Brönnimann, Zwegintsow, Perrault / Basel Sinfonietta
Olivier Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony

Musical Theater Basel, 2017-01-29

3.5-star rating


2017-02-15 — Original posting

Introduction — The Artists

Baldur Brönnimann & Basel Sinfonietta

This is not my first review of a concert featuring the Basel Sinfonietta, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann. I have written about these on the occasion of a concert at the Volkshaus in Basel, on 2016-09-24. My first encounter with the orchestra dates back to a concert at Tonhalle Zurich, on 2015-10-03. I will therefore “save my ink” in this article.

Kirill Zwegintsow — Piano

The Ukrainian pianist Kirill Zwegintsow (born 1983 in Askanija Nowa) started playing the piano at age 6 and received his first lessons in his birth town. He later moved on to the S. Lysenko Music School in Kiev, later, 2002 – 2005, with Boris Archimovich at the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine in Kiev. In 2005 he moved to Switzerland, to study with Tomasz Herbut at the Bern University of the Arts (HKB), finishing his education in 2011 with the diploma «Master of Arts in Specialized Music Performance». 2011 – 2013 he then studied contemporary music at the Musik Akademie Basel.

After this, he successfully launched an international career as soloist, touring Europe and the Americas. For a while he was assistant to Konstantin Lifschitz at the Lucerne School of Music, and currently he is pianist (accompanist) for contemporary music at conservatories both in Lucerne and in Basel. Kirill was in Swiss press articles because in 2015 Swiss laws threatened his extradition to Ukraine—luckily, this could in the end be averted by the authorities.

Bruno Perrault — Ondes Martenot

Bruno Perrault is one of a few artists playing the Ondes Martenot, this strange mix of a synthesizer and a Theremin, an even weirder, early electronic instrument. I have written about the Ondes Martenot on the occasion of an earlier concert in Lucerne, on 2016-09-11, also featuring Messiaen’s Turangalíla Symphony.

Introduction — The Venue

For the Basel Sinfonietta, the current season runs under the motto “Grenzen” (borders)—maybe rather “stepping across borders”. The origin for the motto most likely was in the fact that the primary venue for concerts with the Basel Sinfonietta, the Stadtcasino Basel, is undergoing renovation for this and the coming two seasons. It therefore is not available for concerts. So, one “border” that the orchestra is crossing is in the transition to alternate venues, mostly in the area or in locations near Basel. In other concerts ion this season, the borders are rather of musical nature, either as theme or title of the pieces played, or in the sense of crossing the borders of the orchestra’s usual repertoire.

This concert was given in an alternate location, the “Musical Theater Basel” in the North of the city of Basel. This is not really a concert hall, but rather a fair size theater for musical or drama. Consequently, the acoustics of the hall are optimized for clarity of the vocal performance, the readability of the spoken word.

Acoustics

In this type of venue, one can expect rather dry acoustics, less suited to support, “wrap” purely instrumental / orchestral music. And indeed, one could feel the consequences of this unavoidable compromise. The stage had been converted into a rather deep box, by adding panels on both sides, the back, and even the ceiling. The front edge of the podium barely reached into the auditorium. This should ensure good transparency, as well as fair projection and audibility for all or most instruments. Still, the venue was lacking essentially lacking all reverberation and acoustic support for the orchestra—also because the parquet seating was essentially sold out.

All this is not necessarily detrimental for a performance. But it alters its character. For certain, it required adapting the physical arrangement. For example: the piano (Steinway D-274) had to be used without cover. This was most likely done because otherwise the musicians near the back of the stage would not have been able to hear the soloist, making coordination extremely difficult. However, without cover, the piano did not project into the audience, and consequently, in tutti sections, the solo piano was often hardly audible. On the other hand, the absence of the (open) piano cover permitted clear, full view on the conductor’s work and actions.

Even within the orchestra, very soft solos, such as pizzicati in the double bass in “Chant d’amour 2“, or the solo cello in “Turangalîla 2” were sometimes barely audible. One might argue that this prevented the impression of a piano concerto. However, the role of the piano is quite central to this composition. The characteristics of the celesta allowed that instrument to keep its auditory presence pretty much throughout. But also here, I felt that a more central presence would not have hurt.


Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992): Turangalîla Symphony

I have given a short introduction into Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony in my review of the performance in Lucerne, on 2016-09-11. I don’t want to repeat this here. But I feel myself lucky to be able to witness a performance of this popular, but rarely played symphony twice within one year. However, even just from the point-of-view of venue and acoustics, I expected that this performance would be entirely different from that with Gustavo Dudamel in the KKL in Lucerne last summer.

The Performance

As in my review of last year’s performance of this work, let me follow the structure of the composition in my remarks. Prior to starting, it was interesting to see how carefully and systematically (voice by voice) the concertmaster (Simone Zgraggen) guided the tuning of all instruments prior to the arrival of soloists and conductor. This was a nice contrast to the rushed tuning two days earlier.

I. Introduction: Modéré, un peu vif

I had the clear impression that Baldur Brönnimann adjusted his interpretation to the acoustics and the character of the venue. However, it could of course also be that this equally fitted his view of Messiaen’s symphony: I felt great clarity in the performance; it was analytical (as the acoustics, of course), presented the rhythmic structures in detail. I felt that Brönnimann’s interpretation was less impulsive and less emotional, had less momentum than Gustavo Dudamel’s performance. But certainly, the piano part was impulsive, and the intonation flawless in general.

II. Chant d’amour 1: Modéré, lourd

The conductor selected a moderate, measured tempo. The orchestral sound was very transparent, all details audible, which certainly didn’t make the orchestra’s task an easier! It was a pleasure to observe the excellent discipline in the whole ensemble, and all members of the orchestra played with enthusiasm and engagement—pure joy to watch!

III. Turangalîla 1: Presque lent, rêveur

The dryness of the acoustics enhanced the impression of loneliness in the piano part. Gentle, almost whispered flute tones seemed to suggest the awakening of nature in a balmy spring morning. This was followed by an impressive build-up above a chorale in deep brass section, an abrupt silencing at the climax, and gradual vanishing of the music.

IV. Chant d’amour 2: Bien modéré

Here, I noted the clear rhythmic structures, the clarity and decisiveness in tempo changes. The piano playing was excellent, masterful, but sounded rather soft, was sometimes (as also the double bass) barely audible among the other instruments.

The Ondes Martenot play a prominent role here. Unlike with pure keyboard instruments, intonation on the Ondes is controlled by the artist. I had the impression that Bruno Perrault had a slight tendency towards high(er) pitch when playing with the glissando string, as opposed to Cynthia Millar in Dudamel’s performance, who (in my memory) rather tended towards gradually low(er) pitch.

What I really liked: a key impression in this movement to me was that of momentum, and at the same time of infinite warmth.

V. Joie du Sang des Étoiles: Vif, passionné avec joie

In this movement (as well as in the Final) it was obvious to me that in this setting, the orchestra could never generate the power, the overwhelming, immersive impression that Dudamel’s orchestra was able to produce in the KKL in Lucerne. Rather, Baldur Brönnimann kept control at all times, directed with very clear gestures, achieved clear, controlled, detailed dynamics. Yes, the movement definitely expressed joy, but never went overboard. Most definitely, in this performance, one would never get the impression of Kitsch, which is sometimes ascribed to that symphony!

VI. Jardin du Sommeil d’amour: Très modéré, très tendre

Marvelous, idyllic! For once, the sound balance was right, the piano clearly audible, the bird calls that Kirill Zwegintsow produced really enchanting. The celesta (Ludovic Van Hellemont) is essential here, its rhythmic coordination with the piano and the “mental presence” were excellent. In general, the celesta had much less of a problem than the piano in keeping it auditory presence within the orchestra. But also here, even with the prominent role of the celesta, the music to me never felt too sweet, let alone sound like Kitsch.

Despite the length of the movement (indicating the eternity of love?), Baldur Brönnimann in my view was well able to maintain tension—a challenging task! Not everybody may share my opinion, though: for some listeners the movement apparently felt a bit long. Maybe this was in parts due to the dry acoustics, lacking intimacy and warmth?

VII. Turangalîla 2: Un peu vif, bien modéré

Very virtuosic in the piano part! However, in the presence of the percussion instruments and the brass sections, the piano and (especially) the solo cello had a tough time in making themselves heard: a pity! Where the piano was present, though, its playing (virtuosic parades, bird songs) was superb!

VIII. Développement d’amour: Bien modéré

In some performances, this movement features some almost brutal segments. This setting softened the incisiveness, the power of those sections (this also applies to the final movement). On the other hand, the acoustics prevented any excess in sweetness.

It was impressive to watch how an apparent chaos near the climax started to organize itself, converged into an almost solemn, chorale-like section, then retracted into piano chord sequences above the lowest register of the brass section. Quite unexpectedly, the movement ends with a splash, though.

IX. Turangalîla 3: Bien modéré

Charming! This starts with ethereal woodwinds — and evolves into an interplay between percussion, metallophones, celesta, bells, gets progressively more busy. I had associations with eolian harps, and—strangely—”glass bead play”.

X. Final: Modéré, presque vif, avec une grande joie

For the effect of the acoustics see (VIII) above, though here, the dynamics clearly covered a wider span. Again, I noted Brönnimann’s clear conducting language / gestures through all the rhythmic intricacies in this movement. And I liked the lasting enthusiasm in the orchestra. Yet, in my view (maybe because inevitably I compared this to last year’s performance in Lucerne?) the ending lacked the overwhelming volume, some warmth. Where in the broadened final bars Dudamel produced seemingly never-ending, ecstasy, Brönnimann’s ending sounded comparatively dry, sober, technical.


Summary

Orchestra

I can only repeat here that the orchestra’s playing was enthusiastic, focused and disciplined, excellent in rhythmic firmness & coordination, tuning, tonal purity. It was a joy to watch and hear. Even though, as stated, the orchestra achieved substantial volume, in the listener’s impression, the sound wasn’t nearly as powerful, the experience nearly as immersive as Dudamel’s performance in the KKL in Lucerne. That is not the orchestra’s fault, but a consequence of the theater acoustics.

Soloists

Different from typical CD recordings, the piano was—albeit important, still—not in the center of this performance. However, the very difficult solo part did not appear to challenge Kirill Zwegintsow. His playing was very active, his presence and alertness astounding.

The Ondes Martenot may have received an attention focus similar to the piano. However, that was not the least through its exotic looks and sound. Bruno Perrault did not try showing off, but seamlessly integrated his playing into the overall performance. I personally would have preferred a slightly more prominent role, i.e., slightly more volume for this instrument, along with a more focused piano (with open cover, that is).

In this setting, the celesta received an acoustic weight and attention similar to that of piano and Ondes. Also in terms of precision and presence, Ludovic van Hellemont had no reason to hide behind Zwegintsow and Perrault.

Conductor, Interpretation

Besides the fundamental differences in the acoustics, also Baldur Brönnimann‘s view / interpretation of Messiaen’s symphony showed fundamental differences to that of Gustavo Dudamel in Lucerne. The latter focused on momentum, sometimes his performance was almost boiling from expression. Brönnimann’s approach, on the other hand, was rather analytical, in line with his clear and precise conducting gestures. He avoided excessive emotions. I don’t know whether that view is genuinely his own, or whether it is a reaction to the characteristics of the venue.

Baldur Brönnimann was technically excellent. He consequently managed and formed build-ups, led them to their climax. He focused on clarity in rhythmic structures, tempo and expression, and he obtained very good transparency in the overall soundscape.

Conclusion

Even if they may not condemn Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony as a whole, some people claim that it contains at least components of Kitsch. I would doubt even that, as to me, Messiaen’s musical expression is sincere and comes from the heart. Yes, the musical language may be close to that of popular music (despite all the dissonances), it is easy to capture and “understand”, and to enjoy. But that doesn’t make it Kitsch. Messiaen designed this symphony as a “love song”. Are (some) people no longer amenable to letting their heart be touched by the language of love?

In my view, Kitsch implies triviality in structure and content, which one certainly can’t attribute to this symphony. Some of the motifs / melodic elements are close to being (or easily turn into) “earworms”. Still, the musical language, the richness in rhythmic structures, the orchestration and instrumental textures are anything but trivial—let alone the numerous challenges for instrumentalists and for the conductor.

As far as I’m concerned: irrespective of the conductor’s approach to the work, a performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony is a real pleasure, a really enjoyable experience!


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.



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