Lise de la Salle, Fabio Luisi / Philharmonis Zürich
Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky

Zurich Opera, 2013-12-22


2013-12-25 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-10 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-16 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


Introduction

Last Sunday, after a long “concert break” of more than 2 years (hard to believe, but true!), we attended a concert in Zurich, featuring works by Rachmaninoff and by Tchaikovsky. This posting is not meant to be a concert critique. It is merely a post describing my personal experience and thoughts.

The Zurich Opera House

For once, this wasn’t a concert in Zurich’s “standard” concert hall, the Tonhalle, but a philharmonic concert in the opera house. Zurich’s Opera House was built in 1890/91 by the Viennese architects Fellner & Hellmer. It’s a neo-classical building with an auditorium in neo-Rococo style. The architects were prominent and very active throughout Europe. They built similar theaters in Wiesbaden and in Prague. The opera house is relatively small, holding around 1200 seats, many without direct or full sight of the stage.

Zurich’s Opera House originally carried the name “Stadttheater Zürich”. It served as a house for drama, opera and musical events. Only in 1925, when a separate theater for drama was built, it was renamed “Opernhaus”. Note that the same architects also built the Zurich Tonhalle, in 1893-95.

We were late in booking, and so we (my wife, my daughter and I) only had rear seats on the side of the second balcony. This limited the sight to the orchestra. The event was sold out. I just managed to see the pianist (not the keyboard, though), and my sight line was pretty much along the lid of the piano, onto the sound board. The picture below is from the applause after the piano concerto:

The Opera House as a Concert Venue

Obviously, the opera house is mostly used for opera (and built to accommodate drama). Concerts are an exception. For this event, the orchestra was placed at the level of the stage, covering the first 4 – 5 meters of the stage in the back, up to the first 2 – 3 rows of the floor seats at the front. The musicians must have enjoyed the extra space. For once they did not need to squeeze into the narrow orchestra pit! Wooden panels closed off the back of the stage.

Acoustics

I don’t know how the house sounded originally. The architects did not have the option of using scientific modeling when they designed the building. I also can’t judge how the renovation of the building in 1982-84 affected / enhanced the acoustics. I would merely state that the house is small, and it appears optimized for best audibility / acoustic clarity. This means that there is very little reverberation—and even less in this concert, because the stage volume was not contributing to the acoustics. I don’t know how that concert sounded in the back of the floor (usually the best seats). But I can hardly imagine that better seats offered substantially better acoustics. Indeed, the concert review in the NZZ, the local newspaper (see below) mentioned non-ideal acoustics. Fact: the house sounded about as dry as a typical studio, with no perceptible reverberation at all.

Along with the central placement of the orchestra in the room, this led to a very direct, extremely transparent sound, even up in the back of the second balcony. It took me a long while to get used to this setting. On the other hand, if one wanted to follow the music with a score (you would need to have extra lighting for that), this was the ideal setup, as every voice in the orchestra was clearly audible and identifiable!

The Program for this Concert

The program featured two compositions:

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18

Very briefly about the performance of the Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943). From the very first notes, if not even before, the dryness of the acoustics struck me, but also the clarity of the sound.

Soloist

It may have taken the soloist (Lise de la Salle, *1988) some time to get used to the acoustic (non-)response as well. I felt that she may have slightly overdone those fff bass chords after the initial crescendo, right before the first notes in the orchestra. Was she looking for some reverberation, acoustic feedback? For a moment, the Steinway grand’s bass strings sounded distorted. But then, the artist immediately adjusted to the acoustics, and such distortions never occurred again for the rest of the concert.

I did not prepare well for the concert, I must say, and I wouldn’t dare making detailed comments, especially not from my remote seating position. Still, as far as I can tell, it was a good, technically sound, if not excellent performance. But somehow, the music did not “pull me in” emotionally, even though I like the composition. I can’t really tell whether it’s just my problem of mentally adjusting to the acoustics. Maybe the acoustics also affected the soloist, if not even also the orchestra (less likely, I think). Were there perhaps limitations in how conductor / orchestra and soloist cooperated and responded to each other?

Conductor / Orchestra

In general, Fabio Luisi‘s direction seemed excellent, and so was definitely the orchestra (see below). But I’m sure there were severe restrictions to the amount of rehearsal time that orchestra and soloist could spend in the final concert setup. Such rehearsals would have been without audience, which again affects the acoustics. I did not sense major problems in the coordination. If anything, the acoustic clarity must have helped the coordination within the orchestra, as well as between soloist and orchestra! Also, I could not lay my finger on discrepancies between the soloist and the conductor / orchestra. I was mostly (somehow) missing this sense of emotional interplay between soloist and orchestra, which I suspect would require a lot of rehearsal time / getting to know each other (and the acoustics / location!). Or, it would have required very experienced (and “mutually compatible”) musicians (soloist, conductor, orchestra).

Conclusions, Encore

But again: maybe this was just me taking an hour to adjust to the acoustics? Or was I just not “in tune” with the piece, or with the interpretation? I don’t want to exclude the possibility that it was “my fault” that this performance left me a bit clueless. It could also have been the acoustics. The public, in any case, gave a very warm applause. Lise de la Salle responded with an encore that she announced as “un chorale de Bach”. Neither my wife nor I instantly recognized the chorale—it must have been Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of “Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ”. To me, it was more touching (and better?) than the Rachmaninoff: I really liked that interpretation!


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 in B minor, op.74, “Pathétique”

After the intermission, the Symphony Nr.6 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) gave me the deeper, richer experience than the Rachmaninoff concerto, despite the dry acoustics. Maybe the latter, a late romantic composition, is more dependent on (and might profit from) more acoustic / sound mixing? In that sense, the Tchaikovsky seemed more tolerant / robust. I may even have profited from the unusual acoustic transparency!

The orchestra—originally part of the Tonhalle Orchestra, split off as a separate orchestra in the 80s, recently renamed “Philharmonia Zürich“—was simply excellent, in sound, coordination / virtuosity and balance. To me, Zurich’s orchestras always stood out for their excellent woodwinds (& some of the brass section as well). By now, they appear to have substantially gained quality also in the string section. I really liked the string sound in this concert. Actually, I could not really point to any weak spot in the orchestra. I particularly liked watching the percussionists in the symphony. It was a pleasure to see how Renata Walczyna enjoyed her key role at the timpani in the Tchaikovsky symphony. She was the single, most indispensable musician in that piece, apart from the conductor!

This music now “pulled me in”, for sure. The slow, more intimate sections of the composition moved me particularly: such wonderful music! I don’t think this music really suffered from the dry acoustics. I believe that the composition also profited from Fabio Luisi‘s more “classic” interpretation. It was devoid of excess romanticism, such as heavy vibrato, portamenti, or too much rubato, that one can find in some of the so-called “reference recordings”. I not only liked the music, but also the interpretation. It would be interesting to hear more of it!

Comments in Newspapers

I ran into two critiques so far: the first one is from the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) of 2013-12-24, p.45 (sorry, in German). I realized that the bulk of the critique is about the Rachmaninoff concerto. This gave me that little sensation of a sweet revenge towards the fair number of snobbish people who felt that they had not interest in the Rachmaninoff, only arriving after the break!

A second, rather wordy / elaborate critique appeared in “Oper aktuell” (also in German).



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