Lisa Batiashvili, Lionel Bringuier / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Dvořák / Mahler
Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-06-16
This is the last concert that the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili is giving in Zurich as part of her season as “Artist in Residence” with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. See also my earlier report on her participation in the Season’s Opening Concert on 2015-09-16.
The orchestra is of course again conducted by Lionel Bringuier (born 1986 in Nice). He must be happy now that the voters in Zurich have just approved the funding for the renovation of the Zurich Kongresshaus (which includes the Tonhalle). This will ultimately provide far better conditions for the musicians (back-stage). It will also restore the Tonhalle-Saal to its original, bright and colorful glory. The downside of this is that for the coming 3 years, the Tonhalle will not be available. Concerts with the Tonhalle Orchestra will have to move to a temporary venue (yet to be set up) in the Western part of the city (easily reachable from Zurich Main Station, though).
What’s Special About this Concert?
Two years ago, Lionel Bringuier (the orchestra’s preferred candidate) accepted the position of Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra. Over the previous 20 years under David Zinman, the orchestra had grown to a world-class ensemble with considerable international reputation. Zinman had presented the orchestra in concert halls all over the world, He also launched a very successful recording career for the ensemble: under his baton, the orchestra has recorded the great orchestral works by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Strauss in exemplary, successful CD sets. Lionel Bringuier must have been aware that he was inheriting a difficult, if not almost impossible task: at least in the area of recordings with this orchestra, his repertoire will be very restricted for the foreseeable future.
As additional adverse component, as mentioned, the Zurich Congress Center is about to be renovated. For the coming three years, local concerts will take place in a temporary venue (yet to be set up). This bears considerable risks with subscription audiences. Under these circumstances, it seems negligent, if not destructive, that in recent months, local concert reviewers appeared to actively undermine Lionel Bringuier’s position. Another conductor change after just two years would be a disaster. It would dramatically increase the financial risks of the upcoming “exile” period, both for the orchestra, as well as for Zurich as a cultural entity. I personally find it no less than fair to grant the young conductor an adequate probation period.
Addendum 2016-08-28: 10 days ago, the Tonhalle administration announced that Lionel Bringuier’s contract will not be prolonged beyond the season 2017/2018.
In his first two years, in his symphonic repertoire with the Tonhalle Orchestra,Lionel Bringuier focused on works by Maurice Ravel. With this, he not only was successful in concerts in Zurich, but also on international tours (notably with soloists such as Yuja Wang). That activity also yielded a successful CD recording with all orchestral works by Ravel. But now seemed to be the right time for a direct confrontation with David Zinman’s core repertoire, in the form of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.1, featured in this concert. However, the evening started with a violin concerto:
About the Composition
Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) met the great violinist Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907) in 1878, which inspired him to write violin concerto. In 1879, Dvořák composed his Violin Concerto in A minor, op.53 (B.108), with the intent to dedicate it to the violinist. Joachim unfortunately didn’t like the concerto and never performed it in public. The concerto premiered in 1883 in Prague, with František Ondříček (1857 – 1922) playing the solo part. In its musical substance and structure, the concerto is clearly inspired by Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, op.77.
- Allegro ma non troppo (4/4) —
- Adagio ma non troppo (3/8)
- Finale: Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo (3/8) — L’istesso tempo (2/4, 1/4 = 3/8)
About the Performance
This concerto is technically quite demanding, particularly in the intonation. It requires the soloist’s full presence already after a few bars: the solo part begins in bar #5. Lisa Batiashvili’s playing was fluent, both in articulation and phrasing, with a tendency towards legato. Her tone is silky, with clean intonation, her playing often impulsive, vigorous, occasionally slightly aggressive in the tempo. She avoided over-emphasizing accents, often played them broader rather than standing out in volume; sometimes I would have preferred more accentuation. On the other hand, sforzato and marcato (“v”) notes were clearly marked and vivid. In this movement, the coordination with the orchestra wasn’t always perfect, as if conductor and orchestra occasionally reacted with a slight delay to rubato playing in the solo part. Also, in the rallentando part of a rubato, I felt a certain tendency to lose momentum, drive.
The coordination between soloist and orchestra was clearly better in the second movement. Here, Dvořák’s rich melodic invention is flourishing, though intermittently, there are also energetic, rebelling passages. At the Un poco più tranquillo, quasi Tempo I (around bar 70), the solo part appears to imitate the most serene bird song. Later, there is an idyl in folk music, later also a Slavonic dance—Dvořák’s fantasy appears to have no limitations. The solo part is marked espressivo—still, the vibrato to me often felt too nervous.
In the final movement, the tempo often felt somewhat pushed, leaving little room for rhythmic details. It did not really allow playing out (and enjoying) Dvořák’s rich rhythmic / polyrhythmic textures. Particularly towards the end, I found the interpretation to be somewhat summary, if not superficial. Maybe a smaller orchestra or lighter articulation in the orchestra would have helped the transparency and clarity? In the solo part, the spiccato passages sounded rather like ordinary arpeggiando playing. This could have been a consequence of trying to maintain audible presence against the big orchestra? As far as I could judge with the limited acoustic transparency, the orchestra’s accompaniment was convincing in rhythmic firmness and agility.
Overall, judging from the lasting applause, the audience appeared to like the interpretation of the concerto. As encore, Lisa Batiashvili announced a short segment of the second movement (Largo) from Antonín Dvořák‘s Symphony No.9 in E minor, op.95 (B.178, “From the New World”), in a version for solo violin and string orchestra. That melody—played by the violin rather than the cor anglais in the original—was an emotionally fitting conclusion for the first part of the concert.
The concert evening was part of this year’s Festspiele Zürich, largely devoted to the topic of Dada / Dadaism (which originated in Zurich, 100 years ago). As part of that aspect, a Dadaist film (“Entr’acte“, by René Clair, 1924) was shown in the foyer during the intermission. I did not watch it, but my neighbor was rather disconcerted by its music (by Erik Satie, 1866 – 1925). Maybe this wasn’t the ideal choice (or, at least, rather unexpected) after the above encore?
Mahler: Symphony No.1 in D major
About the Composition
Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) wrote his Symphony No.1 in D major (a.k.a. “Der Titan”) 1887/1888. Mahler made alterations till 1898, when he finally published the symphony. He used the title “Der Titan” just for the first two performances (1889 and 1893); its use with the published form of the composition is to be considered non-authentic. For a detailed description you may want to check the Wikipedia entry.
In its original form (up till 1895), the symphony included a fifth movement, “Blumine“, after the first movement. That movement (as well as material from the other movements) originates from earlier compositions (such as the “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen“). Mahler did not authorize the inclusion of the “Blumine” movement in the published form of the symphony, even though he quotes a theme from the “Blumine” part in the last movement. As an element “inherited” from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, Mahler quotes themes from earlier movements in the final one. Anton Bruckner did the same in his Symphony No.5.
- Langsam. Schleppend. Wie ein Naturlaut
Slowly. Dragging. Like a sound of nature.
- Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (3/4, 3/4 = 66) — Trio: Recht gemächlich (3/4 = 54) — Tempo I
Moving strongly, but not too quickly — Trio: Quite restrained.
- Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen — Sehr einfach und schlicht wie eine Volksweise — Wieder etwas bewegter, wie im Anfang.
Solemnly and measured, without dragging — Very simple, like a folk-tune — Once again somewhat more agitated, as at the start.
- Stürmisch bewegt (2/2, 1/2 = 92)
About the Performance
This symphony—played after the intermission—could be seen as Lionel Bringuier challenging the heritage of his predecessor, David Zinman, see above. Certainly speaking for myself, I felt some curiosity, if not a distinct tension during the first minutes of the symphony—I’m sure that musicians in the orchestra, as well as people in the audience felt the same.
The senses were alert, more critical than usual: maybe those pp solos in the wind instruments, above the ppp whispering in the violins, were a tad too prominent, too loud? How about the coordination? The discipline in the orchestra? Was the tempo adequate, the interpretation compelling? However, super-critical listening soon proved unnecessary! Sure, it was a “different Mahler” (hopefully so!): a warm, heartfelt interpretation, harmonic in sound and in the transitions, definitely also with intimate facets.
I don’t mean to imply that the performance featured pure “well-feeling music”. The Scherzo part in the second movement (Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell) was expressive and had momentum, but didn’t aim at smooth perfection and cold virtuosity. But by no means it was just pleasant! The Scherzo builds up to a spectacular climax. The contrasting Trio part (Recht gemächlich) formed a warm-hearted, somewhat sentimental island. Lionel Bringuier firmly navigated the orchestra through the numerous tempo shifts (that also applies to the following movements). He also formed an impressive final build-up.
In the third movement, I liked the near-perfect intonation in the “Frère Jacques” theme (converted to minor tonality). This is written for the first double bass, con sordino: it’s very tricky to play on this instrument, and often enough (even in many CD recordings) one hears it with appallingly bad intonation. The movement anticipates some the atmosphere of the Adagietto in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (1901/1902). But soon, Vienna coffeehouse music joins in, played con sordino by three solo violins. Certainly, at this point I felt that Lionel Bringuier has been successful in stepping out of his predecessor’s shadow, freeing himself (and the orchestra) from the restraints of the “Zinman tradition”.
The final movement confirmed and reinforced that impression. I found it to be expressive, sonorous and rich, without ever turning bombastic or overly artistic. Overall, also the orchestra seemed more and more carried by its own performance, and by the cooperation with Lionel Bringuier. It presented the feeling of a conclusive, successful interpretation. The minor insecurity during the tempo switch around  in the score (prior to the final build-up) didn’t really affect the overall result. What certainly made a lasting impression was the group of seven (!) horns in the rear left corner of the stage, which had already been very convincing in the Scherzo. In the final sequence, Mahler explicitly writes that the horns must dominate above all other instruments. This proved to be no major challenge to the group, all standing and holding up the bells.
The applause was enthusiastic. Obviously, the impression of a successful performance, the evident satisfaction of the musicians with their own achievement carried over to the audience. We should take this as a good sign for the upcoming three-year exile period!
For the same concert, I have also written a much shorter review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.