Lise de la Salle, Alain Altinoglu, Philharmonia Zurich
Liszt / Bartók
Zurich Opera, 2017-10-22
Back to the Zurich Opera House for one of the Philharmonic concerts with the Philharmonia Zürich (see also Wikipedia for additional information on the history of this orchestra), in the usual, festive setup. The orchestra obviously enjoys the exposure in the depth of the extended opera stage (rather than being buried in the orchestra pit).
Compared to a “proper” concert venue, he acoustics of the house remain tricky (i.e., very dry, lacking any reverberation), but the orchestra is of course used to this from opera performances. Interestingly, with the Tonhalle Zurich being renovated, both of Zurich’s major orchestras are now playing in analytical, dry acoustics (see my report from the concert at Tonhalle Maag on 2017-10-18). I should mention that from past concerts I feel that this type of acoustics can just as well be advantageous for certain types of repertoire, such as romantic and late romantic compositions. We’ll see whether it’s the same in this concert with compositions by Liszt and Bartók!
For this concert, the orchestra invited Alain Altinoglu (*1975) as guest conductor. Altinoglu grew up in Paris in a family of Armenian & Turkish descent. He did his studies at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris and has since started working with numerous prominent orchestras throughout Europe and the United States. For additional information on the conductor see also Wikipedia.
The reception history of the Symphonic Poem No.3, “Les Préludes“, S.97, by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) is full of controversies and adverse facts. It started with the vehement rejection of the ideas of “program music”, or the concept of a “symphonic poem”, which the famous critic Eduard Hanslick (1825 – 1904) called a “contradiction in itself”. In the last century, the abuse of the theme of “Les Préludes” by the Nazis during the war against Russia, from 1941 on, didn’t help the reception of this composition in Germany, if not the German-speaking part of Europe. One would hope that the past 70 years have put enough of a distance between that time and now that we can again enjoy Liszt’s music for what it was really meant to be.
That said: I do like the music, but the main theme is so obviously popular and simple that one cannot hear this too many times without it turning into an “earworm”: it’s for good reasons that the Nazis picked this as “Leitmotif” for radio and film propaganda (they intended to use it as victory hymn).
As for the underlying “program: the link to an Ode from Nouvelles méditations poétiques (1923) by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790 – 1869) is rather lose, if not even controversial: the piece was originally conceived as an overture to a different work. Liszt later apparently wanted to obscure this link, by adding the reference to Lamartine’s Ode. That Ode, however, is very generic in its content (taken from Wikipedia):
- Question (Introduction and Andante maestoso, bars 1–46)
- Love (bars 47–108)
- Storm (bars 109–181)
- Bucolic calm (bars 182–344)
- Battle and victory (bars 345–404)
- Recapitulation of “Question” (bar 405ff.)
One might see this simply as the story of a life (possibly autobiographic), with youth, love, maturity, fights, apotheosis/fulfillment. It’s so generic that one can definitely enjoy the work without knowing about the program: when I listened to the composition without knowing about the program, “storm” and “pastorale” were terms that I wrote down spontaneously.
Definitely, Hanslick’s approach of comparing Liszt’s Symphonic Poems with “absolute” music, such as the classic and romantic symphonies, leads nowhere, does not help understanding or enjoying “Les Préludes“.
Alain Altinoglu is an experienced opera conductor. In addition, he has already conducted at the Zurich Opera. So, he is certainly familiar with the acoustics of an opera, and with the use of an opera stage as concert podium. I would even claim that he knew how to use the acoustics of the venue to the advantage of the music.
With the sensory for drama in operas, Altinoglu used the crescendo sparingly, in a well-controlled fashion. Even in the first, grandiose climax he made sure the sound remained transparent. Out of (and within) this, the high string registers were able to play out their prominent (but never overly dominant) role, using light, often almost “airy” articulation.
I liked the clear contours, the transparency, and the compelling tempo structure throughout the piece, through storm and the pastoral scene, up to the glorious ending. I never had the feeling of a “driven” performance. Even the final climax remained controlled, without emotional exaggerations (such as sometimes heard in performances of Richard Strauss’ Tone Poems). This could only have been the result of careful preparation and at the same time proved both the excellent qualities of the orchestra, as well as the qualities of Alain Altinoglu as conductor. I should also mention that throughout the evening, the concertmaster, Hanna Weinmeister, provided excellent, both attentive and active support to the conductor.
Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) wrote his Piano Concerto No.1 in E♭ major, S.124 between 1830 (first sketches) and 1856 (publication). The premiere took place 1855 in Weimar, with the composer at the piano and Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869) conducting. Liszt clearly wrote this concerto to “show off” his pianistic abilities. The work therefore features substantial technical challenges. At the same time, Liszt knew exactly what “sounds good” on the piano, and how to impress the audience. In sum, it’s a true pianistic showpiece. At the same time, the concerto deviates from traditional form principles. It consists of four movements, whereby in recordings, artists often treat movements 2 & 3 as one:
- Allegro maestoso (4/4)
- Quasi adagio (12/8) — L’istesso tempo (4/4) —
- Allegretto vivace (3/4) — Allegro animato (2/2)
- Allegro marziale animato (4/4)
The soloist in this concerto, Lise de la Salle (*1988, see also Wikipedia for additional information) is no stranger to Zurich: over the past years, she has performed all of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s works for piano and orchestra with the Philharmonia Zurich and its principal conductor Fabio Luisi (*1959). That means that she had no need to prove her immense technical abilities in this concert (I have reviewed two of her Rachmaninoff performances, as well as a solo recital in earlier blog posts).
So, Lise de la Salle is familiar with the acoustics. And she knows how the Steinway D concert grand sounds in this venue.
I. Allegro maestoso
I experienced Lise de la Salle’s interpretation as alternating between dramatic / virtuosic segments and passages of extreme lyricism. This, however, isn’t just her doing, but has its foundation in Liszt’s composition. As mentioned, Liszt wrote this as a showpiece for demonstrating his pianistic abilities. At the same time, he certainly also had a strong lyrical side.
Lise de la Salle clearly enjoyed and explored the virtuosic aspect extensively: in the dramatic segments, her playing was very impulsive, often storming forward (no: not necessarily ahead, though). For example, in the wide jumps in double octaves with both hands right after the first presentation of the main theme by the orchestra, the virtuosic effect / display seemed more important than hitting every single key correctly. Over that concerto, there were occasional missing (or missed) keys. However, she was cleverly able to conceal this, covering it with the main voice(s).
In general, she used a very pronounced, if not exaggerated rubato, and her playing was not free of some arbitrariness. The con impeto in bar 81, for example, I see more as description of the articulation, the character of the playing than a tempo instruction. Lise de la Salle switched to a substantially faster tempo at this point. On the other hand, in lyrical segments, she emphasized the emotional aspect, sometimes resorting to extreme rallentando, up to a point where the musical flow seemed to stop.
II. Quasi adagio — L’istesso tempo —
Consequently, in the slow movement, she started off extremely gentle, mellow, lyrical, introverted. In the first solo, she built up to an expressive climax, but then returned to the extremely lyrical mood, down to ppp. Most of the subsequent, wide-spanning runs, she played very clearly—but again maybe a little exaggerated in the rubato.
III. Allegretto vivace — Allegro animato
Here, the piano interjections were very (too?) impulsive, sometimes almost contracted, if not even superficial in some of the short-note motifs.
IV. Allegro marziale animato
Here, the orchestral gestures leading to the extensive solo section (starting in bar 19) seemed a bit overblown. It fitted the solo part that followed, though. However, as far as articulation is concerned, Lise de la Salle’s playing was never blurred or veiled, nor would I call it bombastic, though to me, her playing exhibited a certain tendency towards exaggerations, especially in the rubato.
Encore — Liszt / Schumann: “Widmung”
For the encore, Lise de la Salle stayed with Liszt as composer, selecting his arrangement of the famous Lied “Widmung” (Du meine Seele, du mein Herz), from the cycle “Myrthen“, op.25 by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856). I have given information on Schumann’s composition and the underlying poem by Friedrich Rückert (1788 – 1866) in an earlier review from a private concert on 2016-11-13.
Lise de la Salle’s interpretation was technically brilliant, culminating in pianistic fireworks. At the climax, though, the cantilena was in danger of getting buried in all the virtuosic passagework. The performance also lacked the more intimate aspects in Friedrich Rückert’s poem. Overall, I think it was more of a pianistic showpiece than a representation / arrangement of Schumann’s masterpiece, let alone Rückert’s poem. Lise de la Salle announced the encore as “a love song”, which to me indicates that she did not try conveying the contents of underlying poem.
1943, Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) was very desperate and in a hospital, seriously ill with Leukemia: he felt he was in his death-bed, forgotten or seriously neglected by the music world in the United States (where he fled due to World War II). It was the unexpected donation by the Koussevitzky Foundation, run by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874 – 1951), which triggered a last awakening of Bartók’s compositorial spirits. With the donation, Koussevitzky commissioned the Concerto for Orchestra, Sz.116 / BB 123, which Bartók completed in October 1943. The article in Wikipedia has more information on the composition. Let me just list the five movements here:
- Introduzione. Andante non troppo – Allegro vivace
- “Presentando le coppie”. Allegro scherzando
- “Elegia”. Andante non troppo
- “Intermezzo interrotto”. Allegretto
- Finale. Presto
I have reviewed an earlier performance of this composition in a review from a concert in Lucerne, on 2015-06-29.
A short note on the orchestral setup: here, both violin voices were on the left, just as in the concert by the concert of the Tonhalle Orchestra at Tonhalle Maag on 2017-10-18. However, here, the violas were sitting opposite the first violins on the right, the cellos further in the back, behind the violas. Definitely for this composition, this turned out an excellent choice. It allowed the violas to play out their prominent role!
I. Introduzione. Andante non troppo – Allegro vivace
Clearly, Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra” profited from the dry acoustics in this venue, which allowed very clear, fine dynamic differentiation. Altinoglu had the orchestra start in the softest, murmuring ppp, then gradually building up from there. In this slow crescendo, the interjections by the wind instruments stood out clearly. Throughout the piece, the depth of the orchestral setup was instrumental in maintaining clarity and transparency.
The slow introduction seemed to mimic Bartók’s late re-awakening as a composer, and once the orchestra reached Allegro vivace after the gradual accelerando, the music was full of verve, even fire, very emotional. The musicians in the orchestra appeared fully engaged, playing with utmost focus and concentration. This indicated that the work is not without challenges. However, the outcome was absolutely flawless, masterful. I particularly liked the firm, homogeneous and leading sound of the violins in this first movement (the longest one in this work).
II. “Presentando le coppie”. Allegro scherzando
Bartók also used the title “Giuoco delle coppie” (play of the couples). Indeed, with this movement , the atmosphere turned joyful, playful, even full of fun. The wind solos were simply excellent. Also the unexpected, solemn chorale melody in the brass voices sounded very clean, both in intonation, as well as rhythmically. Maybe not all of the transitions were totally harmonious, compelling—but that is a minor quibble. On the bright side: one could certainly feel how joyful, how playful this movement was for the musicians. Altinoglu even accidentally dropped his baton!
III. “Elegia”. Andante non troppo
Also this movement starts with soft murmuring “in the underground”. This grew into a whirring, shimmering atmosphere which reminded me of “L’après-midi d’un faune” by Claude Debussy. But then the violins present an urging melody, and soon the violas take over, with intense, impressive singing at an amazing volume. The fact that they were sitting at the edge of the podium must have been helpful here! And there are more “Debussy episodes”, more singing in the high string registers, confirming the outstanding impression about the strings that I took from this concert. Moreover, I found this movement the most convincing, the most compelling performance so far this evening.
IV. “Intermezzo interrotto”. Allegretto
This movement sounds like a colorful mix of Hungarian folk dances, with their typical, odd rhythms, such as 2/4 + 5/8. Despite these (for us) unusual rhythms, the music often felt like a sort of waltz, swinging, light, joyful, with a melancholic note. And again, the violas played a star role, and the conductor obviously was entirely “into” this music!
V. Finale. Presto
The concert culminated in this brilliant Finale: a virtuosic orchestral showpiece, rhythmically intricate, playful, again with many Hungarian folk music elements, full of humor. It’s a climax not just in volume, but also in polyrhythmic complexity. The tempo changes frequently. And here, all transitions absolutely made sense, were compelling, felt even natural. Not just the audience, but also the orchestra and the conductor got “pulled in” by Bartók’s late masterpiece. Clearly, both the orchestra and Alain Altinoglu deserved the strong, lasting applause!
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.