itzhak Rashkovsky (*1955), and she regularly attends master classes with Zakhar Bron (*1947).
Leia Zhu started touring for concerts when she was 6 already, and her career as soloist really took off when Leia Zhu was 8, with numerous appearances in major venues in Moscow, Odessa, throughout Eastern and Western Europe, as well as Israel. In these concerts, she performed many of the grand and challenging violin concertos with prominent conductors and orchestras, and at major festivals. At her young age, she currently already is artist-in-residence with the London Mozart Players.
Paavo Järvi, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
The Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich of course needs no introduction, as I have reviewed numerous of their concerts. I have not attended many orchestral concerts lately, but this was an excellent opportunity to experience that ensemble again, in their “home location”. For this event, the concert master was Julia Becker (*1968). She is holding that position since 1995 and actually was the orchestra’s first female concert master.
Last, but not least: it was of course a pleasure to see the orchestra’s music director, the Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi (*1962), at the helm of the ensemble. To me, this was the first (and very welcome) live encounter with Paavo Järvi since he took that position, back in 2019.
- Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849): Piano Concerto in F minor, op.21, B.43, CT 48
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893): Violin Concerto in D major, op.35
- Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937): “La Valse“, poème choréographique pour orchestre, M.72
The concert was sold out. My seat was in row 14 (the last row of the stall seats, front part), next to the middle corridor. These are among the very best seats available.
Concert & Review
Chopin: Piano Concerto in F minor, op.21, B.43, CT 48
Composer & Work
Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) has composed two piano concertos. Of these, the Piano Concerto in F minor, op.21, B.43, CT 48, known as “No.2” (and with the higher opus number) is actually the first one, completed 1830. In the same year, he also completed his Piano Concerto in E minor, op.11, now known as “No.1”. The F minor concerto features the following three movements:
- Maestoso (4/4)
- Larghetto (4/4)
- Allegro vivace (3/4)
If you are looking for additional information on this concerto, please see my CD comparison post, which includes a detailed description of the work. I have also written about a concert on 2018-07-02 featuring this concerto.
Throughout the concert, the orchestral arrangement was antiphonal, with the two violin voices facing each other at the front of the podium, double basses at the rear left, cellos behind the first violins, violas behind the second violins on the right. The soloist’s instrument was one of the Tonhalle’s Steinway D-274 concert grands.
The p bars in the orchestral introduction felt extra careful, mellow, gentle, diligent, retained. Even the ff beats in bars 5 – 8 were anything but harsh. Rather, they sounded very carefully shaped and articulated, avoiding extra “splash” and attention. A canvas to be filled by the soloist?
The piano entered the scene in octaves, with a cascade of broken chords, before re-introducing the movement’s main theme. There, Alexandra Dovgan exhibited careful, good articulation, detailed dynamics. In the first bars, her playing felt relatively metric, with limited agogics. However, in the second theme (p, sempre legato e pieno il basso, bars 81ff), the pianist continued at a distinctly slower pace, emphasizing its lyrical character. And from there on she also was using rubato to shape her part. Now occasionally even in excess, to the point where the flow momentarily was in danger of “falling apart”.
Needless to say that the artist’s playing way technically superb, and careful, subtle in dynamics and articulation. Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchestra provided a diligent and circumspective accompaniment, giving the soloist “space” for her phrasing and rubato, even where the latter was close to extreme, the flow occasionally almost erratic.
To summarize the soloist’s performance: obviously, Alexandra has invested lots of fantasy and imagination into the tempo concept, rubato, phrasing. Too much, maybe? Yes, the virtuosic parts were brilliant. However, I think that in the lyrical segments, the interpretation still has room to grow, in order to achieve internal balance and a more harmonious flow.
In the short orchestral introduction, Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchestra again sounded extra diligent and careful in the dynamics, and in shaping the transitions between strings and woodwinds. As for the solo part: here now, Alexandra Dovgan’s often extreme rhythmic freedom, the lyricisms felt “right” and very appropriate. I talk of lyricisms, not than romanticisms, as I didn’t sense an excess in sweetness (or blurring in the articulation, etc.). A beautiful performance!
Interpretation-wise, the dark and dramatic central segment with the orchestral tremolos up to the solo cadenza definitely felt like the most challenging part. Not because of the virtuosic runs, the written-out glissandi (all of which the soloist mastered very well, almost effortlessly), but because it seemed tricky to make this fit into the lyrical outer parts. It certainly was highly expressive and dramatic here!
The serene cadenza and final segment were real gems. A marvel, especially where the solo is joined by that heavenly beautiful bassoon cantilena. The highlight of this performance!
III. Allegro vivace
Here, it is the soloist who sets the tempo. And Alexandra Dovgan selected a sporty pace. It actually felt a tad too fast, often pushing forward, if not breathless. OK, Chopin’s metronome mark is indeed fast and virtuosic. The soloist’s playing was careful, in detailed and dynamics, the sound bright, even brilliant in the descant.
However, there were undeniably also occasional coordination issues with (and even within) the orchestra. At least, the rapid pace often did not allow for sufficient differentiation in the accompaniment. It occasionally caused it to feel somewhat summary, even getting shaky in the coordination (e.g., in the ff tutti around bar 390). Overall, I think there was too much focus on virtuosity and brilliance in the solo part. Even though the artist’s technical prowess is astounding.
Overall Rating: ★★★½
Encore — Scriabin: Étude in D♯ minor, op.8/12
Composer & Work
The Russian composer and piano virtuoso Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872 – 1915) left behind a substantial Oeuvre for piano solo, in addition to a few, but major symphonic works. His 12 Études, op.8 are compositions from his first, romantic period. Alexandra Dovgan selected the highly virtuosic Étude in D♯ minor, op.8/12 with the annotation Patetico. This happened to be the favorite encore of Vladimir Horowitz (1903 – 1989), one of the most prominent piano virtuosos of the 20th century.
The audience expected—and got—an encore, of course. The question: would the artist add some Chopin, or perhaps a piece by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943), given that composer’s 150th birthday just 10 days prior to the concert? Well, no: with Scriabin’s Étude op.8/12, she selected something “in-between”. Scriabin’s virtuosic “patetico” study actually isn’t too far from Chopin (in harmony), and at the same time also not far from Rachmaninoff (in both virtuosic demand and harmony).
A compromise? Unfortunately, Alexandra Dovgan pushed that aspect, selecting a very fluid pace, leading to a lack of transparency / clarity, and to many superficialities, especially in the semiquaver passages (ascending octave parallels). Yes, the sonority was impressive. However, wasn’t the Chopin concerto already virtuosic enough? Was there really a need for a virtuosic showpiece? Why not add a contrast with a lyrical piece?
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, op.35
Composer & Work
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) wrote his Violin Concerto in D major, op.35, in 1878, in Clarens, a Swiss resort at Lake Geneva. This is both one of the best known, as well as one of the technically most difficult concertos for the violin. It features three movements. All are following each other attacca, i.e., without a break.
- Allegro moderato (D major, 1/4 = 126) — Moderato assai (1/4 = 80) — Più mosso — Allegro giusto
- Canzonetta: Andante (G minor, 1/4 = 84) —
- Finale: Allegro vivacissimo (D major) — Poco meno mosso — Tempo I
This concerto was also featuring in a concert on 2017-04-20 (also organized by the Orpheum Foundation), an event devoted exclusively to works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
As Eva Oertle stated in her introduction, the Tchaikovsky concerto is one of Leia Zhu’s favorites. The artist has performed it on various stages already. And Leia Zhu loves to be on stage, in front of big audiences!
I. Allegro moderato — Moderato assai — Più mosso — Allegro giusto
The introduction was the first real opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the excellent qualities of the Tonhalle Orchestra under the baton of Paavo Järvi. Homogeneity in sound, clarity and transparency, careful and detailed articulation and dynamics, and a consequent build-up of tension towards the soloist’s entry in bar 23.
Leia Zhu’s presentation of the theme was calm, solemn, with beautiful, warm and well-rounded sonority. The pace appeared careful, resting in itself, devoid of haste or pushing. But the soloist formed nice, flowing arches / phrases, while avoiding exaggerated agogics (such as ritenuti at the peak of phrases). Was this just my impression, or was the beginning of this performance a tad well-behaved? In any case, here was a soloist that didn’t try producing herself by presenting pure virtuosity or elegance.
This may well have been deliberate understatement, as up to the first climax in bar 64, Leia Zhu’s playing appeared to open up like a flower: clean, natural, effortlessly projecting across the orchestra’s and Paavo Järvi’s diligent accompaniment. Not just in high positions, but also in low passages on the g and d’ strings.
Solo, Second Theme
For the second theme (p, con molto espressione), Leia Zhu subtly reduced the tempo, switching to highly expressive playing with broad, mellow articulation, never trying to trump up. Her part always sounded very clean in articulation and intonation. The soloist appeared immersed in the music, playing with full focus and attention, natural in the rubato, allowing for “dreamy” moments, then consequently building momentum and virtuosity, up to the orchestral outbreak at the Moderato assai (bar 127). After that orchestral segment, Leia Zhu again avoided pushing, remained careful throughout her virtuosic solo.
The cadenza: excellent, clean in articulation and intonation (up to the highest, whistling flageolets, and through the trickiest double-stop passages), subtle, often even intimate, but also expressive in the virtuosic outbursts: amazing! Then, this marvelous, seamless transition back to the orchestra.Clearly, the initial, “somewhat well-behaved” tempo payed off in the end. Through to the end of the movement, with its rubato and the many tempo changes, Leia Zhu never needed to push, rather remained in control, with outstanding cooperation with and support from the orchestra. She retained her clean articulation and intonation, and in the final stringendo, her face clearly showed joy! Understandably, this provoked spontaneous applause!
II. Canzonetta: Andante
So intimate, this movement! And those woodwinds, competing with the soloist in subtlety and diligence! At all times, Paavo Järvi kept the dynamics in check, such that the solo violin never drowned, even though it was played with mute (as also the orchestral string voices).
I just have two quibbles about the performance in this movement. For one, in bars 69 – 73, the clarinet felt rather (somewhat too) prominent relative to the gentle sotto voce in the solo violin. Then, while in the fast movement I didn’t even think about vibrato, here, it felt a tad nervous. I don’t see why there should be a nervous vibrato in such a peaceful movement?
III. Finale: Allegro vivacissimo — Poco meno mosso — Tempo I
It is the orchestra which opens the Allegro vivacissimo. Yet, from the moment the violin started into the expressive first solo, full of tension and suspense, one had the feeling that it was the soloist who was in control. Even more so once Leia Zhu launched herself into the virtuosic Tempo I: she selected a virtuosic pace. Yet, her playing remained clean and clear, and the coordination with the orchestra left nothing to wish for: superb on all parts! It was amazing to observe how well Paavo Järvi not only followed the soloist through all transitions, accelerations and ritardandi, but at the same time, the orchestra retained perfect coordination (e.g., in the pizzicati) at all time.
Leia Zhu and Paavo Järvi maintained the musical flow, never dropping tension, enthralling in the rapid, virtuosic segments, never dragging in the meno mosso parts. The Poco meno mosso at [G] (bar 349) avoided theatrical overdramatization, but maintained the forward flow. And in the Molto meno mosso, Paavo Järvi gave the woodwinds enough “space” to shape their short solos with agogics. And: where Leia Zhu used portamento (e.g., in position changes), it remained totally inconspicuous.
The Tempo I, finally, was fast, enthralling, brilliant, and highly virtuosic. The frenetic applause certainly was well-deserved. An amazing artist with excellent career perspectives!
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Encore — Hindemith: Sonata for Solo Violin op.11/6, III. Finale, Lebhaft
Composer & Work
Paul Hindemith (1895 – 1963) is very much of an underrated composer. He left behind a large oeuvre, from vocal works (Lieder, choral) to stage works, orchestral works, piano and chamber music, down to sonatas for one and two instruments. There is also film music, as well as compositions for teaching purposes, parodies, and much more. Hindemith also composed several solo sonatas for violin and viola (Hindemith was a violist himself). In his op.11, Hindemith collected six sonatas for viola and for violin, some with piano, some without accompaniment. His Sonata for Solo Violin op.11/6 is a work from 1917. It features three movements, of which Leia Zhu selected the third one for her encore:
- Mäßig schnell
- Siziliano: Mäßig bewegt
- Finale: Lebhaft
In Volume V of the 10 volumes in the edition of Hindemith’s complete works, the second movement only exists as a fragment. The complete sonata was published only in 2002, based on a manuscript copy of unknown origin.
Leia Zhu’s selection of encore was highly original, even unusual: I doubt that many in the audience had heard this before. The movement and its performance were jaw-droppingly virtuosic, stunning, and fascinating. There are vague similarities to some of the famous solo sonatas by Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931). However, Hindemith’y movement is even more virtuosic, challenging, enthralling. Congrats and thanks for this enriching encounter!
Strangely, many people left after the concerto. Yes, the young soloists were the main attraction in a concert of the Orpheum Foundation. But wasn’t it disrespectful towards Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchestra to leave now? After all, this is Zurich’s best concert orchestra. An ensemble with excellent international reputation. And didn’t they deserve recognition, at the very least for their performance in the Tchaikovsky concerto?
Ravel: “La Valse“, poème choréographique pour orchestre, M.72
Composer & Work
Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937): “La Valse“, poème choréographique pour orchestre, M.72 is a work from 1920. I have given a detailed description of the work in the review from a concert on 2018-06-07. The same work was also featuring in a concert in Lucerne on 2018-08-24.
After finishing the initial, orchestral version, Ravel also wrote a version for piano, 2-hands (now listed as M.72b). That’s one of the most demanding pieces in the entire piano literature. I have written about performances of this work in two instances: one in a private recital on 2016-01-16, and a second one, a few months later, on 2016-04-01.
Moreover, in 1923, Ravel created a second arrangement of “La Valse“, now for piano 4-hands (now listed as M.72a). You find my review from a public performance of this version (on two pianos) in a concert on 2022-02-26.
The performance of Ravel’s “La Valse” demonstrated several things: for one, it proved Ravel’s mastery in instrumentation / orchestration. There aren’t many composer who can match or beat this one.
Then (primarily), it demonstrated orchestral perfection, i.e., it proved the outstanding qualities of the ensemble. It felt as if Paavo Järvi meant to say “I claimed that we can make this orchestra rank among the top five worldwide. And here we are!”. Indeed, the way in which the orchestra coherently and consequently built up power, drama, volume and energy, from the “subcutaneous” murmuring of the first bars up to the final climax was truly masterful. Coordination, balance and transparency remained excellent throughout, and even in the most intense moments, the orchestra did not seem to reach its limits. It almost stayed relaxed.
Third: acoustics! At the ff climaxes and outbursts (unlike other composers of his time, Ravel did not see a need to move into fff, let alone ffff, or fffff), Paavo Järvi and the orchestra “filled” the acoustics of the venue without overloading it. An impressive, exuberant, colorful soundscape. Yes, it was loud (let’s hope that those in the orchestra in need of ear protection did take the necessary measures!). However, it did not feel like “too much”. Had this concert taken place in the Tonhalle Maag, temporary concert venue when the Tonhalle (am See) was under renovation, that volume would have “lifted off the hall’s roof”. Here now, the venue harmonized with the orchestra’s sonority, from the softest beginning up to the peak volumes, without distorting colors and sound balance.
What about the Music?
I don’t need to re-iterate descriptions of Ravel’s “La Valse” that I have given in earlier reviews (see the links above). Ravel’s piece is enthralling and full of suspense, a fascinating experience. I could not resist thinking about Ravel’s other two versions of this composition. Clearly, in terms of colors, sonority and sheer dynamic span, this orchestral setting beats the piano versions. One should not call these “reductions”, though, as they themselves are feasts in pianistic artistry.
Indeed, there are facets that so far I have only found in some 2-hand piano performances. In the latter, one may find a sinister, eerie, menacing atmosphere, once the piece (towards the end) turns surreal. The arrangement for piano 4-hands (or two pianos) expands the soundscape, “untangling” the complex textures. However, it lacks the intensity and compactness of the 2-hand version, hereby losing some of the sensation of Angst. In this orchestral performance, the scenery turned surreal, too. Though, this “overturning” almost felt playful, rather than driven by Angst, anxiety and fear. On the other hand, the orchestral feast is something that one should not miss!
Most or all of the (full scale) Orpheum concerts include at least one orchestral work. The programming here was no exception, and no surprise. The one reservation I have, though, is, that Ravel’s “La Valse” was “too strong”. It quenched the fresh impressions from the young soloists, in particular Leia Zhu’s fascinating performance. Yes, the orchestra performance was brilliant, superb, if not overwhelming. However, was this the right moment for a demonstration in orchestral excellence, for a showpiece in virtuosity, power / sonority, dynamics, precision, etc.?
This concert brought the encounter with two fascinating, young artists: with her superb technical skills, Alexandra Dovgan clearly has the potential to move into the upper rank of pianists. Leia Zhu, on the other hand, undoubtedly has already launched a successful career as a soloist: it is almost scary to think whether she still has enough “room to grow” artistically, and as musical personality! The “orchestral complement” certainly was a fascinating experience—despite my reservations about it being “too strong”.
The next full-scale concert by the Orpheum Foundation is planned for Saturday, 2023-10-21. It will feature the Symphony No.8 in G major, op.88 by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904), and the Triple Concerto in C major, op.56 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). The soloists will be the Swiss pianist Oliver Schnyder (*1973), the Danish violinist Anna Agafia Engholm (*1996), and the German cellist Maximilian Hornung (*1986). The orchestral part in this concert will feature the Orpheum Supporters Orchestra under the direction of Howard Griffiths (*1950).
The author would like to express his gratitude to the Orpheum Foundation for the press tickets to this concert, and for forwarding the concert photos. With the exception of the artists’ press images at the top (and the composer portraits), all photos are © Thomas Entzeroth, Zürich.