Bavouzet, Noseda / Philharmonia Zurich
Respighi, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff

Zurich Opera, 2016-02-21

4-star rating


2016-02-24 — Original posting
2016-09-23 — Brushed up for better readability

Introduction

Back in the Zurich Opera House for another Philharmonic Concert, given by the local orchestra, the Philharmonia Zurich, under the direction of the Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda (*1964).

Noseda did his studies (piano, conducting and composition) in Milan and continued on with conducting studies with Myung-Whun Chung and Valery Gergiev. He served as Principal Guest Conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, and with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, then he became Music Director at the Teatro Regio di Torino. His career then took him to post of Principal Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, and since 2011 he is Principal Guest Conductor with the Israel Philharmonic. The most prominent composers in his recorded repertoire are ProkofievDallapiccola, DvořákLisztKarłowiczCasella, ShostakovichRachmaninoff, and Respighi (for detail and references see the Wikipedia entry).

A Hidden Agenda?

That Sunday evening’s concert was governed by the number 3:

  • three compositions were played
  • Suite No.3 from Respighi’s “Antiche danze e arie per liuto“(four movements, though)
  • Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3, with three movements
  • Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.3, again with three movements.

As in past Philharmonic Concerts in this venue, the stage has been extended across the orchestra pit. So, for the Respighi, the strings-only orchestra was essentially located near the center of the (well-attended) auditorium:

Respighi: Antiche danze e arie per liuto, Suite No.3

The Composition

In the years 1917, 1923, and 1932, Ottorino Respighi (1879 – 1936) composed three suites (four pieces each), based on baroque lute music. He named these suites “Antiche danze e arie per liuto” (ancient dances and arias for the lute). The Suite No.3 was arranged and published only after Respighi’s death, in 1937, by the composer’s wife, Elsa Respighi (1894 – 1996, composer, pianist, writer, and singer). Compared to the earlier suites, the third Suite is characterized by a more melancholic tone; it features the following four pieces:

  1. Italiana (Anonymous [late 16th century]: Andantino)
  2. Arie di corte (Jean-Baptiste Besard [ca 1567 – ca 1625]: Andante cantabile — Allegretto — Vivace — Slow with great expression — Allegro vivace — Vivacissimo — Andante cantabile)
  3. Siciliana (Anonymous [late 16th century]: Andantino)
  4. Passacaglia (Lodovico Roncalli [late 17th century]: Maestoso — Vivace)

The Baroque Sources

All sources for Respighi’s suites are little known or even anonymous, baroque composers and lute players, rarely ever played today. Yet, the suites may sound familiar: they have been fairly popular up till today. Respighi tried re-vitalizing that music. He wanted to make it accessible to a wider audience by adapting it to the style of his time, disguised as orchestral pieces. One should keep in mind that 100 years ago, the view to baroque music was largely obscured by romantic tradition.

Luckily, our view to the baroque (and even earlier) music has opened up, thanks to research and the now common practice of historically informed performances (HIP). Also music of the classic and romantic eras is now played with much less of the “excess romantic overhead” that governed the first half of the 20th century. It seemed to me that these developments had their effect on Noseda’s interpretation. With this, he offered a “double-filtered” view on the baroque originals: he frees them from excess romanticism (such as overloaded rubato or a strong, permanent vibrato), and he possibly gets again somewhat closer to the baroque times, so to say.

The Performance

The performance we heard was elegant, light, highlighting the big arches, the waves in dynamics, with momentum and big gestures in “Italiana“.

The second piece, “Arie di corte“, is multi-faceted in itself, with warm melodies in the viola. The orchestra offered excellent playing and homogeneity. They used very limited vibrato only. After the initial segment, a light intermezzo followed, with virtuosic pizzicato sections. Also this was full of momentum and big, though never massive, gestures, both in the music, as well as in the conductor’s movements. I liked the virtuosic playing, the warm tone of the pure string setting, the precision in the pizzicato, the carefully crafted dynamics, the excellent transparency, the well-defined sound down to the softest ppp and below.

Noseda prefers a fluent tempo: the third piece, “Siciliana” felt like a light waltz, despite the intermediate, almost vehement eruptions.

The arpeggiated passages in the last piece (“Passacaglia“) with their robust, “grippy” sound reminded me of the polyphonic and fugato movements in Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin.

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, op.26

The Composition

The second work in the program was the Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, op.26, which Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) completed in 1921. First sketches date back to 1913. This concerto features three movements, all of about the same duration (ca. 9 minutes):

  1. Andante — Allegro — Più mosso — Andante — Allegro
  2. Tema: Andantino
    1. Var.I: L’istesso tempo
    2. Var.II: Allegro
    3. Var.III: Allegro moderato (poco meno mosso) —
    4. Var. IV: Andante meditativo
    5. Var.V: Allegro giusto
    6. Tema: L’istesso tempo
  3. Allegro ma non troppo — Poco più mosso — Meno mosso — Pochissimo meno mosso — Allegro

The Soloist

Soloist in this concerto was Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, a French Pianist, born 1962. Bavouzet studied at the Paris Conservatoire. He started his career in 1995, in a debut performance with the Orchestre de Paris under Sir Georg Solti. Together with Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic, Bavouzet has recorded all five of Sergei Prokofiev’s piano concertos (see the addendum at the bottom). One should therefore assume that the two artists form a well-acquainted team.

Of course, Bavouzet is intimately familiar with this concerto. He plays with grippy, though rarely forceful touch, fairly, if not very fast in general, fluent, precise, even elegant, never rushed — too smooth, maybe. His posture remained calm, immersed in his playing, almost ascetic. He was not showing any notable facial expression, even in the most virtuosic passages. He rarely ever was seeking eye contact with the conductor (let alone the orchestra), leaving the coordination up to the conductor. Also here, the big gestures dominated the playing in the orchestra. However, Noseda also left room for the lyrical aspects.

I. Andante — Allegro

Already in the first movement, Bavouzet’s fast pace sometimes challenged the orchestra, brought it close to its limits. I felt that in this movement, the humorous aspects in the last part deserved more attention than in Bavouzet’s interpretation.

II. Andantino

The Andantino theme in the orchestral introduction sounded warm, gentle, almost mellow, poetic. The pianist can decide to follow this tone by highlighting the pleasant melody in the top voice, giving less weight to the accompanying harmonies. Bavouzet gave away this chance (or option): his playing in the theme may therefore have sounded more dissonant than some would expect from performances with other pianists.

In the Allegro variation we were back in Bavouzet’s fast pace—though this time I could indeed find some humor in his playing. The Andantino meditativo segment reminded me of the shimmering heat of a summer day. However, it remained playful, despite the tension, the expectations in the atmosphere of this section. Towards the end, unfortunately, I noted coordination issues with the orchestra. The large distance between the piano and the wind instruments near the back-end of the stage may have contributed to these problems.

III. Allegro ma non troppo

The coordination with the orchestra remained an issue also in the last movement. At least rhythmically, the orchestra within itself didn’t appear to fall apart at all. I had the impression that after a change to a faster pace, the conductor and/or the orchestra took a while to adopt the soloist’s faster tempo, as if the accompaniment had been expecting a slower pace. On the bright(er) side, I found that thanks to the dry acoustics in the opera house, the music sometimes sounded like intimate Kammerspiel (chamber play). Overall, the performance was focusing too much on tempo and smooth virtuosity. It was not extroverted or aiming at the mere show effect, though—it just felt too casual, if not light-weight, superficial.

Encore — Debussy: “Reflets dans l’eau” from “Images“, book I

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet totally changed his behavior when accepting the applause or thanking the other musicians (in particular, Gianandrea Noseda): now, he seemed rather over-enthusiastic, if not ebullient! He gave an encore (which he announced): “Reflets dans l’eau” from the first book (L.110) of “Images by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918). This was written 1905, so not too far from the rest of the program. Bavouzet presented a good interpretation, fitting his playing style in the concerto. I’m usually critical of encores, but this one was a good fit prior to the intermission.

It felt a bit odd, though, that before starting the encore, Bavouzet needed to adjust one of the mutes in the Steinway D. I felt that the tuning with this instrument was marginal. In the aftermath, it is not possible to say whether the tuning had degraded during the concerto, or whether it had been suboptimal to start with.

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No.3 in A minor, op.44

History

After the revolution 1917, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) was forced to leave Russia. He traveled Western countries as highly successful piano virtuoso, which didn’t leave much time for composing. Also, he missed his personal resort back home, Ivanovka, a place which provided him the inspiration and the atmosphere for composing. He therefore built himself a new resort, the “Villa Senar”, at the Lake of Lucerne. Only after that, in the summers of 1935 & 1936, he was able to tackle the task of writing a new symphony, his Symphony No.3 in A minor, op.44.

This is his last contribution to the genre, only to be followed by his last composition, the Symphonic Dances, op.45. The symphony premiered 1936, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. Initially, the public opinion about this composition was divided. It took as long as into the 1970’s for the work to become more popular.

The Composition

This symphony features only three movements, deviating from the “classic” scheme, even though the first movement can be viewed as modified sonata form, with repeat signs around the exposition):

  1. Introduction and exposition:
    Lento
    (1/4=44) — Allegro moderato (1/4=116) — (1/4=100) — Poco più mossoTempo precedentePiù vivo (Allegro) (1/4=112 – 120)
    Development / recapitulation:
    Tempo primo (1/4=116) — Poco meno mosso — Allegro molto (1/4=152) — Tempo I (1/4=100) — Allegro (1/4=132)
  2. Adagio ma non troppo (1/4=46 – 56) — Allegro vivace (1/4=160) — Alle breve. L’istesso tempo (1/4=1/4) — Tempo come primaAdagio (1/8=63)
  3. Allegro (1/4=132) — Meno mosso (1/4=88 – 96) — Meno mosso (Andante con moto) (1/4=60) — AllegroAllegro vivace (1/4=138) — Moderato (1/4=60) — Allegro vivace (tempo precedente) Allegro (Tempo primo)Meno mossoAndante con moto (1/4=66) — AllegrettoAllegro Allegro vivace (1/4=152)

I. Lento — Allegro moderato

In this concert, the first movement started with a little mishap: the first four bars are in pp, played by the solo clarinet, a muted horn, and the solo cello (also con sordino), all in unison. With the large distances between the instruments in this stage setting, this is very demanding—and it failed. The cellist tried compensating with additional vibrato, but that didn’t really help. For each of the three players it must have been impossible to determine whether it was his instrument which was slightly out-of-tune. However, I’m glad to report that this remained a solitary incident: I was happy with everything that followed!

Already in this movement, I noted the excellent coordination within the string voices, an in the orchestra altogether. Yes, the acoustics of the venue are very dry, there is virtually no reverberation that would help by filling gaps and supporting the sound of the orchestra. However, here, this not only helped the coordination in the orchestra, it also rendered Rachmaninoff’s refined instrumentation clear and transparent, down to small details. It gave listeners a chance to enjoy the blossoming of Rachmaninoff’s (somewhat fragmentary) longing melodies, and to enjoy the virtuosity of the orchestra. Clearly, to me, the music profited from the acoustics of the venue.

II. Adagio ma non troppo — Allegro vivace

The middle movement was very atmospheric, with beautiful sound, yearning motifs and wistful melodies. Once more, the dry acoustics allowed for moments where this music sounded like a Kammerspiel. In the faster central part, the movement is also dramatic and full of tension, with expressive discharges. I should also mention the concert master’s (Hanna Weinmeister) very nice and well-fitting violin solo in the first two movements: simple, not overblown, and without excessive vibrato.

III. Allegro

The contrasting final movement gave the orchestra another chance to demonstrate its virtuosic abilities and excellent ensemble qualities. At the same time, it gave plenty of room also to the more intimate, lyrical aspects. The music never sounded overblown. It also helped that Gianandrea Noseda in general preferred a fluent tempo and avoided an excess of rubato. Overall, the listener was never in danger of feeling oppressed by heavy, romantic masses of sound and volume.

Conclusion

I felt that this was a very compelling, classic (as opposed to romantic) interpretation of a symphony that is probably underrated. It was a performance that aimed at transparency and clarity. With this, the Philharmonia Zurich does not need to hide behind recording and concert appearances of the top orchestras of this world. Quite to the contrary in some aspects: where else can one experience Rachmaninoff in such lucidity?


Addendum:

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 straight translation of the Bachtrack review.


CD for the Piano Concerto:

Note: this link is posted for reference only — I have not reviewed or even listened to these recordings.

Prokofiev: Piano Concertos — Bavouzet, Noseda; CD coverProkofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 – 5

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
Gianandrea Noseda / BBC Philharmonic

Chandos CHAN 10802 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗  / © 2014
Prokofiev: Piano Concertos — Bavouzet, Noseda; CD, UPC-A barcode
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


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