Marc Bouchkov, Claire Huangci, Howard Griffiths / KOB
Mendelssohn: Double Concerto in D minor (Recording Session)

Recording @ Paul Sacher Saal, Don Bosco, Basel, 2021-03-29


2021-04-14 — Original posting



Table of Contents


General Remarks

This is another instance of a set of “workshop reports“, reports from visits to CD recording sessions: neither media reviews (the music is only just being recorded), nor concert reports. There is no audience, no complete performance, just a rehearsal and a series of takes with at most a full movement in a single “chunk”. See also my posting from 2021-03-18 for information on a related project by the Orpheum Foundation.

One should read this as a “teaser” for an ongoing CD recording project. The “end product” will only become available in about a year’s time.


Introduction

Venue, Date(s)Paul Sacher Saal, Don Bosco, Basel, 2021-03-29 / 2021-03-30
Series / TitleOrpheum Foundation: Young Artists’ CD Project 2021
Organizer(s)Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists
Goldmann Public Relations
Reviews on Related EventsConcerts organized by the Orpheum Foundation
Concerts in this same venue
Concerts and Recitals with Claire Huangci
Orpheum-Concert with Marc Bouchkov, 2016-08-31
Concerts with the Kammerorchester Basel
Concerts with Howard Griffiths

The Context

The Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists is helping young, promising artists (4 – 8 per year) in launching a successful career, through concert opportunities, establishing contacts with concert agents and recording firms. In addition, the Foundation is directly organizing recording projects in cooperation with major labels. One such example is the Foundation’s “Next Generation Mozart Soloists” project that was officially launched a few weeks ago, featuring all of the composer’s instrumental concertos.


This Year’s Orpheum CD Project

Besides the above, major project, since 2015, the Foundation has also initiated individual recordings, typically one per year. The recording sessions for the latest one of these, in cooperation with the label Berlin Classics, took place at the end of March 2021. The original plan called for a recording last year, but the pandemic made this impossible. That upcoming CD (to be released in February 2022) features three instrumental compositions by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847):

  • Double Concerto in D minor for Piano, Violin, and Strings, MWV O4 (1823)
  • Violin Sonata No.2 in F minor, op.4, MWV Q12 (1823)
  • Violin Sonata No.3 in F major, MWV Q26 (1838)

The first two days of recording sessions for this CD covered the Double Concerto in D minor for Piano, Violin, and Strings. The two violin sonatas followed on the two subsequent days, see my upcoming, separate post. This report is from the afternoon session of the first recording day.


The Artists in This Recording Session

Neither the artists, nor the orchestra were new to me. I have encountered all of them in earlier concerts, see the links in the table above. For simplicity, I’m quoting some of the biographic information from earlier postings:

Marc Bouchkov, Violin

The Russian-Belgian violinist Marc Bouchkov was born 1991 in Montpellier, into a family of musicians. Bouchkov started learning the violin at age 5, with his grandfather as teacher. 2001, Marc Bouchkov entered the conservatory in Lyon, and from 2007 on he studied at the Conservatoire national supérieur musique et danse in Paris, with Boris Garlitsky, who became his main teacher, mentor and promoter. The violinist has since started a successful career as soloist.

For this recording, Marc Bouchkov played a 1742 – 1744 violin by Carlo Bergonzi (Cremona, 1683 – 1747) and Michele Angelo Bergonzi (1721 – 1758).

Claire Huangci, Piano

The American pianist Claire Huangci (*1990, see also Wikipedia) is among the artists that I have written about the most. For details about her biography, I therefore refer to the link in the above table. Concert encounters with her date back as far as February 2015, and she has never disappointed in all these encounters. Quite to the contrary: with every concert or recital, she continues to fascinate me with new facets of her musicality, her artistry.

In this recording (and, of course, the duo recordings on the following days), Claire Huangci was playing a Yamaha CFX concert grand.

Howard Griffiths, Conductor

Also Howard Griffiths (*1950, see also Wikipedia) is not new to my blog—in fact, he has been conducting the orchestra (the Camerata Schweiz) in a recent set of recording sessions for the Orpheum Foundation. For biographic information see the first one of my reports on these.

Kammerorchester Basel

Finally: the orchestra, the Kammerorchester Basel, too, has performed in several concerts that I discussed in this blog, see the link in the above table. For information on the ensemble see the first one of these postings. It sure wasn’t mere coincidence that the string configuration for this recording was almost identical to the one of the Camerata Schweiz in the Mozart recordings 10 days earlier: 6 + 6 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos, 2 double basses. The orchestra was performing with its concertmaster, Julia Schröder (*1978).

At least partially (as far as I could see), the Kammerorchester Basel performed on period instruments: at least some instruments with the original size fingerboard, classical bows and gut strings, cellos without end pin.


The Recording Venue, Setting

For some notes about the recording venue see an earlier review on a concert on 2020-10-08. For the purpose of this recording, all chairs had been removed from the nave of the former church. The orchestra spread loosely over the central part of the nave. The piano was set up facing the rear part of the auditorium, which ascends up to the organ balcony.

There was only one other person attending this recording session, so I took a seat in the center of row 5 in the ascending part of the auditorium. That seat had excellent lateral acoustic balance, though, naturally, the sound of the concert grand dominated the soundscape—see below.


Recording Session Experience

Let me start by repeating what I stated in my reports from the mid-March recording sessions in Zurich: this is not a concert critique. I’m merely describing my unbiased impressions. It is impossible for me to draw conclusions on how the recording is going to sound on the final CD, especially in terms of acoustic balance. The morning session on that day had been devoted to rehearsals and the setup for the recording. The afternoon session that I attended was filled with takes for the first movement (Allegro). The other movements (II: Adagio, and III: Allegro molto) were recorded in the two sessions of the following day.

The Music

Mendelssohn was 14 when he wrote his Double Concerto in D minor. Already at that age, he was sparkling with ideas—and he already was a very skilled virtuoso at the piano. Not surprisingly, the orchestral part of the double concerto very much resembles his 13 early string symphonies that Mendelssohn composed between 1821 and 1823, just prior to this concerto. It’s music full of drive and momentum, obviously music of a child prodigy, a young genius—and very entertaining, too!

Conductor, Orchestra

Howard Griffiths can draw from the extensive experience that he collected with the many chamber orchestras that he conducted in his career. Griffiths is an excellent communicator and has a good feel for the natural tempo, and he has all the patience that is required for such extended recording sessions, with the countless interruptions and corrections by the sound engineer. The conductor relentlessly worked through the takes, not showing signs of exhaustion, consequently pursued the interpretation, cooperating with the sound engineer in maintaining the thread, the consistency, avoiding both exaggerations, as well as dropping the tension.

Given Mendelssohn’s typical, intense and busy solo parts, and my position close to the concert grand, the orchestra really was mere accompaniment. Still, the orchestra cooperated actively (and with patience!). I noted a warm, homogeneous string sound—not just in the violins, but also from the three cellos which were “singing” with one single voice.

Howard Griffiths could rely on the active role and cooperation of the concertmaster (Julia Schröder), who acted both as the conductor’s link to the orchestra, and as the latter’s spokeswoman towards the conductor. The concertmaster’s role was more prominent here than with the Camerata Schweiz in the mid-March recording sessions in Zurich. This may indicate that Griffiths has a closer relationship with the latter orchestra.

Marc Bouchkov

The violinist was standing between the orchestra and the piano, such that he could establish eye contact with both Claire Huangci at the piano, as well as with Howard Griffiths and the orchestra. With this, his violin projected more sideways, if not occasionally towards the orchestra. In any case, the sheer difference in the distance (and orientation) caused the piano to be far more prominent, if not even dominant. I don’t mean to blame this on the artists or on the setup: in a recording, the sound engineer has the opportunity to adjust the balance for an optimum result. With that, I’m moving the bulk of my remarks on Marc Bouchkov’s playing into my follow-up posting about the violin sonata recording.

Still, I heard enough to state that Marc Bouchkov’s playing was effortless. He managed to make his instrument project well also in virtuosic, fast passages—and he achieved that with minimal bow movements. At the same time, he was able to keep the sound mellow and warm. It was a pleasure to watch Marc Bouchkov indulge in Mendelssohn’s impulsive, youthfully passionate, storming passages, the effusive motifs. He played with clean tone, with non-intrusive vibrato—yet, the violinist brought out the romantic, intense, emotional/expressive aspects of Mendelssohn’s music. More on that in my next post!

Claire Huangci

One could instantly tell: that (i.e., the first movement of the double concerto) is a piano part to Claire Huangci’s taste, perfectly suiting her abilities and virtuosic strengths! She played Mendelssohn’s so typically light, sparkling passages brilliantly, playfully, with vivacity, and always clear in the articulation, “speaking” in the phrasing. There was no superficiality in her playing—clearly, she enjoyed this music!

Particularly from her performances in Scarlatti sonatas, I expected Claire Huangci to be the ideal pianist for Mendelssohn. Indeed, she was phenomenal in her agility, in the lightness of the virtuosic outbursts, her touch control, the diligence and subtlety of her dynamics, the smoothness of her runs and scales. Particularly in the way in which she let ascending scales end in whispering, but still luminous pp descant notes. And I definitely enjoyed her attention to detail in articulation and phrasing.

Instrument

Given the information that I received from the Orpheum Foundation’s managing director, Thomas Pfiffner, in context with the Foundation’s “Next Generation’s Mozart Soloists” project, I wasn’t surprised to encounter a Yamaha CFX concert grand here: an instrument in excellent shape, and with excellent sonority. Within the realm of modern grand pianos, it proved to be an excellent choice.

One may argue that grand pianos at Mendelssohn’s time (Pleyel, Erard, most likely) had both a brighter, more colorful sound, as well as a substantially lighter, more agile action. However, at least in Claire Huangci’s hands, the Yamaha CFX sounded ideal for Mendelssohn’s pianistic textures. I particularly liked the brilliant, bright / luminous upper descant, the beautiful, balanced sonority, and the clarity that extended down into the bass register.

On a Sideline…

Yamaha Europe is co-sponsoring this recording. The initial plan (originally for 2020, but shifted due to the pandemic) called for an instrument to be shipped from the company’s U.K. facilities. However, this was defeated by the consequences of Brexit. In the end, the instrument had to be sourced from the Suisse romande, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. This must have been inconvenient to the parties involved—but at least, the outcome wasn’t to the detriment of the recording.

Acoustics

The Paul Sacher Hall in the former Don Bosco church has not just been renovated & rebuilt—it was also optimized to serve as concert venue, as rehearsal location for various ensembles, and particularly also as recording venue. The artists & sound technicians can alter the acoustics such that it suites their need, by opening or closing the acoustic panels at each of the window openings. Compared to a concert setup, for recordings it is typically preferable to have little (or less) reverberation (some recording studios even work with “100% dry” acoustics, adding reverberation electronically).

From what I noted, the venue had distinctly less reverberation than the church used for the previous recording sessions in Zurich. The venue did not sound entirely dry, but retained some amount of reverberation, such that the acoustics were workable not just for the musicians & the sound engineer, but also for me as a listener. As outlined above, however, also from a point-of-view of acoustics, it was definitely not a “concert experience”, still.


Conclusions

With these two soloists, there is little doubt that the performance in the sonata recordings will be equally competent and compelling: definitely a CD to look forward to with high expectations!


Day 3, afternoon session: Mendelssohn, Violin Sonata No.2 in F minor, op.4, MWV 12 (1823) & Violin Sonata No.3 in F major, MWV 26 (1838)


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