Lisa Batiashvili, Sir Antonio Pappano / COE
Ligeti / Brahms
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2018-05-23
None of the “ingredients” for this concert at the Tonhalle Maag were new to me. All of the artists I have encountered in concert previously, though not in this combination:
- the conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano (*1959) — for additional information see my report from a concert in Lugano, on 2017-05-07;
- the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE, see also Wikipedia for information). I have had the pleasure to experience them in concert several times already: twice with Bernard Haitink (*1929) conducting (2016-09-04, 2017-08-15), and once (2016-05-09) with Thierry Fischer (*1957).
- Finally, the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili (*1979, see also Wikipedia), who by now has been living in Germany for over 25 years. She has been performing at two concerts in Zurich that I attended: one on 2015-09-16, and a second one on 2016-06-16. According to Wikipedia, she plays a 1739 instrument by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698 – 1744).
Oddly, the event was far from being sold out. Because it’s not the local orchestra? Both the COE and Sir Antonio Pappano enjoy an excellent international reputation. Also, Lisa Batiashvili is not unknown to Zurich. After all, she has been Artist in Residence with the Tonhalle Orchestra, in the season 2015/2016.
I know at least two people who may have been happy that there weren’t more people: the computer system in the ticket office broke down, so they needed to write all tickets (reserved or sold just prior to the concert) by hand, and there was a major queue. This caused the beginning of the concert to be delayed by a few minutes.
At a first glance, the concert program may have looked a bit strange: starting with a work by Ligeti (1950), on to Brahms’ Violin Concerto op.77 (one of the true highlights in his oeuvre). The published program ended with the early Serenade op.11 by the same composer: from a time when Brahms was still struggling with trying to find his personal musical language and form in orchestral music. Musical evolution backwards, in retrospective, it seems? As it turned out, the sequence of the works was far less exotic that it seemed—see below.
There was plenty of space on the podium for the COE, which used a classic-early romantic setup, with the two violin voices on either side, at the front of the podium. The first violins sat next to the cellos, followed by the viola, and the double basses were on the rear-left. This (particularly the splitting of the violin voices) resulted in optimum clarity, plasticity and transparency, and it also helped the projection of cellos and violas.
In fact, the COE was an ideal fit to the venue, and Pappano knew how to use the analytical acoustics of the venue to the best advantage of the works performed. The finest ppp remain perfectly audible, well-defined, and localizable. At the same time, the orchestra’s ff and fff was impressive, yet never “loud” or oppressive—one of the dangers in this venue.
Ligeti: Concert Românesc (1951)
György Ligeti (1923 – 2006) grew up in Transylvania in Romania, later moving to Budapest for his studies, which he completed in 1949. In the same year, he returned to Romania’s capital, Bukarest, for several months. In the Institute for Folkloristic Studies he came across wax rolls with Romanian folk songs. An initial duo for two violins incorporated such folk melodies in two movements Ballad and Dance. Ultimately, these pieces ended up as the first two movements in his Concert Românesc, which he completed in 1951, with four movements:
- Allegro vivace
- Adagio ma non troppo
- Molto vivace — Presto
The four segments are all performed attacca. The movements form two pairs with the pattern slow — fast. Sadly, the Soviet authorities rejected the composition due to alleged “formalism“, based on thee Zhdanov decree from 1948. It was only in 1971 that the Concert Românesc first saw a public performance.
How Does the Music Sound?
Those who expected the Concert Românesc to sound like many of Ligeti’s later works—provoking, often playful—could not have been more wrong. As indicated, this is Romanian folk music in rhythm and melodies, but “dressed up” in classical harmonies, even baroque textures (e.g., in the contrapuntal segments). The slow movements are melancholic, pensive, featuring natural harmonics (even reminding of a Ranz des Vaches), with some oriental sprinklings. The fast parts, are enthralling, often wild.
Sure, there are segments in which Ligeti’s personal style shines through, especially in the last movement, e.g., are his preference for the use of noise and alienation effects in sound. And, of course, his tendency to use extremes in pitch and dynamics: whispering, barely audible rubbing noise, murmuring, up to veritable eruptions. Today, the dissonances in this music are barely perceived as such. It’s a short, but fascinating and really entertaining piece of music with warm and expressive cantilenas. And it’s ideal for the beginning of a concert!
Ligeti’s Concert Românesc gave a chance to experience the key qualities of the COE. These included the transparency, the distinct, characterful sound of the string voices, the sound of the wind instruments (excellent throughout). In addition, I noted the excellent control in dynamics, the alertness and the engagement of all members of the ensemble.
Pappano’s direction was both precise and full of momentum, which of course translated into the music. Here and through the entire concert, his tempo choices sounded “right”, compelling; the transitions were all natural and seamless. With a long breath, Sir Antonio formed extended, long dynamic and phrasing arches. Contrary to some other commenters, through the entire concert, I didn’t feel a moment of boredom or a loss of tension: there was never a danger that my thoughts started wandering off, away from the music.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote his only Violin Concerto in D major, op.77 in 1878. He dedicated the work to his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907). The concerto has three movements:
- Allegro non troppo
- Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace — Poco più presto
Lisa Batiashvili offered a romantic interpretation: expressive, flowing, with a warm tone, vibrato pretty much throughout (see below for details), with the occasional portamento. At least in the fast movements I would claim that her performance was focusing on expression rather than technical perfection. Her tone was warm, radiant, well-projecting, never shrill or too poignant, with excellent sonority up to the highest notes. Overall, the acoustic balance was ideal, thanks to both Brahms’ diligent disposition, as well as of course the moderate orchestra size.
Those who watched the intonation may have noted some “unusual intervals”. For all I can tell, the intonation was excellent, and (apart from very rare mishaps) the “unusual” intervals were consciously placed. Lead intervals may have been deliberately narrow, fifths pure (rather than tempered), thirds larger than in equal temperament tuning.
I. Allegro non troppo
A convincing performance, full of momentum, excellent, clear articulation, always careful not to neglect secondary, “hidden” melody lines (like the lower notes in bars 224ff), maintaining excellent sonority also in powerful segments, such as bars 348ff. In bars 326 – 331 (prior to the f trill chain), the soloist took the volume back to a sheer whispering: excellent, and probably only feasible because of Pappano’s excellent dynamic control in the accompaniment.
While I’m not particularly fond of ubiquitous vibrato, here it felt OK, in general. One exception: in bars 204ff (around [D]), the vibrato was excessive, too prominent. Other details that I noted: in bars 405 up to 416 ([H]) Batiashvili played a tad faster—deliberately, clearly, and there was no discrepancy (ever) with the orchestra. Pappano’s accompaniment remained attentive at all times—excellent!
I liked the very lyrical, expressive solo playing in bars 443ff (after [I]): everything seemed carefully articulated, never superficial, not extroverted.
The vast majority of the violinists play the cadenza by Brahms’ friend Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907), who not only premiered the concerto, but had also worked with the composer on optimizing the solo part and orchestral accompaniment for the violin. Indeed, the beginning of the cadenza seemed to be Joachim’s, and also later, there were snippets from that same cadenza (which in turn was of course closely related to Brahms’ concerto, i.e., based on motifs and melodies from the movement).
However, here, already with the initial, ascending “Joachim gesture”, drum roll set in, initially with a sforzando, then persisting throughout the cadenza, with extremely differentiated dynamics, often down to a soft murmuring. Later, soft string voices in the orchestra added to the accompaniment, yielding a seamless transition back into the coda.
This was the cadenza which Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924) wrote in 1913 (BV B 5). I’m not sure whether Brahms would have been happy with this “addition”. In particular, I don’t think he would have liked being reminded of the cadenza that Beethoven wrote for the piano version of his Violin Concerto in D major, op.61 (which also features timpani accompaniment). Harmonically and melodically, Busoni’s cadenza fits the concerto fairly well, and so, I regard this a “reasonably successful experiment”. My preference remains with Joachim ‘s cadenza, though.
The fist movement was excellent, convincing, overall.
The beginning of the slow movement enchanted, touched with its blooming, oboe solo, freely swaying in its dialog with clarinets and bassoons. However, I personally didn’t like Lisa Batiashvili’s performance in the Adagio nearly as much as that in the first movement. Here, her vibrato seemed far too strong and too nervous. To me, it disturbed the calm, serene atmosphere of the movement. Was this a (failed) attempt to be very expressive? In my view, Brahms’ melody line alone does this already sufficiently well: there is no point in trying to make it even more expressive. Yes, articulation, dynamics, and phrasing were careful and detailed—but the vibrating made it hard just to enjoy this.
III. Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace — Poco più presto
The final movement was again convincing with its impulsive solo, full of momentum. Lisa Batiashvili appeared to play “at the front edge”, at the verge of pulling ahead. The orchestra, however, stayed with the soloist—maybe the signals in the wind instruments in bars 27ff were a bit too poignant. The tempo was fast, to the point where fast semiquaver figures in the solo could just about still be articulated, occasionally started to soften (e.g., in bars 93ff). In this movement, the vibrato in general was not too intrusive. An exception was in the espressivo around [E] (bars 134ff), which sounded overblown, nervous.
Intonation-wise, in this movement I noted a few mishaps in the solo part. The concerto is very long and straining. In general, however, Lisa Batiashvili’s playing was technically superb, and my minor quibbles could not disturb the picture of an excellent performance. I liked Batiashvili’s polyphonic balance in bars 222ff, and certainly from [I] on, the articulation was very clear again, though to the enthralling Più mosso ending, full of drive and enthusiasm, carried by both the orchestra and the soloist.
Overall rating: ★★★★
Encore — Bach: Chorale Prelude “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”, BWV 639
Prior to the intermission, soloist and orchestra offered a first encore: a newer arrangement—or rather a paraphrase, with its added introduction—of the short Chorale Prelude “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (I call to You, Lord Jesus Christ), BWV 639, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Bach published this as part of his “Little Organ Book” (Orgelbüchlein), BWV 599 – 644. This satisfied the audience’s wish for an encore; the interpretation expectedly was solemn, calm, conveyed the atmosphere of the chorale. In whatever arrangement, this seems a popular encore; however, whether this was a good match (complement, rather) to the preceding concerto is an entirely different question.
Around 1858, when Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) completed his Serenade No.1 in D major for Grand Orchestra, op.11, the composer was still looking for his personal form, his proper means of expression. He was struggling with the big forms, in particular, with working towards writing a symphony. This first serenade (one of two) is a prime example for Brahms’ struggle. It started off as an octet for wind and string instruments, then expanded into a chamber nonet, then adapted for orchestra—and finally published as serenade “serenade for grand orchestra” (an oxymoron, actually, considering the original meaning of a serenade). The serenade was first performed in 1860, in Hamburg, to a large audience of 1200.
In its final form, the Serenade op.11 now has six movements and lasts around 45 minutes:
- Allegro molto
- Scherzo: Allegro non troppo — Trio: Poco più moto
- Adagio non troppo
- Menuetto I — Menuetto II
- Scherzo: Allegro — Trio
- Rondo: Allegro
I. Allegro molto
Here, and throughout the serenade, we could again enjoy a masterful orchestral performance. In particular, I noted the detailed, expressive and expansive dynamics, a clear, bright and transparent soundscape, the lively play with agogics. And there were the truly excellent wind soloists (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horns), all of which seemed to perform out of a single mind. And the brilliant sound of the brass section at the climax: pure joy!
Brahms’ music makes the rhythm feel “on the flow”, with its frequent insertion of triplets in an even time signature. I also noted Pappano’s excellent, seamless transitions between form segments, his natural tempo choice (“That’s how it must be!”). The latter reminds me of an unnamed old master conductor who boasted as “having a feel for the natural tempo”. With Sir Antonio Pappano (in contrast to that other conductor), I would sign that any time!
The only hair in the soup was in the fact that the exposition was not repeated. Yes, this would have made this long serenade even longer. Nevertheless, it would have clarified the structure (and, after all, Brahms hat added repeat signs for a purpose!).
II. Scherzo: Allegro non troppo — Trio: Poco più moto
An unusual Scherzo: initially retained, mostly p, then gradually more expressive, but always lyrical, in a swaying rhythm. I again noted the excellent transitions in Brahms’ “composed rubato“. For once, the Trio is much more Scherzo-like than the actual Scherzo: relentless, full of drive, moving forward, with lots of plasticity in the dynamics locally, and ranging from an impressive ff down to a true ppp. Pappano managed never to drop the tension, also when he left it up to soloists to shape a melody, a phrase.
III. Adagio non troppo
At first, the tempo felt relatively slow. That impression vanished instantly with the entry of the solo clarinet, later continued by the flute: beautiful cantilenas! And I loved how they played out the triplets: expanded by a tiny bit, nothing was rushed—agogics at their best! Pappano kept the strings calm, but all the more, the wind solos (horn, clarinet, flute, oboe, and bassoon) were able to bloom. And even in this slow movement, the tension, the intensity never dropped, and Pappano formed long, often even urging arches, from pp to an expressive climax, and back again into very soft murmuring in the low strings.
Some listeners (and critics) found the movement too long, if not boring. I personally think that this is a prejudice, a pre-conceived opinion. And I can’t agree—provided one opened the mind to Brahms beautiful melodic inventions. Sure, the form may not be as conclusive and compelling as in later compositions, the melodies aren’t yet catchy and often fragmentary only. However, in the performance by Pappano and the COE, I enjoyed every bit of it!
IV. Menuetto I — Menuetto II
This is the one, true serenade movement in this composition! A little serenade for two clarinets and bassoon, later joined by the flute and discreet cello pizzicati (Pappano had a single cello play these, which emphasized the intimate character of the piece). The movement was entirely calm, yet full of life in every bar! Similarly, in the second half of the (more expansive) Menuetto II, only the concertmaster played the violin voice in the first pass: expressive, but never too much. And the transition back to Menuetto I was entirely seamless, natural, inconspicuous.
V. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio
The “serenade” part was merely a short moment. The second Scherzo is entirely symphonic again: catchy, captivating hunting music with its prominent horn calls, and at the same time festive, with the timpani, the splendid sound of the full orchestra. Similarly the Trio: again with horn, now accompanied by very virtuosic quaver lines in the strings. The latter were kept as accompaniment, blended into the ensemble sound—all natural, not trying to impress with extroverted show or extra perfection.
VI. Rondo: Allegro
A multi-faceted Finale with virtuosic segments, as well as lyrical parts, again with beautiful cantilenas. Pappano attached this directly to the preceding Scherzo. The performance was excellent, again, in general. In a rare moment (the virtuosic bassoon triplets on top of pizzicato in the strings, in bars 170ff) was momentarily a bit off the beat. For the orchestra it had been a long evening, minor mishaps are only natural. And this was the only one that reached my ear!
It’s interesting how Brahms keeps the pace, but composes a rallentando, calming down to pp, before building up to a short, but effective ending.
Overall rating: ★★★★★
Encore 2 — Rossini: Overture to the Opera “La scala di seta“
Sir Antonio Pappano being of Italian descent, he could not resist offering a final encore from the country of his forefathers. He selected the Overture to the Opera “La scala di seta” (The silken Ladder), which Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868) completed in 1812. It’s one of Rossini’s first four operas, all composed between 1810 to 1813. With this, Pappano continued the retrograde journey from Ligeti back into the early 19th century.
It was a truly fulminant ending to a splendid orchestral performance: a prime example in motoric drive (so typical of Rossini!) and theatrics through extensive, brilliant agogics and dynamics, showing Pappano’s power as opera conductor. At the same time, it’s a true orchestral showpiece, very fast and extremely virtuosic, especially for flute and oboe. It’s not often that an audience is released so elated, exhilarated!
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.