Beatrice Rana, Fabio Luisi / Philharmonia Zürich
Beethoven / Schubert
Opera Zurich, 2019-02-10
Back to the Zurich Opera House for another Philharmonic Concert in the season 2018/19. In the center of the concert stood the Philharmonia Zurich, under the direction of the orchestra’s principal conductor, Fabio Luisi (*1959, see also Wikipedia). I don’t need to spend more words on introducing orchestra and conductor. This is my eighth concert review featuring a concert with this orchestra under Fabio Luisi’s direction.
The Soloist: Beatrice Rana
Also with the soloist, Beatrice Rana (*1993, see also Wikipedia), this wasn’t my first encounter. A pianist friend warmly recommended her to me over three years ago. Thereafter, I have heard her in a solo recital in Baden, on 2016-04-01, in an orchestral concert in Lugano, on 2017-05-07, and finally in a second solo recital in Lucerne, on 2017-11-24. In all these performances, she has never disappointed, so I was curious to hear her with the Philharmonia Zurich.
The official program “just” listed two compositions, to which Beatrice added an encore:
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, op.37
- Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828): Symphony in C major, D.944, “Great C major”
It looks like there will be more occasions to witness Beatrice Rana in concert at Zurich Opera, with Fabio Luisi and the Philharmonia Zurich! The artists plan on a complete cycle of all of Beethoven’s piano concertos. A Philharmonic Concert with the Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, op.15 is planned for July already. On top of that, this concert was recorded, therefore I suspect that Fabio Luisi plans on publishing these recordings (the entire cycle, I hope) on CD!
This concert (Sunday morning, 11:15 a.m.) almost filled the audience in the opera house. My wife and I were pleased to note that the fraction of younger people in the audience seemed bigger than in earlier concerts. Did Beatrice Rana motivate younger people to attend? If so, that would be excellent!
As I have given up reviewing Philharmonic Concerts as “official reviewer” (such as for Bachtrack), we were looking for good, but affordable seats. In general, the higher the seats, and the higher the row number, the lower the prices. Last time, we tried a row 4 seat on the first balcony. These are OK acoustically, and for opera, they offer very acceptable viewing conditions. In Philharmonic Concerts, however, the “action” (the soloist, in particular) is not on stage, but mostly in the auditorium, above the orchestra pit. And so, seats in row 3 or higher on the first balcony (let alone the second balcony) really are sub-standard for people who want to see.
So, this time, were lucky enough to get seats in the first row on the second balcony, behind the lid of the Steinway D-274. I have no problem with not being able to watch the pianist’s hands. I have seen Beatrice Rana’s hands in action in earlier instances. Plus, I’m mostly busy reading the score and scribbling notes.
An exclusive advantage of a first-row balcony seat: the top of the parapet not only is bolstered and velvet-clad, but it even has an extra rim on the outside, such that objects that are placed on the parapet won’t easily fall off. This turned out to be ideal for me, as I can easily and safely read the score from my iPad on the parapet! Needless to say that the iPad is dimmed such that is actually darker than the open program notes in the given lighting…
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, op.37
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) himself premiered the Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, op.37 in 1803. The three movements of this very well known and popular concerto bear the following tempo annotations:
- Allegro con brio
- Rondo: Allegro
First impressions: the stage size was the usual one for Philharmonic Concerts, and so, even with the Steinway D.274 concert grand, there was plenty of space for the orchestra, as the compositions in the program don’t require a huge body of wind and percussion instruments. Still, considering some HIP configurations, the orchestra seemed fairly big, with 16 + 14 violins (both on the left), 12 violas (on the right), 10 cellos, 6 double basses (8 for the Schubert symphony), 12 wind instruments (15 for the symphony) and timpani. However, I had no doubts that Fabio Luisi would be able to keep the acoustic balance. Plus, the orchestra is really excellent, and with Fabio Luisi’s precise gestures, there would be no “blurring” of the articulation due to inaccuracies in the coordination.
Getting into the theater acoustics at the beginning of a Philharmonic Concert is always a special moment. And it was instantly clear that Fabio Luisi was not trying to reproduce a “historically informed” sound. However, he did not “abuse” the large string body to produce “big” sound. Rather, he used it to obtain a very homogeneous sound, but kept the articulation precise, light and alert, the volume moderate. And in combination with the Spaltklang (split sound), he was able to achieve optimum clarity and transparency. A (pleasant) peculiarity of the setup was that the wind instruments often sounded like a chamber music ensemble. A consequence and an advantage of the dry theater acoustics.
I. Allegro con brio
With the entry of the solo, Beatrice Rana instantly demonstrated how she approached this concerto. She was careful in the articulation (and truthful to the notation), unspectacular in the musical and physical gestures, clear in the details, though fluent in the rolling semiquavers. Her playing was subtle (but never mellow) in the p and pp, but always returned to a firm grip whenever the volume turned f. I liked her careful, often detailed agogics, the clear phrasing, the rhythmic clarity. The solo part is of course not presenting a real challenge to Beatrice Rana. Her technique is superb, which one could also see in the clear articulation in the left hand, the attention to secondary voices in the solo part.
I also noted a particular alertness in the tempo, both on the soloist’s part, as well as on Luisi’s / the orchestra’s. Never, ever, the performance lost momentum, the interaction with the orchestra was flawless, echoing responses between solo and orchestra (e.g., around bar 250) were excellent, mutual imitations. The acoustics ensured that also the finest pp staccato in the violins retained the appropriate presence in accompanying the solo, and throughout the performance, Luisi maintained perfect balance and transparency.
Of course, Beatrice Rana’s performance stayed within the realm of the modern concert grand. She did not make attempts to imitate a period instrument. But within these obvious boundaries, I can definitely say: it was as good as it can be done on a Steinway grand! And even though that instrument was beyond the composer’s imagination, her performance to me retained the character of the composition.
Also in the cadenza, her articulation and agogics remained very detailed. The soloist didn’t try to impress with pianistic excellence by running through at top speed—to the contrary! There was no thundering, no senseless scales and passage work, rather diligence and differentiation in dynamics and agogics. It’s rare that one hears a soloist move into the finest ppp (if not below!) for the most subtle garlands of broken chords up and down the keyboard, truly dolce and espressivo where Beethoven asks for it! Then, of course, at the Presto, where Beethoven’s language turns resolute, she turned towards bigger sound and grip—without exaggeration. And after the climax, she returned to pp for the subtle transition to the coda.
The movement begins with a long recitative, which Beatrice Rana performed with lots of expression, though agogics and very, very subtle dynamics: ritenuti, fermatas, accelerandi, “talking”, Klangrede as good as it can be! The orchestra ideally adopted the mellow articulation, the gentle dynamics. It was admirable how the soloist was able to keep the calm, though all this mass of tiny note values (the solo part is full of notes down to 1/128—”semihemidemisemiquavers”!).
Beatrice Rana’s solo starting in bar 39 turned into a murmuring accompaniment to the slow, singing wind motifs / melodies. The pianist didn’t try taking over, except where Beethoven briefly asks for marcato. Then, she instantly returned to the serene, soft, introverted monologue / recitative: differentiated, expressive down to the smallest motifs—neither too theatrical, nor too sweet—excellent!
III. Rondo: Allegro
The final movement followed attacca. Also here, Beatrice Rana retained her distinct agogics, the clear, careful articulation in both hands. My only quibble: the semiquaver triplets in bar 50ff sounded like acciaccaturas / grace notes, i.e., a tad superficial. However, I’m sure this was deliberate. Where on the other hand such semiquaver triplets were chained, e.g., in the solo starting in bar 115, the articulation was absolutely smooth and even (within the careful agogics and dynamics, of course). And I loved the capricious character of the solo starting at bar 320! And still then, Beatrice Rana never let superficiality creep in, rather maintained her attention to detail and dynamic subtlety.
Only in the Presto coda, the tempo was a little fast. It was so fast that despite the soloist’s virtuosity and technical superiority, details in the solo part were no longer discernible, which made this ending sound a bit too smooth, no longer allowing for differentiation. A final “hair in the soup”?
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
Throughout the concerto I noted how carefully soloist and conductor stayed in close contact with each other, never left room for discrepancies. Clearly, the two have “done their homework”!
Beatrice Rana overall presented a more of a lyrical than a rebellious view of the concerto (let alone a “titanic” one that some artists might aim for, based on the C minor tonality). It might be that my listening position, far above the area of direct projection of the concert grand, highlighted the lyrical aspects. Still: the idea of a “female” interpretation (if gender stereotypes make sense at all in this context) did not spring to mind.
Rather, it was a technically superb performance (I may have spotted one single, well-hidden missed key) with a distinct character. A most remarkable interpretation, throughout! As stated: about as good as it can get on a modern concert grand—congratulations!
Overall Rating: ★★★★½
Encore — Chopin: Étude in A♭ major, op.25/1, CT 26, “Aeolian Harp”
The audience obviously very much liked Beatrice Rana’s performance! Her choice of encore was an interesting one. And one that turned out to fit very well! She selected the Étude in A♭ major, op.25/1, CT 26, “Aeolian Harp” by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)—the Étude that opens Chopin’s second (op.25) series of 12 studies.
The surname “Aeolian harp” adequately describes the nature of this Étude—certainly in Beatrice Rana’s interpretation. Her performance was subtle, very atmospheric, in smooth waves and a single, big dynamic arch—masterful, thanks a lot!
In an earlier posting, I have briefly alluded to the confusion about the numbering of the symphonies that Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) has written. There is no problem with the symphonies No.1 up to No.6, which appeared in print during the composer’s lifetime. Thereafter, there was confusion about the order of composition, compounded by fragments. That confusion has not been resolved, but persists to this day, where the last symphonies are linked to different numbers, depending on the edition, or on the area (English-speaking vs. the rest). Consequently, I have stopped using “symphony numbers” (7, 8, 9) with these works. Rather, I use the numbers from the Deutsch catalog (ignoring the various fragments) for the late symphonies:
- E major, D.729 (completely sketched, but not entirely scored by Schubert)
- B minor, D.759, “Unfinished”
- C major, D.944, “Great C major”
The “Great C major Symphony”, D.944 is by far the longest of all of Schubert’s symphonies. It has the following four movements:
- Andante — Allegro ma non troppo — Più moto
- Andante con moto
- Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio
- Finale: Allegro vivace
I. Andante —
I only had one single quibble with the entire symphony performance: the initial horn solo seemed to lack acoustic support, sounded very dry and lonesome. To me, it seemed to make it hard to read this as the preparation for, the anticipation of such a big masterwork into this horn call. The hornists are not to blame here, of course. It was just the one moment where the acoustics seemed to turn against the music. Luckily, the performance that followed almost instantly made me forget about this.
With extra attention towards the orchestra, I now noted the remarkably warm, characterful sound of the string voices, in particular of the violas and cellos, and the carefully tunes / balanced dynamics throughout the orchestra. The concertmaster (Bartlomiej Niziol) played a key, active role as Fabio Luisi’s right (or rather: left) hand, throughout the performance. This was exemplary for the active participation of the entire orchestral ensemble.
In this introduction, Fabio Luisi carefully kept the orchestra at bay, didn’t try trumping up in the ff, consistently building up and maintaining tension towards the exposition. As in earlier performances, I noted his diligence in building up big forms, big dramatic arches.
Allegro ma non troppo — Più moto
The beginning of the Allegro ma non troppo did feel like unleashing forces / emotions—on Schubert’s part. Luisi of course avoided overshooting, as this might have caused a drop in tension. The second theme felt very fluent, he took it a tad faster, but retained the transparency, the clarity in articulation. In general, I found Luisi’s tempo choices compelling, excellent. The same can be said about the performance in the orchestra, from the wind soloists to the strings, the coordination, the classical / Apollonian clarity in sound and structure.
Needless to say that Fabio Luisi repeated the exposition! Some may argue that this symphony is too long, with its “heavenly lengths”. The latter may indeed feel notorious in some traditional performances—certainly not here! The form, the overall structure made sense, orchestra and conductor remained attentive throughout, there were no drops in tension (Durchhänger), and thanks to the clear acoustics, the sound never turned massive, let along oppressive. I particularly noted the distinct “a tempo” at the beginning of the recap section, the entry of the second theme (as already in the exposition). An indication for Luisi’s excellent overall view, his sense for form and structure!
The coda (Più moto) was fast, yet virtuosic and clear throughout (the acoustics were very helpful, too, of course!), dramatic, but controlled (after, there was a lot still to follow!).
II. Andante con moto
Here, Fabio Luisi of course observed the con moto annotation. We heard a performance that was never comfortably leaning back! Rather, it was attentive throughout, full of tension, “on the edge”, light, short and accurate in the articulation in the strings, with subtle agogics, never rigid (let alone “military”). This also was the movement in which one could enjoy the string section with their silken, homogeneous sound down to the finest ppp. The lively details in dynamics demonstrated how much attention Luisi paid to consistent phrasing and articulation.
Not lengths dominated the movement, but persistent, relentless tension, constantly building up towards the dramatic outcry at the fff climax, where the movement seemed to break off into an abyss, into one of those scary, sudden general rests, so typical, of the late Schubert! Fabio Luisi deliberately extended that rest, took a fresh, careful and slower start, in a transfigured world / atmosphere, pretending to resume the previous themes. There seemed to be harmless, light moments. However, after the scary climax, nothing can be harmless, of course. The performance maintained that feeling of an underlying menace, reverberations of the scare, the inability to forget the disaster that just happened.
III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio
Fast, virtuosic, agile, clear, but never exaggerating the drama, let alone ever pompous! The performance kept proving the superb orchestral quality, retained utmost clarity and precision in all the fast interjections and figures. It never turned rigid, rather stayed flexible, expressive, attentive to details, “talking” through dynamics in motifs. And of course, Fabio Luisi did all the repeats, both in the Scherzo, as well as in the Trio—most appreciated! And interestingly, that alleged sensation of “heavenly lengths” never, ever turned up: amazing!
IV. Finale: Allegro vivace
Also here, Fabio Luisi selected a fast pace, but of course without exaggeration. There was never a feeling of him driving, chasing the orchestra, also when he gradually accelerated towards the second theme. The music seemed to lean forward, but remained light, accurate in articulation and coordination, remarkably relentless through all those endless “tidlidee” repeats in the strings. Also this big, if not giant last movement is in sonata form. And of course, we heard the exposition twice. Yet again, there wasn’t a single drop in tension, up to the broad, extensive climax.
Luisi resisted any temptation to broaden the end of a phrase. Only in the coda, he took those repeated “taa-taa-taa-taa” sforzati distinctly broad, as incisive, perhaps menacing interjections. Even there, Luisi didn’t let go. The symphony didn’t end in a big, triumphant splash! Rather, as the score indicates, the final note is a decrescendo over three bars. Here, it definitely wasn’t confirmation, but a “Why?”, the ultimate question mark in life, an open end, fading into silence.
I haven’t forgotten that in my youth, almost 50 years ago, I fell asleep in a concert performance of the Great C major symphony. Nothing less than that here! I can truly say that Luisi’s performance made me experience what a masterwork this symphony is: full of drama, but devoid of pomp. A most remarkable, outstanding performance! And hopefully, this will also soon turn into a highly commendable recording of Schubert’s masterpiece!