Claire Huangci, Heiko Mathias Förster / Prague Royal Philharmonic
Dvořák / Mozart / Gershwin

Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2020-01-05

3.5-star rating

2020-01-14 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

This was the last one of four concerts that the “Theater Club / JTC Theater&Reisen” organized in Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag, on the weekend of 2020-01-04:05. I have reported on the first of the two Saturday concerts on 2020-01-04. These concerts were labeled “Beethoven New Year’s Concerts“. The two Sunday concerts did not feature works by Beethoven, but instead, works by Dvořák and Gershwin, arranged around a piano concerto by Mozart—see below.

The Artists

All four concerts concert featured the same artists. The German conductor Heiko Mathias Förster (*1966, see also Wikipedia) stood at the helm of his Prague Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The soloist was the American pianist Claire Huangci (*1990, see also Wikipedia), winner of the Concours Géza Anda 2018 in Zurich. The same artists had already teamed up in a concert (purely Beethoven) some 15 months ago, on 2018-10-20.

Program

This time, the first half of the concert was symphonic, and Claire Huangci was performing in both works after the intermission:

The Sunday concerts ran under the label “New Year’s Concert — From the New World“, after the first of the works in the program. That title of course also covered the composition(s) by George Gershwin.

Setting, etc.

All four of the concerts that weekend were essentially sold out. I had a seat on the left-hand side (single row) gallery, about 1/3 from the back. Apologies for the modest quality photos—they were all taken using Apple iPhones. I would not dare taking my “real” camera to concerts in the Tonhalle Maag without first seeking and obtaining formal approval by the organizers. This time, I didn’t even try.


Concert & Review

Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) wrote his Symphony No.9 in E minor, op.95, B.178, “From the New World”, in 1893, during his stay in New York. The four movements are

  1. Adagio — Allegro molto
  2. Largo
  3. Scherzo: Molto vivace — Poco sostenuto
  4. Allegro con fuoco

Additional information on the symphony is available from Wikipedia, as well as in earlier concert reviews.

The Performance

The orchestral arrangement was of course the same as on the previous day: violins 1 — violins 2 — cellos — violas — double basses. For the symphony, the string sections were fully staffed.

I. Adagio — Allegro molto

The symphony offered an excellent opening to the concert, with its pp introduction that builds up tension over just 8 Adagio bars: the perfect way to capture the attention of the audience! In bar 3, the two A clarinets play a low E in unison, and pp. For a split second I thought that they were slightly out of tune. However, two instruments in unison, so exposed and at the edge of the dynamic and tonal range inevitably sound like two instruments. In other words: can’t be perfectly matched. This effect must have been the composer’s intent. In fact, I made the same observation with recordings and other concert performances.

Dvořák rudely interrupts that pp build-up with ff beats, alternating between strings, timpani, and the wind instruments. The volume was indeed impressive, if not too loud: in the acoustics of the venue, the timpany beats were almost ear-blasting. This didn’t remain a singular instance: throughout the first movement, I felt that the ff was too strong, too loud for this venue. In the Finale, at the end of a symphony, it may be OK to challenge the acoustics—but why do this already in the opening movement?

Needless to say that the orchestra evidently felt “at home” in this music—I liked the sonority of the orchestra, the singing in the violins, the excellent wind soloists, how orchestra and conductor formed arches and phrases. The coordination in fast motifs in the strings wasn’t always perfect, which may have contributed to the impression of a relatively mellow articulation, aiming at full sound rather than transparency. The repeat of the exposition was omitted—a pity, but understandable, given the length of the program.
★★★

II. Largo

In watching the orchestra, I noted that the lead function was almost entirely in Heiko Mathias Förster’s hands: for the coordination he didn’t rely on the concertmaster, but conducted with clear, fairly large movements / gestures, even in pp.

Smooth and gentle brass voices, beautiful and subtle woodwinds, especially of course the famous solo in the cor anglais. I was stunned by the first hornist’s ability to let the instrument fade away into the finest ppp (at 2, at the modulation to E major). An atmospheric idyl in the woodwinds, intimate where the strings play with mutes. At 5 the string voices were performed by solo instruments (1 or 2 instruments per voice) only—and also this was balanced and sounding beautifully. And unlike on the previous day, the concertmaster’s vibrato was quite noticeable, but still harmonious and adequate, not too nervous!
★★★½

III. Scherzo: Molto vivace — Poco sostenuto

My main quibble in the Scherzo is that the violins occasionally seemed somewhat underrepresented, particularly in p. Also, they occasionally seemed to lack some definition / precision in articulation—a weakness in coordination? And as in the first movement, the ff sometimes seemed to exceed the capacity of the hall / acoustics.
★★★½

IV. Allegro con fuoco

Also here, the first violins sometimes lacked definition and clarity. Interestingly, the violas appeared to beat them in terms of coordination and presence. Inevitably, the volume was again too high for the acoustics of the venue. However, at the end of this symphony (and prior to the intermission), that’s OK.
★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★


Claire Huangci, Heiko Mathias Förster, Prague Royal Philharmonic @ Zurich, 2020-01-05 (© Lea Kyburz)
Claire Huangci, Heiko Mathias Förster, Prague Royal Philharmonic @ Zurich, 2020-01-05

Mozart: Piano Concerto No.25 in C major, K.503

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) wrote 27 piano concertos. The Concerto No.25 in C major, K.503 is from 1786. Even though it is not the most well-known, some people apparently regard it “one of Mozart’s greatest masterpieces in the concerto genre” (see Wikipedia). There are the usual three movements.

  1. Allegro maestoso
  2. Andante
  3. Allegretto

The Performance

I. Allegro maestoso

Heiko Mathias Förster and his Prague Royal Philharmonic opened the concerto with grand, festive sounds: in my view (and considering the now ubiquitous “historically informed” performances), the orchestra was too big, too loud (again), the articulation not particularly light, occasionally slightly superficial in semiquaver passages.

Despite the considerable number of string players, I found the wind instruments (modern, of course) to be rather dominant. Sure, the Steinway D-274 concert grand (Gebr. Bachmann, Wetzikon ZH) wasn’t a historic instrument either—but still, most interpretations these days have picked up at least some of the features of HIP performances. And: this concerto precedes the Beethoven concerto that the artists performed on the previous day by around 24 years—yet, the orchestral approach seemed essentially the same.

With that accompaniment, one could of course not expect the soloist to try imitating the performance on a historic instrument, and trying to perform continuo in tutti sections would have been pointless, given the strength of the orchestra.

Solo Part

Claire Huangci’s articulation was obviously coordinated with the orchestra, her touch sounded rather mellow. However, that’s about where the commonalities ended. Her playing was so infinitely more differentiated in dynamics, subtle (elastic / flexible) in agogics, playful.

She performed with emphasis and momentum, effortlessly fluent in fast passages, yet light and agile: despite what I just stated above, her part often seemed to approach a performance on a fortepiano—not in sound and color, but in terms of lightness, dynamics and flexibility. Only occasionally, the sonority of the Steinway grand, especially in the bass, seemed rather gross (relative to a performance on historic instruments)—e.g., in the ascending left-hand scales in bars 264, 268, 272, 276, etc.; I suspect that this is hard to avoid on a modern piano. That said, Claire Huangci often treated the left hand part with amazing clarity and dynamic differentiation.

Cadenza

Mozart did not write a cadenza to this concerto. So, it’s the artist’s choice whether to take or adopt one by another (recent, probably famous) pianist, or to write / compose a new cadenza. Or eventually (if one has that ability), to improvise one in the concert. The latter is something very few pianists would do, I think. At least not in full, unless one’s name is Mozart or Beethoven! 🙂 From a casual posting on social media I learned that Claire Huangci sketched her cadenza on a flight from the U.S. to Europe a few weeks ago. That ability alone is amazing (given the noisy environment in an airplane)—but what a cadenza this became!

As far as I could tell, it was entirely based on material (melodies, motifs) from Mozart’s concerto—yet so rich in fantasy, especially harmonically! Some of Claire Huangci’s excursions in modulation may have sounded adventurous. However, even with that extravaganza, the cadenza was devoid of oddities (such as clearly 20th century harmonies, or excessively strange jumps in harmonies), largely remained within the “classic realm”. Of course, it included the virtuosic “show element” that Mozart would sure have displayed in his own concert performances.

And still, it sounded novel, genuine, “Claire’s own”, entertaining (to a degree that one would expect from a cadenza), and totally appropriate in length. In short: one of the best “pianist’s cadenzas” to a Mozart concerto (maybe even the best) that I have ever heard (ignoring those by Mozart, Beethoven and contemporaries). Congratulations!
★★★★½ (solo) / ★★★★★ (cadenza) / ★★★ (orchestra)

II. Andante

Most of this movement is p / soft, which have the woodwinds a chance to display gentle, even subtle playing in cantilenas. The solo, of course, was as careful and differentiated as in the first movement. Claire Huangci was restrictive in adding her own extras. She did, however, fill the wide right-hand gaps in bars 59 – 63 with suitable scales / broken chords. And her right hand always was very expressive, “talking”: as a listener, I did not feel a need for more, extra ornamentation.

As already in the first movement, the instrument could not possibly compete with the colorful bass on historic fortepianos. Of course, it’s not Claire Huangci’s fault if at the end of the long, falling scale in bar 90, the lowest, left-hand bass notes sounded too dark, almost gross (relative to a fortepiano, that is). Was it just my imagination, or did the soloist occasionally wish for a slightly faster (Andante) pace?
★★★★½ (solo) / ★★★½ (orchestra)

III. Allegretto

Just for the orchestra, the tempo was maybe a little fast—a slower pace would allowed for more careful, more detailed articulation in fast motifs. However, it is the soloist’s right and privilege (within limits, of course) to ask for a tempo that suits her interpretation. And that was as light, subtle and agile as expected—needless to say that there was no loss in clarity (and poignancy in the left hand) in the soloist’s performance.

Mozart wrote a short 2-bar ad libitum cadenza in bars 112/113; I was happy to note that Claire Huangci grabbed that opportunity for a slightly larger, virtuosic excursion: brilliant, and again well-adapted! From there on, she did add the occasional extra turn or trill. Most importantly: the ease and agility in her playing in this movement can hardly be matched even on the light mechanics of a fortepiano: it felt as if Claire Huangci was just loosening up her hands and fingers for the Gershwin piece to follow!
★★★★½ (solo) / ★★★½ (orchestra)

Overall Rating: ★★★★½ (solo) / ★★★ (orchestra)


Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) wrote his Rhapsody in Blue originally in 1924, scored for solo piano and jazz band. In 1926, he adapted it for a setting with “theater orchestra”. Only in 1942, he published a version for piano and symphony orchestra—though he had completed this in earlier years. I have already commented on a performance of this composition, in a recent concert in the same venue, on 2019-09-15.

The Performance

From earlier concerts I knew that Claire Huangci has a strong affinity towards Jazz and related styles. She certainly enjoyed and played this out in this music, with swaying rhythms, syncopes, etc.—clearly, she felt “at home” here! Her solo was jazzy and playful throughout. Too bad her part was sometimes drowning in the sound of the orchestra—but that’s in segments where to the composer, the piano was not meant to dominate, but was merely an element in the overall soundscape. I’m sure that if it was for the soloist alone, the solo part / the music would have been even jazzier—however, starting with the famous initial clarinet solo, the orchestra was either not entirely “in” that music, or at least, they wanted to avoid making a caricature from this piece.

The solo performance certainly was highly virtuosic, emphatic, full of momentum, flexible / able to switch between characters on an instant. At the same time, Claire Huangci avoided making the solo sound aggressive or hard: excellent, even in the powerful fff segments of the highly acrobatic / challenging cadenza(s).

The orchestra sure did enjoy that composition, too—though, in comparison with the solo part, it sometimes sounded a tad heavy, especially in the boisterous, loud segments. And I had the notion of occasional, slightly defensive playing on the part of the orchestra.

Rating: ★★★★½ (solo) / ★★★ (orchestra)


Encore — Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F (III. Allegro agitato)

The applause on Gershwin’s Rhapsody was frenetic—the audience obviously has a sense for jazzy music, too! Amazingly, in their encore, the musicians didn’t aim for contrast / soothing relief! Rather, we heard another, both enthralling and virtuosic movement by George Gershwin (1898 – 1937): the third movement, Allegro agitato from the Piano Concerto in F. Gershwin composed this in 1925, in response to a commission by the conductor and director Walter Damrosch (1862 – 1950). The concerto features three movements, among which we heard the final one:

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio – Andante con moto
  3. Allegro agitato

This was a big encore, an obviously well-prepared and rehearsed piece, highly enthralling—and virtuosic definitely also on the part of the orchestra, especially the brass section! The tempo clearly was Claire Huangci’s—breathtakingly fast and agile, probably driving the orchestra to the limits of its abilities. Still, I must say that also the orchestra performed well here—and for this “last dance” people certainly didn’t mind if the dynamics occasionally exceeded the capacity of the acoustics!

Rating: ★★★★½ (solo) / ★★★½ (orchestra)



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