Christian Tetzlaff, Gevorg Gharabekyan / Kammerorchester I TEMPI
Mozart / Sibelius / Beethoven

Stadtcasino, Basel, 2022-06-18

4.0-star rating

2022-06-27 — Original posting



Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeStadtcasino, Basel, 2022-06-18 19:30h
(also: Musikschule Konservatorium Zürich, 2022-06-17 19:30h)
Series / TitleBeethoven – Update No.3
OrganizerKammerorchester I TEMPI
Reviews from related eventsOther concerts in this venue
Earlier concert with Christian Tetzlaff, 2017-02-28 in Zurich

The Artists

Gevorg Gharabekyan, Conductor

Gevorg Gharabekyan (*1982, Yerevan) is an Armenian conductor. His first musical education and career was that of a violinist. He studied in Freiburg i.Br., with Rainer Kussmaul (1946 – 2017), a key exponent in the area of historically informed performances (HIP). Further studies led him to Adelina Oprean (*1955) in Basel. Gevorg Gharabekyan then launched a career as chamber musician and concertmaster with orchestras in Switzerland and Germany. He now lives in Switzerland, near Basel.

2009 – 2011, he studied conducting at the Musikhochschule Luzern with Ralf Weikert (*1940). Gevorg Gharabekyan also mentions the Finnish conductor Jorma Panula (*1930) as having a major influence on him as conductor. Master classes with notable conductors completed his education.

Chamber Orchestra I TEMPI

2013, Gevorg Gharabekyan founded the Chamber Orchestra I TEMPI. The orchestra aims to cover a broad repertoire from baroque to contemporary. All with the goal to reproduce an authentic soundscape. This may involve changing between baroque / period instruments (e.g., natural horns) and more recent instrument generations (e.g., valve horns).

Interestingly, I noted faces that I knew from earlier concerts. One of these was the Kazakh concertmaster, Sherniyaz Mussakhan (*1993). On the other side of the podium, the Latvian violinist Jana Ozolina led the second violins from the first desk. These artists also founded the Eurasian Soloists Chamber Orchestra, about which I have written in earlier concert reviews. I have also encountered Sherniyaz Mussakhan in a recent duo recital in Zurich.

The Soloist: Christian Tetzlaff, Violin

This is my third live concert encounter with Christian Tetzlaff (*1966, see also Wikipedia). The first encounter pre-dates my concert-reviewing. However, I have written about the artist on the occasion of the concert that he gave in Zurich, on 2017-02-28.

Interestingly, Christian Tetzlaff is not performing in a historic instrument by one of the famous, historic Italian luthiers. Rather, he plays on an instrument by the German luthier Stefan-Peter Greiner (*1966, see also Wikipedia), now in London.


Program


Setting, etc.

There were two instances of this concert, on subsequent days. The first one was in the big hall of the Musikschule Konservatorium Zürich, on 2022-06-17. This report is about the second instance in the Stadtcasino Basel, on 2022-06-18, see above.

The Chamber Orchestra I TEMPI is currently performing all of Beethoven’s symphonies, one by one, in numerical order. The title of the program was “Beethoven, Update No.3“. Not all of the concerts in the series are performed in the same venues. “Beethoven, Update No.4” will be in the big hall of the Musikschule Konservatorium Zürich, on 2022-09-02. A second concert will take place at Don Bosco in Basel, on 2022-09-04 17:00h.

The Kammerorchester I TEMPI sent me photos from both events. As the two sets proved complementary, I decided to use all photos that I received. The ones in the two galleries above are from Zurich (2022-06-17), the ones below from Basel (2022-06-18). The only exception: the two solo photos from the encore are shots from the author’s iPhone. They were taken from the center of row 8 in the parquet seating.


Concert & Review

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart c. 1780
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart c. 1780

Mozart: Overture to the Opera “Die Zauberflöte“, K.620

Composer & Work

Die Zauberflöte” (The Magic Flute), K.620 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) is actually not a full opera. It rather is a Singspiel (a stage work with lots of spoken dialog). The composition premiered on 1791-09-30, merely two months before the composer’s premature death. The libretto, the plot of “The Magic Flute” is heavily influenced by Freemasonry.

In this performance, the orchestra configuration included 7 + 6 violins, 5 violas, 4 cellos, 3 double basses. The wind section consisted of 2 natural horns (cor solo), 3 trombones (natural, narrow bore), timpani. The string arrangement was antiphonal, i.e., violin I – cello – viola – violin 2, double basses in the rear-center, behind the woodwinds.

The Performance

Adagio

Not surprisingly, a performance that was far as humanly possible from conventional, romanticizing ones. Friends of the latter may call the very beginning “dry”, or “factual”. However, it sure wasn’t! Yes, the initial chords were not broadened, but performed with a strong accent and instant, almost exaggerated decrescendo. It only took seconds for the listener to notice and enjoy the rich colors, the vivid sound of the period instruments. Most prominently the narrow-bore, valve-less brass instruments, and the vibrato-less string sound. Beautiful!

Already the first bars revealed Gevorg Gharabekyan’s inclination towards extreme dynamic contrasts, especially at the bottom end. Every single crescendo or decrescendo fork was clear, very noticeable. The colorful accents from the natural horns provided enrichment, distraction, even entertainment. Even though the string instruments were not fitted with gut strings, I would call this a true HIP performance. In its consequence and clarity it may have reminded of early, exaggerated HIP performances. However, unlike with Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016), I didn’t have the impression that the conductor meant to “rub the listener’s nose in the details of the score”.

Allegro

The Allegro part revealed a trait that proved typical for this conductor and his orchestra. There was a clear tendency towards fast tempi at the limits of what is technically doable. It was very fast, virtuosic, though did not feel pushed, exceedingly driven. The beginning of the fugato segment was maybe a little “jittery”. And throughout the Allegro part, I felt that to the musicians, lightness, drive, and momentum were more important than perfect coordination and utmost clarity. I don’t think the performance was ever meant to be polished to perfection. Rather, it’s the colors, the liveliness that mattered. In fact, it was a joy to watch the lively gestures and interaction in the orchestra.

Overall: remarkable, impressive, colorful, vivid, full of life, drive and colors, enthralling, up to the almost boisterous climax and ending!

★★★★½

Jean Sibelius 1918 (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Jean Sibelius 1918

Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47

Composer & Work

The Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47 by Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) is one of the most famous and prominent concertos in the violin repertoire. It features three movements:

  1. Allegro moderatoAllegro molto
  2. Adagio di molto
  3. Allegro, ma non tanto

Information on this concerto is available in my earlier reviews on performances of this work in concert.

The Performance

For the Sibelius concerto, the orchestra operated in a slightly bigger (but still antiphonal) configuration, i.e., 8 + 7 violins, 6 violas, 5 cellos, 4 double basses; 4 valve horns, (identical woodwinds), 2 trumpets, timpani.

Here, I’ll focus on the soloist. I’ll mention aspects of dynamics and the interaction with / support for the solo violin, but for a broader look at orchestra and conductor see my notes on the Beethoven symphony performance below.

I. Allegro moderato

Hmmm—that beginning! In my view, the pp in the strings was way too soft—rather pppp. Yes, it is just the violins (both voices divided) and con sordino, and the solo enters mf. However, in my view, this doesn’t justify making the violins nearly inaudible. It actually made the solo stand alone, isolated from the orchestra. Yes, the solo was (and is, with this work) in the center, indeed, highly romantic (after the Mozart overture!), dominating the scene.

The volume, the projection and presence of Christian Tetzlaff’s violin was impressive, right from the first notes. An instrument with a warm, characterful tone, never exceedingly poignant. The soloist used romantic (but not exceedingly nervous) vibrato, as well as occasional portamenti to support the expression density. Just like the orchestra, the soloist did not aim for polished perfection. He did not shy away from leaving some “rough edges”, and occasional “expressive intonation” on individual (minor or transition) notes. I also think the expressive vibrato occasionally obscured the intonation. In any case, expression prevailed over perfection (especially in intonation).

Allegro molto

From historic recordings, I sometimes perceived Sibelius’ concerto as relatively cool, if not somewhat distanced, despite the often boiling emotions. Here, however, the soloist’s playing was very expressive, highly impulsive. The impulsiveness culminated in the cadenza with its strong rubato and agogics, and in the subsequent, boiling orchestral climaxes. It passed my mind that Tetzlaff presented a “hot”, almost “Mediterranean” version of the concerto! He mastered this part with excellent technique. He did have the sheet music on a stand, but at least for the first two movement, he rarely consulted the notation.

The orchestral accompaniment under Gevorg Gharabekyan was attentive, supportive and careful. It featured moments with highly subtle dynamics, as well as very active, even enthralling playing in the dramatic segments. Later in the movement, as already at the very beginning, the strings momentarily moved down to excessive ppp(p). This was unnecessary, considering the power and presence of the solo instrument. It also had the side-effect of giving excess weight to the wind instruments. True, there are instances where Sibelius wrote ppp, “dim. possibile” (cello & double basses), even quasi niente (a timpani roll at [6]). However, in my opinion, these annotations refer to a bigger orchestra size.
★★★★

II. Adagio di molto

Already the initial, excellent woodwind duets (more about these below!) changed the atmosphere completely. And the entry of the solo made the listener indulge in the most beautiful, warm melody and emotions! Here, Christian Tetzlaff used vibrato more selectively. And yet, his part did not lack emotions and warmth. Quite to the contrary! To me, the most intense and moving moments were when his playing was simple, soft, intimate. And it felt expressive even when there was little or no vibrato (e.g., the two bars prior to [1]). The orchestra contrasted that with incisive brass motifs.

Different from the outer movements, Christian Tetzlaff’s playing showed utmost intonation purity across the range, from the g string up to the highest passages—despite all the expression, the emotional intensity. Also here, the instrument showed its strength. Particularly when it retained its presence where the soloist played pp “under” brass and woodwind accompaniment. And this ending (pp in the solo, ppp / dim. possibile in the strings)—heavenly, touching, beautiful!
★★★★★

III. Allegro, ma non tanto

The combination of the dactylic ostinato rhythm and the intricate, highly virtuosic and often syncopated solo part proves tricky even for the world’s top virtuosi. Christian Tetzlaff attacked this energetically, impulsively with power and verve, and rhythmically firm. The latter at least insofar as the rather fast tempo permitted following. And yes, the tempo did feel pushed, especially in the first part of the movement. This gave the music drive, made it enthralling. However, it did lead to occasional superficialities in the articulation, in fast, especially punctuated passages. There, also the intonation was sometimes a little superficial.

On the other hand, the extended double-stop passages in the solo were amazingly pure, Christian Tetzlaff’s technical prowess astounding. The faster pace may have permitted “playing over” some of the tricky passages. I felt that a slightly more relaxed tempo (Allegro, ma non tanto!) would have given the listener a better chance to follow the intricate rhythmic structure. It also might have helped avoiding the superficialities in fast solo passages.
★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

Encore — Bach: III. Largo, from Sonata No.3 for Violin solo in C major, BWV 1005

Composer & Work

After the boiling emotions, the virtuosity and rhythmic complexity in Sibelius’ last movement, a virtuosic solo encore was out of question. Consequently, Christian Tetzlaff turned towards Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). He performed the third movement, Largo, from the Sonata No.3 for Violin solo in C major, BWV 1005.

Christian Tetzlaff @ Stadtcasino Basel, 2022-06-18
Christian Tetzlaff @ Basel, 2022-06-18
Christian Tetzlaff @ Stadtcasino Basel, 2022-06-18 (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)
Christian Tetzlaff @ Basel, 2022-06-18

The Performance

A stronger contrast is hardly imaginable! Christian Tetzlaff approached this slow movement so gently, with simplicity and modesty, totally introverted, with very little effort. Even though he barely ever increased the volume above p, the violin’s warm tone pervaded the silence of the hall. Hardly imaginable that this was the same instrument which just moments ago coped with the sound of the full orchestra! Only momentarily, the instrument’s tone rose for brief, heavenly blooming climaxes. Ravishingly beautiful, and a highlight of the evening!
★★★★★


Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, “Eroica

To my amazement (and disappointment), a fair number of people in the audience did not show up again after the intermission. Were these juist members of the Tetzlaff fan community? It can’t possibly be that Beethoven’s “Eroica” is too “difficult” or demanding??

Composer & Work

The final part of the concert was devoted to a work by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Namely, the Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, “Eroica. In my blog (and possibly in the local concert life, too), this is the most frequently performed and reviewed composition. I have written about four orchestral performances in the past. Moreover, I wrote about two performances of Franz Liszt’s piano transcription. See my earlier reviews for details. On top of that, I have written a post with a comparison of various CD recordings. Let me just list the movements here:

  1. Allegro con brio, 3/4 (3/4=60)
  2. Marcia funebre. Adagio assai, 2/4 (1/8=80)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio, 3/4 (3/4=116)
  4. Finale: Allegro molto, 2/4 (1/2=76) — Poco Andante (1/8=108) — Presto (1/4=116)

The Performance

For Beethoven’s “Eroica“, the orchestra returned to the configuration for the Mozart overture (slightly less string players). The only exceptions: there were now 3 horns, 2 trombones.

I. Allegro con brio

As expected: authentic soundscape (devoid of unnecessary vibrato), light in articulation and phrasing, highly engaged—and very, very fluent! Rather, very fast. Gevorg Gharabekyan managed to control the orchestra with economic, but precise, clear gestures. I’ll talk about tempo below, but want to emphasize that the orchestra is truly excellent, virtuosic. It followed the conductor’s intent on-the-spot, with active participation not just by the two lead violinists, but throughout the orchestra.

The orchestra performs with very “outspoken”, direct dynamics. Compared to traditional interpretations, they might feel exaggerated. However, unlike some of Harnoncourt’s recordings and performances, they did not appear to have too much of a “didactic flavor”.

A performance boiling from energy, excellent in the sound, especially in the wind section. Among the latter, I particularly enjoyed the woodwind soloists (clarinet, transverse flute). Some might find the sound occasionally “brassy”. However, that’s a consequence of the orchestra’s proportions, and of the narrow bore, period style instruments: I really liked it!

Too Fast?

First, let me state that I like fast tempi. I particularly like the recent Beethoven recordings and performances that try following the composer’s metronome marks. Here, I did not try estimating the metronome reading. But still, Gevorg Gharabekyan’s tempo was definitely at the limit. At the point where the strings could just about articulate rapid figures. And for the brass instruments it was definitely at or slightly above the limit. Moreover, also for the listener, the performance sometimes felt somewhat breathless. Was that the composer’s intent?

About Beethoven’s Metronome Marks

Beethoven’s metronome marks are fast, often challenging, occasionally (apart from rare errors) hardly doable, technically and musically. One should keep in mind that today’s orchestras are most definitely better (technically) than those at Beethoven’s time. There remains a mystery about Beethoven’s annotations. Some people came up with weird explanations, e.g., by explaining that Beethoven only counted the “tic” in the metronome’s “tic – toc”, effectively halving the tempo (Winters, n.d.). Imposible, I believe.

However, I do find recent, other findings more compelling. A detailed study (Martin-Castro & Ucar, 2020) found evidence that (at least in some instances), Beethoven appears to have misread the metronome scale, by reading the number below the weight, rather than above. Especially for fast movements, this causes considerable differences from the actual metronome pace. I don’t think that this offers a path to a complete / comprehensive explanation for all of Beethoven’s annotations, let alone a reconstruction of the composer’s intent in all his annotations.

To some degree, any composer’s tempo annotations should probably be read with some caution / measure. One should take into consideration acoustics, the atmosphere, the orchestra’s technical prowess.

As stated, I like fast / fluent tempi (primarily in fast movements, that is). But with the above, there appears to be no need to push orchestras to or beyond their limits, at all costs. And here, I think it was a tad overdone.

II. Marcia funebre. Adagio assai

The slow movement was an excellent opportunity to enjoy the vibrato-less sound of the string voices. And the excellent oboe and clarinet solos. Tempo? A question here, too! The pace was (of course) faster than most traditional performances. I don’t think it was just my history of having listened to traditional recordings that made me feel a very slight discomfort / unrest in the first bars. It may have taken the orchestra a short while to “tune in”. That settled after a few bars.

I liked the careful, diligent playing in the strings, the detailed shaping of the dynamics (with rare exaggerations at the soft end, the richness in colors

The beginning of the Maggiore part (bars 69ff.) was a tiny bit faster—why? At the return to C minor (bars 105ff., sotto voce), the careful articulation in the violins was remarkable. Very rarely, there were very subtle intonation issues. This was hardly noticeable, but an indication for the fact that vibrato-less playing adds extra challenges. I found the sotto voce at bar 154ff. a bit exaggerated. Here, Gevorg Gharabekyan probably meant to highlight the contrast to the sudden ff that follows. A side-effect of extreme pp(p) is that it (occasionally, e.g., in the final bars) puts unnecessary highlights on p or pp clarinet or oboe voices. In softness, these instruments simply can’t compete with string instruments.

A general remark on sound / acoustics: traditional (romantic) performances, particularly in over-acoustic concert halls, produce a homogeneous, unified soundscape, which often lacks transparency. The acoustics in the Stadtcasino Basel are excellent, probably not extremely “analytical”. Here, it was primarily the orchestra configuration and the period instruments which produced a distinct Spaltklang (“split sound”)—with the advantage of extra transparency.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio

This now definitely felt pushed, too fast. At least, it took the orchestra a few bars to coordinate, to create clarity. In general, this left no time to indulge in details of the music, of the performance. Some of the quaver figures (woodwinds) were slightly superficial, slurred. And in the Trio, performed at identical pace, there seemed to be no way the hornists could possibly perform their parts cleanly. I felt sorry for them. The brassy sound was OK, though. The world’s best natural hornists might have been able to do this, but…

Overall, the movement felt too sporty. Couldn’t this be somewhat more relaxed, even playful?

IV. Finale: Allegro moltoPoco AndantePresto

Not surprisingly, another, fast tempo, pushing the orchestra towards (but largely not beyond) its limits, where the clarity started suffering (e.g., in the semiquaver passages in the fugue). A few notes here: in the presentation of the theme, the p in the pizzicato was a little too soft, causing the p in the woodwind interjections to sound mf at least. Then: it’s not the first time that I heard the “a 4” (dolce, bars 62ff.) performed by a solo quartet—I just realized what a nice idea this is! I really liked the extra clarity in the fugue, thanks to the vibrato-less string voices: beautiful! Then, in the Poco andante, the colors, the colors! And the woodwinds—excellent throughout, with their careful articulation and phrasing!

The spiccato after bar 421, prior to the Presto, were very short, at the point where they started to lose sound / definition. But certainly, one can say that there was never a dull moment, i.e., even the slightest loss in tension, drive, and intensity in this big movement!

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Definitely an interesting, highly refreshing performance—congrats!


Encore — Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, “Eroica” — III. Scherzo

It’s not uncommon that for an encore, conductors / orchestras select a bravura piece from the preceding program. Or, alternatively, an additional / new orchestral showpiece. Therefore, the selection of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s “Eroica” seemed the expected, if not obvious choice. Especially given that it is the shortest of the movements in the symphony. However, for one, this did not offer any build-up or “enhancement” over Beethoven’s Finale. Then, why repeat exposing the hornists at this pushed tempo? Just to drive up their adrenaline levels? I think that the symphony alone was already virtuosic & showpiece enough. There was no need to top this in the encore.

Why not use the encore to demonstrate musical connections that the audience may not be aware of? Here’s an idea. Beethoven did not invent all of his third symphony “from scratch”. Rather, he used the theme for finale in three earlier compositions. The first one of these was the No.7 (in E♭ major, of course) of the Zwölf Contretänze, WoO 14. That’s actually just 30 seconds, so just a second encore at best. The second instance (also in E♭ major) is in the Finale of the ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus”, op.43. That’s a piece of around 6 minutes. What later became the “Eroica” theme is only an (initial) episode in that work. Nevertheless, wouldn’t this have been a useful enrichment, rather than mere repeat?

The third “Eroica” predecessor is for piano solo, hence not an option here: the 15 Variations and Fugue in E♭ major, op.35, a.k.a. “Eroica” variations (a misnomer, since the symphony was composed after all these).

Gevorg Gharabekyan, Chamber Orchestra I TEMPI @ Stadtcasino Basel, 2022-06-18 (© Chamber Orchestra I TEMPI)
Gevorg Gharabekyan, Chamber Orchestra I TEMPI @ Stadtcasino Basel, 2022-06-18 (© Chamber Orchestra I TEMPI)

Conclusions

Definitely an interesting, highly rewarding concert—even though the fast orchestral movements occasionally left the listener somewhat out of breath. To me, the two real highlights were in the slow movement of the Sibelius concerto with Christian Tetzlaff, and that same soloist’s solo encore.


Acknowledgement

The author would like to express his gratitude to Sulamith Gharabekyan-Krieger, Managing Director, Kammerorchester I TEMPI, for the invitation and the press tickets to this concert.


Literature

Winters, W. (n.d.). AuthenticSound – YouTube. Www.youtube.com. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://tinyurl.com/yk4jnvwu

Martin-Castro, A., & Ucar, I. (2020). Conductors’ tempo choices shed light over Beethoven’s metronome. PLOS ONE, 15(12), e0243616. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0243616



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