2018-02-07 — Original posting
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2018-01-25
Bertrand Chamayou, Semyon Bychkov / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Strauss / Tchaikovsky
Back in the Tonhalle Maag for another concert with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. This time, the orchestra played with a guest conductor, Semyon Bychkov (Семён Маевич Бычков, *1952, see also Wikipedia). This was Bychkov’s first appearance in Zurich: he is past 65 now, and so people may ask “Why only now?”. The obvious answer here of course is “Better late than never!”.
Semyon Bychkov was born in Saint Petersburg (Leningrad back in 1952, of course). He emigrated to the U.S. at age 22, where he took his musical education and spent the early years of his career. Starting around the mid-1980’s, he became known in Europe, too, making appearances in various countries. Key stations in his career were the Orchestre de Paris (1989 – 1998), the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra (starting 1990), the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (starting 1992), the Semper Opera in Dresden (starting 1998), the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne (1997 – 2010), the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (starting 2003), and finally the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2012, and in 2013 he started a cooperation with the Czech Philharmonic.
Bychkov holds a conducting chair at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He now lives in Paris. Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) has long been a key composer in his repertoire, as well as romantic composers (Brahms), the great Russians of course (Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff), and opera composers such as Verdi, Strauss, Wagner, and others.
General Remarks on the Venue
Let me insert a general remark here, related to the orchestra’s temporary venue for the coming three years, the Tonhalle Maag: I have previously written about its advantages and flaws, but I feel the need to add some more on this. I’ll also summarize what I mentioned before:
The venue is off-center, in the fashionable new quarter in Zurich’s West. Reaching it with private transportation may be more cumbersome to some, but reaching the venue with public transportation (train, tramway, bus) is actually better than with the old Tonhalle.
The concert venue itself is clearly not a permanent, from-the-ground-up construction, but built inside a former industrial facility. This had consequences for the size of the hall (a higher ceiling would be helpful, acoustically), but more so for the (lack of) space in the foyer and the wardrobe. And there isn’t enough (maybe not any, at all) space for the musicians to rehearse off-stage. For some concerts, the hall could be a little bigger (though the audiences were expected to be a little smaller in this venue). On the other hand, there is no smaller hall for chamber music in this venue.
The hall looks very friendly, bright, maybe a little too neutral, factual; the seats have no armrests, but are reasonably comfortable and leave more space for the individual listener than chairs with armrest. Visibility is OK, though from the parquet seating, the rear parts of the orchestra are typically hidden.
The acoustics are clear, transparent, very analytic and detailed, generally equally good throughout the hall (even seats on the podium gallery offer virtually the same listening quality). Yes, the acoustics are dry. There is a setting to create reverberation through microphones and loudspeakers, which may still need to be optimized.
Space in the wardrobe is real tight. But I can live with that: that’s not a place where people stay for long. It gets very squeezed after the concert, though, when everybody is trying to recover their coat, in order to reach the next train.
The foyer is quite fashionable and atmospheric (and there is a bar that also stays open after the concert). However, it is clearly too small: reaching the bar in the intermission is sometimes near-impossible. Given all the chatting, the little space, etc., many people try moving into the concert hall as soon as possible. The doors to the hall open 30 minutes prior to the concert.
From my own observation, many musicians are also showing up at the venue around half an hour prior to the concert. As they have no space to rehearse / warm up, many of them immediately take their seat on the podium, where the start rehearsing, doing their warm-up exercises.
As the hall is “over-acoustic” amplifying every tiny sound from the podium, as well as every noise from people chatting in the audience, this results in a real cacophony prior to concerts. With the sound from the podium, people in the audience tend to rise the volume in their chatting, which may cause the musicians to play / rehearse louder, which again causes louder chatting, and so on.
Often enough I wanted to think about the music that I was about to hear. I maybe tried explaining specifics to my neighbor. But I found myself unable to get my thoughts together, to think about melodies, harmonies. This reached a degree where close to the beginning of the concert I almost felt like getting into a headache. This is clearly unbearable and makes me consider not going to concerts in that venue so often. A pity, as this situation is likely to persist for 2.5 years to come!
In the Zurich Opera House, as well as in the KKL in Lucerne, the podium is open for the orchestra up to 15 minutes prior to the beginning. Then, the orchestra is asked to leave the stage, and only at that point, the audience is admitted into the hall. That’s a little compromise on both sides: the orchestra gets a little less time to rehearse, the audience may spend more time in the crammed foyer, but still: if that’s possible in Lucerne and in the Opera House, why not here?
The “Don Juan”, op.20 is a “Tone Poem” (“Tondichtung“) that Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) wrote in 1888, at age 24. It’s the second composition in this genre, which Strauss created / invented. “Don Juan” is derived from / based on a 1844 play “Don Juans Ende” (The End of Don Juan”) by Nikolaus Lenau (1802 – 1850). The premiere (Weimar, 1889, with Strauss conducting) was an instant success.
The composition is for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, harp (doubled) and strings.
I have written about a recent performance of this work, by the “local competition”, the Philharmonia Zurich, in a Philharmonic Concert at the Zurich Opera on 2017-07-15.
After the orchestra “officially” entered the stage (see above), there was a brief semi-silence for the tuning, then Semyon Bychkov entered the stage. After a short greeting applause, he lifted his baton (he conducted without score, throughout the concert), and Richard Strauss’ Don Juan filled the venue with its brilliant (and so typical) fff opening gesture. Already here, the orchestra reached a volume that was almost too much (already!) for pre-stressed ears in the audience.
Getting “into” the Music
As a listener, it took me a while to adapt to Bychkov’s expansive dynamics. But once I was “in” this music, the sound and the performance, I was completely enrapted. I was taken by the momentum, the fluent tempo, the expression, the drama that Strauss laid out—the “pull” in this music. The interpretation was definitely romantic, but never overblown (despite the volume!). Bychkov and the Tonhalle Orchestra were flexible in the tempo, played with expressive rubato. They used agogics, such as little ritenuti, giving climaxes and focal notes the necessary extra time.
The Tonhalle Orchestra in its very large formation clearly was in excellent shape, with dense, homogeneous string sound, excellent brass and woodwind instrumentalists, and very alert percussionists. The string voices did not dominate, but retained clarity and adequate presence throughout the piece. The same is true for the solo violin (Klaidi Sahatçi, concertmaster): thanks to the acoustics, it was clearly audible, but remained embedded in the overall sound.
Semyon Bychkov not only demonstrated excellent command in tempo and agogics, but also knew how to maintain excellent acoustic balance within the orchestra. Despite all the richness in colors, the multitude of instrumental mixes, the sound remained transparent. Clearly, the music profited from the dry acoustics of the venue. The latter supported small groups of wind instruments in serenade-like segments, but it also allowed for a very impressive appearance of the brass instruments, especially the four horns: sometimes, it felt as if there were at least twice as many hornists at work!
But the music wasn’t just “nice” and “rich”. The interpretation demonstrated plasticity, vividly telling a story (a drama, ultimately). It was a fascinating, enthralling interpretation throughout, relentless and persistent in its tension and drive. With this performance, listeners could understand why already at the premiere people were so excited about this composition.
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) wrote a first version of the Burleske (farce, mockery) as Scherzo in D minor for piano and orchestra in 1885 – 1886, at age 21. He wrote it for Hans von Bülow (1830 – 1894), who rejected it as unplayable and “nonsense”. So, in 1889, he revised the work, now called Burleske, and dedicated it to the pianist and composer Eugen d’Albert (1864 – 1932). The piece premiered with d’Albert, with von Bülow conducting. However, the latter still commented “Strauss’s Burleske decidedly has some genius in it, but in other respects it is horrifying”. Only in 1894, Strauss agreed to publish it, himself not convinced of its qualities. It later became one of his favorite pieces, though.
The French pianist Bertrand Chamayou (*1981) did his initial studies at the Conservatoire de Toulouse. At age 15, he moved to Paris and continued his education at the Conservartoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse (CNSM) de Paris. Simultaneously and thereafter, he worked with Maria Curcio (1918 – 2009) in London, and with pianists such as Leon Fleisher (*1928), Dmitri Bashkirov (*1931), and Murray Perahia (*1947). In 1998, he succeeded in the Krainev Piano Competition in Ukraine, and in 2001, he won the International International Long-Thibaud-Crespin Competition. He has since successfully launched an international career, giving concerts throughout Europe, as well as in the United States, both as a soloist, as well as a chamber musician with prominent partners.
Modest, factual and inconspicuous in his appearance, Bertrand Chamayou sat down at the Steinway D-274 grand. It was instantly clear that his appearance was a huge understatement! The pianist appeared to master the horrendous technical challenges in this work almost playfully, effortlessly. Throughout the single movement, he was in full control. He always kept close contact with the conductor, and listened to the orchestra: they all worked together to shape the rubato, the tempo changes. Chamayou kept the piano sound light and transparent. Also Strauss’ sense of humor was evident in this performance.
At the same time, one could understand who von Bülow called this work unplayable. It is grotesque in its technical demands. At the same time, it also uses an unusual “language”, works with motifs (Leitmotifs) rather than longer melodies. There are these intricate, flashing little eruptions, and—more prominently, even—numerous descending chord cascades that remind of sarcastic laughter. And the music is full of motifs and harmonies so typical of this composer.
In the aftermath, this composition perfectly fits into Strauss’ series of Tone Poems, notably with “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche” (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks), op.28, which also is full of Strauss’ humor. For a composition with a single movement, the Burleske also spans an extraordinary spectrum of rapidly changing expressions: sparkling, humorous, ironic, then suddenly lyrically singing, followed by soft melancholy. In the cadenza, there were also moments that reminded me of Rachmaninoff. The Burleske is fascinating music throughout, presented masterfully both by the pianist, as well as orchestra and conductor.
Encore — Liszt / Mendelssohn: “Auf Flügeln des Gesangs“
The pianist deserved the strong applause that followed: he announced an encore. Thanks to the acoustics and Chamayou’s excellent German pronunciation, that announcement was clearly readable throughout the hall!
The encore was the Transcription of “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges“, op.34/2 by Felix Mendelssohn, S.547 (1840) by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). This is a transcription (or a paraphrase) of the Lied “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges“, op.34/2, from 6 Songs for voice and piano, op.34 (1834/36), by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847). In Liszt’s transcription, Mendelssohn’s wonderful melody appears embedded in a sound carpet of broken chords. It is harmonious, singing, expressive and very atmospheric. One might think that it is hard to fit en encore to Strauss’ Burleske. However, Bertrand Chamayou proved otherwise. Yes, it was a strong contrast to Strauss, but nevertheless a very nice, atmospheric closure prior to the intermission!
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.4 in F minor, op.36
Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) wrote his Symphony No.4 in F minor, op.36 in 1877 – 1878, dedicating it to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck (1831 – 1894). Upon the patroness’ request, in the aftermath, Tchaikovsky wrote a “program” for the composition. The consensus seems to be that this program is neither helpful nor needed to enjoy and “understand” the composition. The four movements of the work are
- Andante sostenuto — Moderato con anima — Moderato assai, quasi Andante — Allegro vivo
- Andantino in modo di canzona
- Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato, Allegro — Trio
- Finale: Allegro con fuoco
The symphony is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings.
I. Andante sostenuto — Moderato con anima — Moderato assai, quasi Andante — Allegro vivo
The movement opens with shiny brass fanfares. These were reaching (or exceeding?) the limits of the acoustics about as much as the very beginning of the concert. This is merely a “call to arms”, a wake-up call. Thereafter, Semyon Bychkov took the audience into the Russia of the late 19th century. I rarely (if at all) heard that symphony in an interpretation as conclusive, as convincing as this one.
The tempo was fluent, the string playing was dense, legato, the articulation distinctly mellow. The music alternated between dramatic, pushing momentum and epic breadth, then again holding in thoughtfulness. Semyon Bychkov combined wide-spanning rubato and controlled dynamics to form large arches, filled with expression and “speaking” agogics. And the music could also be delicate, tender—e.g., where the composer seems to anticipate the theme of the Capriccio Italien.
Perfect, beautiful sound was not the goal here (though the orchestral performance was truly superb!)—rather, density in atmosphere and expression. It was fascinating to see how conductor and orchestra managed to shape this fairly monstrous and manifold movement into a single, compelling, dramatic entity!
II. Andantino in modo di canzona
The Andantino was flowing, but still with the necessary calm, with swaying agogics: contemplative, but also warm and urging in the expressive upsurges. The tempo felt absolutely natural, also in the central Più mosso segment: Bychkov resisted the temptation to accelerate, kept the epic breadth of expression, the big gestures. I particularly enjoyed the calm, singing melody in the violins under the woodwind garlands at bar 199ff (Tempo I). And of course, I liked the intensity of the strings in the main theme. And the bassoon playing near the end of the movement was equally impressive.
III. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato, Allegro — Trio
As little as the performance ever aimed at shallow, pure beauty of sound, as little there was hollow virtuosity or mere show in the famous pizzicato ostinato movement. One might think that string instruments are limited in expression when playing pizzicato. This may be true for a single instrument. However, the joint forces of a large string section proved to be very expressive (and impressive, too, of course!), even dramatic, full of expression, very differentiated dynamically, covering an astounding span. And yes, the strings were very impressive in this movement!
It may be that the beginning of the Meno mosso segment initially was tiny bit stiff. However, that impression soon vanished, particularly with the very virtuosic solo interjections in the woodwinds.
IV. Finale: Allegro con fuoco
The beginning of the Finale could almost be called a “Big Bang”. A lot of the movement is indeed loud, with the full orchestra. It includes lots of brass and percussion, is occasionally almost stomping—true fireworks. However, it is also full of drive and momentum, catchy. It is so full of colors in all shades! But it also retracts into calmer segments, even down to pp and below, prior to the final upswing. And once more: the musicians did not present not pure show. It was free of exaggerations, remained differentiated also in the tempo: I noted that Bychkov took back the tempo a tad at [C] (bar 92ff) and at [E] (bar 149ff).
This has been an evening of brilliant music, brilliantly “orchestrated” programming. And it was a top-level performance from beginning to end. And by everybody involved: conductor, soloist and orchestra. The latter presented itself in excellent shape and condition, motivated by an excellent conductor. I just hope that there will be more opportunities in the future to witness Semyon Bychkov’s direction!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. 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.