Leif Ove Andsnes, Lionel Bringuier / Tonhalle Orchestra
Honegger / Britten / Rimsky-Korsakov
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2018-05-16
The end of the concert season 2017/2018 is near—and with that, the end of the term for Lionel Bringuier (*1986, see also Wikipedia), the current chief conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (see also Wikipedia). The coming season will be an interregnum without chief conductor, until Bringier’s successor, Paavo Järvi (*1962, see also Wikipedia) takes over. Things may not have gone as expected for Lionel Bringuier in his four-year tenure in Zurich. However, it was clear right at the onset that succeeding an authority such as David Zinman (*1936) would not be easy, to say the least. Some might say it was an impossible task for a young talent with limited experience.
This of course does not imply that Lionel Bringuier would “give up” or let the quality fall apart. Quite to the contrary: he wants his career to continue. Similar principles apply to the orchestra: they can’t let their conductor down, as this might affect their reputation. Plus, five years ago, Lionel Bringuier was their favorite candidate in first place. Even though their partnership now comes to an end, ultimately didn’t come to the intended / desired fruition, their cooperation didn’t necessarily turn destructive. And indeed, in this concert, both conductor and orchestra demonstrated their true potential: once more, they delivered a performance at world class level. For this, they were joined by one of the leading pianists, Leif Ove Andsnes.
The concert—well-attended, but not sold out—was given in the Tonhalle Maag. The orchestra (in a large configuration) used the “romantic” setup, with the two violins on the left, followed by violas and cellos. The double basses played behind the cellos. My wife and I had stall seats in row 13, on the right-hand side.
Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955) composed three separate / stand-alone Symphonic Movements (Mouvements symphoniques). The first of these is the well-known Pacific 231 (H.53), composed 1923; it is an expression of the composer’s fascination for steam locomotives (Pacific 231 was a particularly powerful model). His Mouvement symphonique No.2 from 1928 bears the name Rugby (H.67)—a sport that Honegger very much liked, along with Football. The third composition of this kind, Mouvement symphonique No.3 (H.83, without a “surname”) followed 1932-1933.
Mouvement symphonique No.2 served as overture to the concert. In an excellent way, Honegger depicts the course, the action of a Rugby game: the erratic movements of ball and players, the seemingly chaotic action on the playing field, the occasional intervals of waiting, full of tension, amidst periods of rapid, hectic action. Conversely, it will be hard for the average, even the experienced listener to conclude that the music is about Rugby specifically. Other ball sports “behave” in a very similar way, may lead to similar musical descriptions. Actually, upon listening carefully, one can maybe catch glimpses describing the irregular rolling of the oval-shaped ball.
However, from today’s view, this is irrelevant: it’s simply a piece of both very interesting and entertaining music, a true kaleidoscope of manifold motifs and rhythms.
That single movement progresses relentlessly in its basic pace. Yet, the frequent changes in time signature make the listener feel sudden, seemingly erratic changes in tempo, as the ball game progresses. Lionel Bringuier’s accurate, unambiguous direction produced clear-cut contours and rhythmic transitions. The sound of the orchestra was very transparent, and the clarity of the acoustics supported, even enhanced the Spaltklang inherent to Honegger’s composition: in particular, brass section and strings didn’t mix, but retained their individual and separate characteristics.
The orchestra obviously was in top shape, brilliant, virtuosic, and very alert in following Bringuier’s clear-cut direction, his sign language. Impulses were passed on between the brass and string sections, just like the ball on the playing field triggers the movements, the action of the Rugby teams. Initially, dissonances, sharp contrasts, powerful motion dominate. As the movement, the game progresses, more and more one senses the joy, the high spirit of the winning team. This builds up towards the sparkling, enthusiastic ending. It’s music full of tension and action, enthralling and relentlessly striving towards the final chord in one single, big pull. Excellent music to start a concert, for sure!
Overall rating: ★★★★★
Britten: Piano Concerto in D major, op.13
Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) composed one single piano concerto, his Piano Concerto in D major, op.13, in four movements:
- Toccata: Allegro molto e con brio
- Waltz: Allegretto
- Impromptu: Andante lento
- March: Allegro moderato sempre a la marcia
The first version from 1938 featured a Recitative and Aria as third movement. When Britten revised the concerto in 1945, he replaced that movement with an Impromptu (Andante lento). In this form (also performed in this concert), the concerto premiered in 1946. Initially having had moderate success, the concerto is apparently gradually gaining popularity in recent years.
The instrumentation is fairly rich, with 2 flutes / piccolo, 2 oboes / cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, cymbals, whip, bass drum, snare drum, tambourine, tenor drum, harp, and strings.
Leif Ove Andsnes (*1970, see also Wikipedia) grew up in Karmøy, Norway, and studied with Jiří Hlinka (*1944) at the Bergen Music Conservatory. His debut recital was in 1987, in Oslo. He has since made a successful international career throughout Europe and in the USA. He is (naturally, one should say) promoting the works of his compatriot Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907). Recently, he gained a reputation with his “Beethoven Journey”, touring with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, performing all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos (conducting from the piano). Andsnes has accumulated quite a substantial discography, ranging from Mozart up to 20th century composers. In 2005, he also recorded Britten’s concerto, with Paavo Järvi conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
The installation of the concert grand (Steinway D-274) on the podium enforced a 10-minute intermission. Yet, Britten’s concerto felt like a natural and logical continuation, an ideal fit to Honegger’s brilliant opening movement (or vice versa, if you want).
I. Toccata: Allegro molto e con brio
With this concerto, Britten created a true masterwork! It’s highly virtuosic, and over long stretches just as busy as Mendelssohn’s concertos. However, it is not even remotely as light-hearted, swift and agile as those. Quite to the contrary, the solo part is power-draining, drawing on the pianist’s endurance. Andsnes’ playing was very alert at all times, as if he was sitting on a chair’s edge. Already the parallel, powerful staccati in the first solo are strenuous, as are the subsequent, countless tremoli, the parallel scales and figures. It’s very intense music, relentless in its drama, its motoric movement, requiring the utmost in power from the soloist. One could feel this just from the fact that Andsnes occasionally blew up his cheeks when exhaling—just like a boxing fighter at the end of a round.
At all times, he kept an eye (and an ear) on conductor and accompaniment: the accord, the coherence between solo and accompaniment was fabulous, stupendous, basically perfect! Just very rarely, the soloist momentarily pulled a tiny bit ahead—e.g., where he started the acceleration towards the cadenza. But even that was hardly noticeable by the average listener. Andsnes’ accents were very sharp, acute, swift, never disrupted the musical flow.
The powerful cadenza is full of impressive parades, amassing like giant waves at sea. This also demonstrated the qualities and the excellent intonation / condition of the Steinway-D grand: clarity and transparency over the entire range, lucidity and brilliance in the descant. Towards the end of the movement, the tuning may have degraded a little bit around the middle of the keyboard. However, with the intensity and the power of this movement, that is no less than natural, to be expected.
II. Waltz: Allegretto
The beginning of the movement is dreamy, reflective. Over the course of a calm, muted viola solo, full of nostalgia, gradually, the slow waltz rhythm emerged, becoming more obvious as soon as the solo part starts. For most of the audience, Lionel Bringuier was hidden behind the lid of the concert grand. Still, one could feel that he let the pianist keep the lead. Here, Andsnes’ playing was more relaxed initially, then builds up into an almost wild waltz segment, reminding of “La Valse” by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937). The pianist took up the momentum of this (at times) almost ferocious dance. On the other hand, especially towards the subtle, gentle ending, he sensibly followed and formed every detail in the solo part. Excellent, harmonious!
III. Impromptu: Andante lento
What a melancholic, longing beginning in the piano, very emotional, sensitive, soulful playing! It erupted into momentary emotions—then, the orchestra set in, and the solo part turned more rhapsodic. Every entrance, every detail in the solo part was expressive, dynamically detailed and careful, reflected, nothing was superficial, nor ever extroverted. This persisted also when the movement turned more playful, and where the glockenspiel added a bit of glitter. Even this slow movement then returned into a more rhapsodic, even virtuosic segment, before fading away with a dreamy solo part in the mist of a muted orchestral twilight. A super movement, both as composition, and also as a performance!
IV. March: Allegro moderato sempre a la marcia
The last movement followed attacca. It’s a march, with its inherent, relentless stepping rhythm. However, in Andsnes’ hands, this music was anything but stubbornly progressing: the soloist carefully shaped every his part, gauged every detail in the score. He could swiftly vary his touch from flexible and playful to steely in the fast punctuations. At all times, his articulation and the pedaling remained clear and detailed, accurate, and always differentiated. It’s another, strenuous movement for the soloist: Andsnes’ playing remained coherent with the accompaniment at all times, though ritardando and accelerando, and up to on-the-spot endpoints of long, ascending scales, full of momentum: fascinating, brilliant!
An excellent performance in all aspects, for sure, even when looking for the “hair in the soup”! Actually, I have listened to Andsnes’ CD recording of this concerto (see above). There is no doubt in my mind that the concert performance in Zurich was more compelling. And it was more precise in the coordination with the orchestra!
Overall rating: ★★★★★
Encore — Debussy: Estampes, L.100, 3. Jardins sous la pluie: Net et vif
After Andsnes’ brilliant performance, the audience broke out into enthusiastic applause. Despite the power-draining concerto that preceded, the pianist did not select an easy, slow, or contemplative encore (which would have been a bad fit to the concerto anyway). Instead, he presented No.3, Jardins sous la pluie from the Estampes, L.100, by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918).
Apart from his well-known collections Études (L.136), Images (L.110 / L.111), and the Préludes (L.117 / L.123), Debussy’s oeuvre for piano is rather limited (but nevertheless technically demanding!). Estampes (“Stamps”) comprises three movements:
- Pagodes: Modérément animé
- La soirée dans Granade: Mouvement de Habanera
- Jardins sous la pluie: Net et vif
No.3, “Gardens in the rain” depicts rain and gusts of storm winds in a garden. Andsnes played this with very smooth flow in rapid figures, both playful and rhapsodic, gently and subtly highlighting the embedded cantilenas in the latter part—actually children’s rhymes. Then again, one could almost physically feel the downpour, the gusts of wind: very atmospheric! Andsnes made the listener forget how technically demanding this music is!
Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphonic Suite “Schéhérazade“, op.35
Here’s the information that I provided with an earlier review from a concert on 2016-07-10 in Zurich on this work: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908) wrote his Symphonic Suite “Scheherazade” around 1888. It’s one of very few works by this composer which have become and remained popular to this day—for good reason! The “Symphonic Suite” comes in four movements, each depicting a tale from the famous collection “One Thousand and One Nights“, as told by Scheherazade:
- “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” (Largo e maestoso — Lento — Allegro non troppo — Tranquillo)
- “The Kalendar Prince” (Lento — Andantino — Allegro molto — Vivace scherzando — Moderato assai — Allegro molto ed animato)
- “The Young Prince and The Young Princess” (Andantino quasi allegretto — Pochissimo più mosso — Come prima — Pochissimo più animato)
- “Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman” (Allegro molto — Lento — Vivo — Allegro non troppo e maestoso — Tempo come I)
When he published the score, Rimsky-Korsakov removed the titles of the tales. He wanted to leave it up to the listener to imagine an action / theme to the four movements. All movements are free-form, i.e., they don’t follow any classic scheme, such as the sonata form.
Let me start with a “preamble”: the performance of the Tonhalle Orchestra and its director, Lionel Bringuier, in this Symphonic Suite was technically excellent. It was undeniably an orchestral masterpiece in pretty much all aspects. Yet, I missed something essential—and for this, I might blame an earlier performance by “local competition”, here in Zurich, on 2016-07-10. One could call this bad luck for Bringuier. However, I can’t simply erase past concert experience, especially as this had demonstrated what this composition can offer!
I should add that this isn’t just in my memory: the performance with Fabio Luisi (*1959) and the Philharmonia Zurich is available as CD recording, and this does indeed demonstrate the “missing bits”. It has all the qualities of the concert performance that I still remember so well..
I. Largo e maestoso — Lento — Allegro non troppo — Tranquillo
Throughout this performance—as stated—the Tonhalle Orchestra offered a world-class performance. It was excellent in the balance, the impressive scope and quality of its sound, perfect in coordination, articulation, transparency. Lionel Bringuier firmly conducted with his clear sign language, the orchestra impeccably followed his intent. A virtuosic orchestral masterpiece. One quibble was in slight intonation issues in the woodwinds, especially at the beginning of the movement.
While it was technically near-perfect, I was still missing something. The very beginning may have been a bit schematic—start-up problems after the intermission? There was more: I missed the theater aspect, the drama, the tale, the “story underneath”, this mix of expectation and tension, if not suspense. It’s hard to attribute this to specifics in the interpretation. In my view, it’s a deficit in agogics (such as little ritenuti prior to a key note, a local climax), maybe also in rubato? Perhaps, the tempo as a tad too fluent and too straight, at times? Overall, I think it wasn’t nearly as compelling as this music could be.
II. Lento — Andantino — Allegro molto — Vivace scherzando — Moderato assai — Allegro molto ed animato
At times, this music almost feels like a hidden violin concerto. However, other soloists, especially bassoon, oboe, clarinet, flute, and cello, have prominent solo parts, too. In such solos, Lionel Bringuier did not try controlling every detail, but he left it up to the instrumentalists to shape their parts. The violin solo (Klaidi Sahatçi, concertmaster) in particular was excellent, with its full sounding G- and D-Strings, the perfect intonation up to the finest and highest, whispered notes. Excellent playing in the orchestra, even with a definitive pull towards the dramatic ending. There were no coordination issues across the numerous time and tempo changes—with maybe one exception in accelerating triplets in the violins.
III. Andantino quasi allegretto — Pochissimo più mosso — Come prima — Pochissimo più animato
Excellent string sound, and equally good sonority in the wind instruments. Bringuier firmly took the orchestra through all of Rimsky-Korsakov’s rubati, the tempo changes. There is another, excellent violin solo, after which the sound briefly erupts into an impressive volume, though still well-controlled, not overloading the acoustics of the hall.
IV. Allegro molto — Lento — Vivo — Allegro non troppo e maestoso — Tempo come I
Bringuier selected a challenging, fast tempo. However, he obviously knows how far he can go with this (still his) orchestra. The musicians presented an excellent, near-perfect performance, building up to impressive volume, again not overloading the acoustics: loud, but not too much. The ultra-fast, repeated brass staccati (trumpets) were mind-boggling! The movement starts and ends with once more very impressive violin solos by Klaidi Sahatçi, again in perfect purity up to the very highest notes: beautiful!
To return to my initial remark: one might call this a near-perfect performance, even spectacular in many aspects. However, in my view, this music is much more than a virtuosic, orchestral showpiece. It was impressive, but failed to “pull me in”. Does this require a conductor (and maybe an orchestra) with opera experience?
Overall rating: ★★★½
For this concert I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.