Lisa Batiashvili, Gautier Capuçon, Jörg Widmann, Lionel Bringuier
Widmann / Brahms / Scriabin
Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-09-16
2016-08-07 — Brushed up for better readability
The concerts at a season’s opening are an opportunity for the Tonhalle Society to present its orchestra, and to give an outlook into the coming season(s). It’s an event that has lots of attention and attracts lots of press and media, as well as representatives from the local authorities. The evening started with speeches. The president of the society, Martin Vollenwyder included some first propaganda for the upcoming voting on the budget for the renovation of the entire building complex. This will force the Tonhalle Orchestra to move into secondary / temporary locations between 2017 and 2020.
The artistic director (Intendantin) of the society, Ilona Schmiel, announced the beginning of the season, presenting the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and its chief conductor, Lionel Bringuier. She also introduced this year’s Creative Chair, Jörg Widmann, composer and clarinet virtuoso, and the Artist in Residence, Lisa Batiashvili, violin. Both functions were represented in this concert, complemented by the French cellist Gautier Capuçon.
Jörg Widmann (*1973): Concert Overture “Con Brio”
Lionel Bringuier started the concert with the Concert Overture “Con Brio”. This was written in 2008 by the German composer Jörg Widmann, Creative Chair of the orchestra for this season, born in Munich, 1973. Widmann studied with composers such as Hans Werner Henze, Wilfried Hiller, Heiner Goebbels, and Wolfgang Rihm.
Despite its title “Con Brio”, the brio isn’t there initially in this piece. The beginning of the work gives the impression that the orchestra needs to work on this first. The piece begins with periodic, isolated ff-beats, and between these beats one can hear the evolution of a wide spectrum in noises. These don’t just come from the percussion section: there is tone-less blowing, battering, friction and scratching noise from all the instruments.
Increasingly, the spaces between the beats are filled with tones, initially also with a section using microtonality, and at the same time, the beats start to build some kind of melody. And now, the music definitely has brio (momentum), is enthralling. One can observe waves of tonality, of melodicity. These tonal interjections gradually pull the listener forward. But also the returning “beating & noise” phases develop a lot of tension that almost keeps the listener without breath.
Both the orchestra and the conductor appeared to be in excellent shape, the musicians played with concentration and focus, really engaged. Definitely a marked start into the new season that was both excellent and unusual. The piece is said to be inspired by features / segments of Beethoven’s symphonies No.7 and 8. I personally was rather reminded of Beethoven’s “Battle Symphony” op.91, “Wellington’s Victory“.
After this introduction, the orchestra switched to a piece more representative of standard repertoire, Johannes Brahms’ late composition Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, op.102 (the piece was written 1887 in Switzerland, at the lake of Thun).
The soloists were the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili (Artist in Residence for this season) and the French cellist Gautier Capuçon. The latter appeared to hold the lead throughout the concerto. One can probably ascribe some of this to the composition, maybe also to the instruments. Gautier Capuçon plays an excellent instrument from 1701 by Mattio Goffriller, and (according to her Web site) Lisa Batiashvili is playing a violin by Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesù” from 1739. But also the acoustics may have favored the cello. Last, but not least, Batiashvili may have been holding back a bit, while Capuçon clearly felt “at home” immediately. He may also be the more forthcoming personality?
The first movement (Allegro) was played with a broad spectrum in expressions: after the initial orchestral fanfares, the cello started with its full, rounded sound. Capuçon’s playing was fairly broad, but rather soft in the articulation, and very liberal in the tempo (the score reads “in modo d’un recitativo, ma sempre in tempo“). My impression was that the solos were often slower than the surrounding orchestral parts, using a fair amount of rubato. The intonation in the first solos appeared clean. Though, for moments I felt that I recognized how tricky and critical the intonation in these sections is; maybe the soloists first needed to adapt to the acoustics of the hall, or maybe the problem was rather that after the first piece, my ears first needed to adjust to “romantic tonality and harmonies”?
I should say, though, that for the rest of the Brahms I did not notice intonation issues and even forgot about that topic entirely, concentrating on other aspects of the playing of the two soloists, which I found very lyrical, in the cello maybe even elegiac, with a tendency towards legato. This might also have contributed to the impression of a slower tempo? To me, the vibrato was at the upper limit with both soloists. But at least in the case of the cellist it wasn’t nervous / excessively fast. Very generally, the two soloists appeared to be very much in tune with each other; even when Gautier Capuçon appeared to lead (in terms of tone and volume), he always was very attentive to Lisa Batiashvili’s playing. In the lyrical passages, the two soloists were joining for an almost intimate duo playing, in strong contrast to the wild and dramatic sections.
The slow movement (Andante) is one of Brahms’ most beautiful inventions. It’s an enchanting duet, with the solos smoothly growing out of the orchestra sound. Here, one really could enjoy the warm sound of the violin, even though the vibrato was again at the upper limit.
III. Vivace non troppo
The final movement (Vivace non troppo) was predominantly dramatic. Interestingly, the musicians tended to accelerate gradually towards dramatic passages (also on the part of the orchestra). Was this just youthful enthusiasm? Throughout the concerto, the orchestral accompaniment was flawless and compassionate. My only, minor objection here is that due to the presence of the soloists, some of the violin desks found themselves at the very left edge of the stage, even partially under the lateral balcony. This caused the overall soundscape to be spatially somewhat out of balance.
Jörg Widmann (*1973): “Elegie” for clarinet and orchestra
After the intermission, Jörg Widmann, Creative Chair, was the soloist in his own work “Elegie” for clarinet and orchestra, which he composed in 2006, and which premiered in the same year in Hamburg. This was the first performance in Switzerland. It’s a work that Widmann has quite obviously “written into his own fingers”. Not only for his own instrument, but for him playing it, with the accompaniment of strings, 2 flutes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, accordion, harp, celesta, and percussion.
According to his own words, Widmann wanted to “reinvent” the clarinet in this piece, exploring new techniques, exploiting the possibilities on this instrument to the extreme. The composition starts with resting tones, almost harmlessly, like a chamber play. But that soon changes: it was fascinating to witness the spectrum of what this instrument can produce. There were microtonal intervals, multiple simultaneous tones, croaking, flute tones at very high pitch, chattering virtuosity, vivid story-telling, shrieking, and screaming. All in the one solo voice!
Lionel Bringuier conducted firmly, leaving no doubt that he knows the score inside out, and the Tonhalle Orchestra provided an intensive accompaniment, covering an equally very wide spectrum of soundscapes, from softest tones to stinging high notes that felt like a “composed tinnitus” (played by the accordion), tumultuous sections, up to passages that to me evoked the picture of a cave, with water dripping from the ceiling, then changing into a sea of glittering stars.
The composition dies away into total silence. In the end it felt like everybody was holding their breath. It took almost half a minute until the applause started to set in. To me, it was an overwhelming experience, encompassing in incredible multitude of impressions, hard to overview when listening to the music for the first time. I think it was a totally convincing performance. Congrats to the composer and soloist, and congrats to the conductor and his orchestra!
Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915): Symphony No.4, “Poème de l’extase”, op.54
The program concluded with “Poème de l’extase”, op.54 (sometimes also referred to as Symphony No.4) by Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915). The “Poème de l’extase” is probably the most popular work by this composer. He wrote it in 1905 – 1908 in Switzerland, at the lake of Geneva. The theme of this composition is the spirit of ecstasy through love and nature, if not in cosmic dimensions. In his own words, “his soul in the orgy of love, the realization of a fantastical dream, and the glory of his own art”. But there may also be a connection with the ongoing events around the revolution in Russia. I suspect that this wasn’t part of the initial concept, though.
The instrumentation is extremely rich, including 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, small and large bells, tam-tam, celesta, organ (harmonium if the organ is not available), 2 harps and strings (copied from to Wikipedia). It’s an excellent opportunity for the orchestra to present itself in full size.
Note that I had a floor seat in the back of the hall, which proved to be ideal for this composition (for the Brahms I would have preferred a seat closer to the soloists); I read comments by reviewers who were sitting close(r) to the orchestra, and who claimed the performance was too loud. I can’t confirm this. Plus, isn’t it the nature of ecstasy to be a bit overwhelming? So, here’s my personal impression from this music:
Despite the extremely rich instrumentation I found the soundscape to remain transparent. To me, the music was not overblown or pastose, even where such tendencies may be seen in the score. Other performances may remind of the damp, roaring heat of a tropical summer afternoon. But here, I rather thought of joyfully excited crowd of people, market turmoil maybe. In contrast, the soft passages to me were pure nature, forest rumors (Wagner’s “Waldweben”!).
And sure, there were these totally ecstatic moments. But even in the final C major build-up I felt radiance, splendor, rather than pastose density. I found it to be a touching, not oppressing finale. Definitely one of those goose bump moments!
I can only repeat myself: the orchestra was in top shape, especially the wind section was excellent, and Lionel Bringuier proved to be fully in his element, at home: this is his type of music; I think we can look forward to an exciting concert season at the Tonhalle!
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.