2017-06-30 — Original posting
Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-06-15
Kristóf Baráti, Lionel Bringuier / Tonhalle Orchestra
Eötvös / Stravinsky / Shostakovich
I have also written a review for this concert on Bachtrack.com, in German. This review is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.
The count-down for the last concert in the old Tonhalle Zurich prior to the renovation is running! This is the second-last series of 3 concerts for the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, and the last one under his chief conductor, Lionel Bringuier (*1986). Bringuier will stay in his position till mid-2018, so, all his remaining concerts in this position will take place in the temporary concert venue, in the Maag-Halle in Zurich West (I’ll certainly report from there!). By 2020 (hopefully!), after the renovation of the Tonhalle is complete, when the orchestra will return to his home venue, its Conductor and Artistic Director will be Paavo Järvi (*1962). After the 2017/2018 season, Järvi will step in for Lionel Bringuier, whose contract has not been prolonged.
The concert was running under the title “Orchestral Magic” (“Orchestermagie”), the hall was well-filled. The first half was purely orchestral, while a violin concerto filled the second half, after the intermission—see below.
Péter Eötvös’ composition demands a very big orchestra. The orchestra therefore presented itself in a very large formation on the extended podium—almost as if they all wanted to allow all members to enjoy the acoustics of this venue up to the very last moment before the 3-year renovation period.
Peter Eötvös: zeroPoints (1999)
In this past season, the Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös (*1944) filled the position of “Creative Chair” with the Tonhalle Orchestra. His composition “ZeroPoints” is a creation from 1999. It refers to “Domaines” (1968) by Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016), a composer who has been instrumental for Eötvös’ own creative career. In “Domaines“, Boulez counted the bars as 0, 1, 2, etc., i.e., unconventionally starting at bar #0. These integer numbers, and the space between 0 and 1 triggered some thinking in Eötvös’ creative mind. He came to the idea of filling the space between 0 and 1 with fractional numbers. So, the composition “zeroPoints”, which premiered under Pierre Boulez in 2000, is divided into nine sections, named “0.1”, “0.2”, “0.3”, … “0.9”.
The Performance / Experience
The nine sections in this composition follow each other without interruption. The program notes did not give detailed descriptions or characterized these sections in any way. Therefore, the listener lacked orientation, merely experienced a 14-minute vaguely structured sequence of musical expressions, atmospheres, sound colors. In terms of style, all these segments are of course using current musical language (should I say: Boulez’ style?). Yet, in my opinion, also non-insiders, inexperienced listeners should be able digest, even enjoy this music—provided one is willing to engage with it. If this helps the reception: it is certainly not forbidden to let the fantasy float, flourish freely while listening to this music—quite to the contrary! Here’s an outline of my personal listening experience:
In the initial segment I heard the tweeting of birds, growing in intensity, in the end filling a birdhouse, if not a menagerie. Thereafter, the piece turned almost solemn, with dark voices from the wind instruments, growing, ebbing off again. Now, a wild fight started, with groups of instruments interacting resolutely. This happened above a foundation of glissandi by the machine timpani (Maschinenpauken), which Eötvös uses quite frequently here. A phase of calming-down followed, then a segment in which xylophones and metallophones dominated. Another build-up led into a very virtuosic exchange of motifs, then a chorale-like section (wind instruments, machine timpani, tamtam).
Then, time seems to stop, low, soft tremoli (pp) are accompanying melody snippets in the high woodwinds. Finally, the high instruments were exchanging longing calls—and I had the vision of moonlight reflecting on a water surface. Silence was followed into build-up waves in the brass instruments, and xylophones and metallophones led into the final build-up: the very last notes are fff on a muted metallophone.
To me, this composition felt both very entertaining, as well as very interesting. However, as expected, I also talked to people (such as my neighbors) who could not connect to this music at all. Some might call this music polarizing—but I maintain that it’s merely a question of being willing to open up one’s mind and ears, and being curious towards such music.
I can certainly state that orchestra and conductor worked with high focus, and in their usual quality, discipline and concentration. I think this isn’t easy to play, even if one of the main challenges is in counting rests, and in knowing when it’s one’s turn again!
Stravinsky: “Pétrouchka” Suite (version 1947)
A very central part in the oeuvre of Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) is in his ballet music, the bulk of which is the result of a cooperation with the impresario and choreographer Serge Diaghilev (1872 – 1929). Initiated by an exhibition with Russian paintings in Paris, Diaghilev had launched a very successful series of Ballets Russes. One of these ballets was “Pétrouchka“, which Stravinsky composed 1910/1911. In the ’40s, in the States, the composer noted that the original version was not covered by copyright protection, hence did not generate any income. Partly in order to correct this, he created a second version for somewhat smaller orchestra, along with other alterations and some simplifications. It is this version (1947) which was performed in this concert.
Outline of the Ballet / Suite, Version 1947
Part I (Danse Russe)
- The Shrove-tide Fair
- Danse Russe
Part II (Chez Pétrouchka)
Part III (Chez le Maure)
- The Blackamoor
Part IV (La semaine grasse)
- The Shrove-tide Fair and the Death of Pétrouchka
- Wet-nurses’ Dance
- Peasant with Bear
- Gypsies and a Rake Vendor
- Dance of the Coachmen
- The Scuffle: Blackamoor and Pétrouchka
- Death of Pétrouchka
- Police and the Juggler
- Apparition of Pétrouchka‘s Double
For a concert performance, the last sections (marked in color above) are usually not included.
Related Works, Instrumentation
In 1921, upon suggestion by (and for) Arthur Rubinstein (1887 – 1982), Stravinsky also created a piano arrangement from parts I, II, and IV of the ballet. He named this “Trois Mouvement de Pétrouchka” and features the movements “Danse Russe” — “Chez Pétrouchka” — “La semaine grasse“.
The instrumentation (1947 version) is fairly rich, with
- 3 flutes (1 also piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets (1 also bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, double bassoon
- 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
- timpani, percussion (triangle, cymbal, bass drum, tambourine, side drum, tamtam, xylophone)
- celesta, harp, piano
I’m giving an outline of the notes that I took during the performance of the individual movements; a summary is available below.
Good, fluent tempo, no rushing, excellent precision in the orchestra, through all the sudden, often very intricate changes in meter and tempo. The barrel organ (imitation) formed a resting pole in all the lively scenery. The flute solo prior to the Danse Russe was excellent. The orchestra participated actively, with engagement, even joy—yet, the music seemed too controlled, lacked spontaneity, the overflowing, the exuberance of the crowd / all the people in a Shrove-tide Fair!
The Dance Russe was very fast—a demanding tempo, maybe a bit too fast, actually. It was mostly mastered without problems; in my opinion, it was definitely too fast for the piano solo (Peter Solomon) towards the end, though. And again, to me, it felt somewhat uninspired, too straight, controlled, lacking spontaneity.
Also here, the tempo was very fast—too fast—for the initial piano solo, which (I think) ought to be more percussive (which is not possible at that pace). The central, piano + clarinet segment was excellent, though.
Chez le Maure
Excellent trumpet solo in “The Blackamoor”!
The performance in the comfortable “Valse” (lento cantabile) was excellent with the small wind ensemble (excellent soloists)—but also this lacked some expression, warmth. Bringuier’s tempo control was excellent—his conducting expressed firmness, familiarity with the score throughout. But did he lack some sense for drama, or was he unable to convey this to the audience?
La semaine grasse
The strongly rhythmical first segments (Shrove-tide Fair and “Wet-nurses’ Dance”) saw excellent playing, orchestral (near-)perfection as expected from this ensemble. Yes, it was joyful, dancing—but not nearly as exuberant, if not boisterous as I expected. Too controlled, also here. But I liked the clumsiness, the weight in “Peasant with Bear”. The final build-up begins in that same section—needless to say: the music is fascinating, enthralling—but I wish I could say the same about the performance!
In my opinion, the orchestra offered an excellent performance, often (near-)perfect (nothing is ever really perfect, of course!). I can’t complain about a lack of concentration, engagement and diligence on the part of the musicians in the orchestra. And yet, I can’t say that the performance made me enthusiastic—or, if there was enthusiasm, that seemed not to be conveyed to the audience. Lionel Bringuier’s control over the orchestra, and over the complex rhythmic structure of Stravinsky’s score was very good. His tempo choice was good in general: controlled, never rushing, but still occasionally at or slightly above the upper limit.
But as much as he may have tried: to me, the performance was too controlled. It lacked the ultimate enthusiasm, the drama, the ardor, the expression of joy, of exuberance. It also lacked the imagination, the inspiration of the theater / ballet, the excess of the Shrove-tide Fair scenes. Instrumental perfection, even perfect soloists are no substitute for the exuberant emotions in Stravinsky’s music. Overall, this didn’t really meet my expectations.
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, op.77
Originally, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) published his Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor as op.99. However it is now usually linked to op.77. This is also the opus number now printed on the score. The concerto is dedicated to the great Russian violinist David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974), with whom he also worked for the completion of the composition. Oistrakh also premiered the concerto, together with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903 – 1988). The concerto features four movements:
- Nocturne: Moderato
- Scherzo: Allegro
- Passacaglia: Andante – Cadenza
- Burlesque: Allegro con brio – Presto
The Soloist: Kristóf Baráti
The original concert announcement called for the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos (*1967, see also Wikipedia) as soloist in Shostakovich’s violin concerto. However, Kavakos apparently lost a close family member and a good friend, and so he cancelled all concerts in June, in order to spend time with his family. My condolences to the artist!
In his place, the Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti (*1979, see also Wikipedia) stepped in, at short notice. Baráti grew up in Budapest and in Venezuela and received most of his initial musical education in these two places. From 1996 on, he also studied with the Latvian violinist Eduard Wulfson in Paris. Wulfson had been a pupil of Yehudi Menuhin (1916 – 1999), Nathan Milstein (1904 – 1992), and Henryk Szeryng (1918 – 1988). Baráti has since won several prizes at international competitions. He is now pursuing an international career as soloist, while still regularly performing in his native country. He plays the 1703 “Lady Harmsworth” violin by Antonio Stradivarius (1644 – 1737).
I had never experienced Baráti in concert before, so was curious about his appearance and interaction with orchestra, conductor and audience. What I saw and heard was an artist with modest appearance, inconspicuous, playing with concentration and almost stoic facial expression and limited body movements. He seemed completely immersed into the music, serving the composer and his creation. He barely appeared to take notice of the audience. If he was taking notice of anything other than the violin and his playing, it was the sheet music. It was pure joy to listen to the mellow, warm, and well-projecting tone of Baráti’s Stradivarius. I was also happy about his inconspicuous vibrato. Lionel Bringuier and the orchestra accompanied judiciously, with attention, supportive, typically leaving the control to the soloist.
I. Nocturne: Moderato
True night music, this Nocturne, with its calm beginning in the basses and cellos! The violin joins in with a beautiful cantilena—an endless melody that flourishes in the darkness! Baráti’s playing appeared immersed, ethereal, absolutely firm in the very challenging intonation across the entire, large range in this concerto. There was never a moment when the violin was in danger of being covered by the orchestra: the instrument projected so well, always maintained its presence (also thanks to Shostakovich’s diligently laid out accompaniment).
II. Scherzo: Allegro
The Scherzo is rhythmically intricate, both in the very challenging solo part, as well as in the accompaniment. It’s a motoric music, performed here with enthralling pull and drive. But also in this movement, Baráti kept his stoic facial expression, his focus, the concentration, vivid and showing more initiative, though, his playing virtuosic, masterful, absolutely flawless.
III. Passacaglia: Andante – Cadenza
The Passacaglia theme first appears in the orchestra: a heavy “elephant motif” in the basses, accompanying a beautiful, solemn, chorale-like funeral march in the horns, later also the woodwinds. Baráti listened to this intensely, with full concentration. He then joined in with the touching, unearthly beauty of his flowing melody, often as duo with the bassoon, always very intense in the tone, especially in the double-stop passages, raising up to heavenly jubilation that in the end seemed to float away into an other world—marvelous music!
The second part of this movement is a cadenza of more than five minutes. In the first part, the focus is not on speed or fast figures, but on cantilenas, melodies, gradually evolving into double-stop, then triple-stop passages, quadruple-stop exclamations. Kristóf Baráti played this with gently swaying agogics. Even in strong, accentuated multiple-stop notes / chords, he maintained excellent sonority, clean articulation, purest intonation. The focus was in sonority and expression, not impression, i.e., extroverted virtuosity. One could recognize the sound aesthete also by the fact that occasionally he deviated from Shostakovich’s / Oistrakh’s bowing annotations, e.g., when sometimes he avoided multiple, successive down-strokes, in favor of better sonority, a better cantabile.
The cadenza accelerates, gets more excited, more dramatic, then leads directly into the final movement:
IV. Burlesque: Allegro con brio – Presto
The last movement, a Burlesque, is an enthralling piece, in which the masterful soloist actually took a more active role, The orchestra started at an already fairly fast pace, but Baráti even stayed at the forefront, pushing rather than holding back, subtly pulling the movement into the Presto coda, and into the furious, brilliant ending: fascinating!
I can summarize my impression about Kristóf Baráti by stating that I found him to be a sound aesthete of the highest class, the top league, with astounding technical abilities and virtuosity.
As expected already from Shostakovich’s brilliant ending, let alone the masterful soloist, the applause was almost frenetic. So, after about three “curtains”, Kristóf Baráti lifted the violin to his chin again, for an encore. Before he started playing, there was a faint squeaking of a door in the rear of the hall. Baráti shortly hesitated; momentary, bemused murmuring in the audience—and for the first time this evening, a short smile crossed Baráti’s face…
Then, totally relaxed, unexcited, and with his impeccable, beautiful tone, he played the third movement, Largo, from the Sonata No.3 in C major for Solo Violin, BWV 1005, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). There couldn’t possibly have been a bigger contrast to Shostakovich’s brilliant masterpiece—and yet, this felt like a perfect fit & counterpoint to the preceding furor and excitement!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. 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.
Peter Eötvös’ “zeroPoints” is present on YouTube, in a video from 2013: