Xavier de Maistre, Lionel Bringuier / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Saariaho / Mendelssohn Bartholdy

Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-05-05

4-star rating

2017-05-12 — Original posting



Introduction

The end of the last season in the old Tonhalle in Zurich is approaching quickly. Soon, the building will undergo a 3-year renovation effort. In this concert, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and its conductor, Lionel Bringuier, presented a program in two contrasting parts. The combination of contemporary and romantic music is almost a standard these days in concerts at the Tonhalle. The interesting thing about this program, however, was the contrasting mental and spiritual attitude of the two compositions:

  • In the first part, the orchestra presented Kaija Saariaho’s “Trans“. An introverted, reflective, even transcendental composition, with the ethereal sound of the harp as key component.
  • After the intermission, Mendelssohn’s affirmative faith: the devoutness of a composer who had converted from Judaism to Protestant Christianity. The sheer vocal force of Mendelssohn’s Symphony-Cantata offered a stark contrast to Saariaho’s much more delicately woven textures.

Even though this was a subscription concert, the hall was not filled very well. Was this due to the short return of nice spring weather on this Friday evening? Or rather because of the unusual, unknown or rarely played repertoire?


Saariaho: “Trans”, for Harp and Orchestra (2015)

The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (*1952) received her first musical education in Helsinki,. There, she also grew up and studied at the Sibelius Academy under Paavo Heininen. In 1980 she attended courses in Darmstadt, then moved to the IRCAM in Paris. Compositions from that time combined traditional and electronic instruments. For more information on her life and her activities as a composer see also Wikipedia.

The composition “Trans” was commissioned by several orchestras and organizations, among them the Tonhalle Gesellschaft Zürich. The composition is for harp solo, 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 4 horns, trumpet, 2 trombones, tuba, drums, percussion, and strings. It premiered 2016 in Tokyo, with Xavier de Maistre playing the solo part. The work features three movements:

  1. Fugitif
  2. Vanité
  3. Messager

The Artist: Xavier de Maistre

Xavier de Maistre, is one of—maybe even the—today’s most prominent harpists today. Born 1973 in Toulon, de Maistre studied in Paris, while also studying politics and economic sciences in Paris and London. He only decided for a career as harpist exclusively following an advice by the great harpist Nicanor Zabaleta (1907 – 1993). Zabaleta explained that there are thousands of lawyers, but only one harpist like him (de Maistre). After winning prizes he became the first French musician in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Now, de Maistre gives master classes in New York, Tokyo, and London, and since 2001, he teaches in Hamburg. For more information see Wikipedia (or also the French version).

The Performance

Xavier de Maistre had also been the soloist who premiered this composition (Japan, 2016). Therefore, authenticity was guaranteed in this concert performance. For this first performance in Switzerland, I’m therefore just describing my impressions about the composition:

I. Fugitif

To me, “Fugitif” describes the volatility of appearances. Periodically, the harp starts presenting a motif, which may be a single, arpeggiated chord, also multiple chords, or playful figurations. There were also sequences that remind of aleatoric compositions (music that is determined by coincidence, i.e., arbitrary timing). The orchestra picks up these motifs / “themes” / fragments, sometimes amplifies them, then lets the fade away. In this orchestral response, the dominant components come from xylophones. These often imitate the sound of the harp very closely. More than once I was led to believe that Xavier de Maistre was still playing, until I checked visually. This was from in the rear of the parquet seating, though.

The orchestral response was more than just an echo of the harp. I spontaneously thought of a dark pond amidst a forest. A thrown stone (the plucking, often definitely the smiting of the harp strings) would generate waves that spread in growing circles. These would cross their own reflections on the surface, build up, then subside again. Up till the next triggering motif by the solo instrument. Only in the final bars, the harp also picks up impulses from the orchestra, just to let them fade away. It’s a predominantly soft, retained piece. It invites the listener to follow the reverberations in the music, as well as in one’s mind. In other words: to follow the associations and emotions that the music evokes.

II. Vanité

The second movement features not so much the orchestra’s response to motifs given by the harp. It’s rather “the harp listening to its own resonances”. Xavier de Maistre plays glissando cascades, as well as flageolet tones—airy, crystal-clear, transparent. The orchestra picks up these sounds, imitates them, amplifies them in the xylophones. The strings help building up a bigger soundscape. The music never gets loud, though, but all the more intense, urgent at the culmination, until it vanishes in silence.

III. Messager

In “Messager” (Messenger), a key role is given to tremolo and fully notated trills as motifs. These migrate forth and back between the harp and idiophones (xylophone, celesta, etc.), while other instruments illustrate, enrich. Motifs jumping between instruments. I was strongly reminded of Minimal music. Dynamically, the music builds up in waves, the orchestra also interjects clear accents, trumpets add in color flashes. With all this, the piece largely stays on one base tone, or a single chord. It’s the first time that I heard quarter-tone intervals from the harp. Very unusual!

Xavier de Maistre’s playing was subtle, highly differentiated. The soloist closely cooperated with Lionel Bringuier, also kept close contact with the orchestra directly. The accompaniment wasn’t just following the harp, but the performance was the result of a mutual, active cooperation and effort.

Needless to say: I did not have a score. So, I had no “objective means” to judge the quality of the performance or the interpretation. However, Xavier de Maistre was the premiering artist. And the composer herself was present in the concert. Further, the unquestionable qualities of the Tonhalle Orchestra should not leave any doubts about the quality of the performance. But it’s definitely very interesting, fascinating music. All musicians received a well-deserved applause by the subscription audience (!). Kaija Saariaho came onto the podium to congratulate. She seemed very pleased with the performance.


Mendelssohn: Symphony No.2 in B♭ major, op.52, “Lobgesang”

The title of that composition is mis-leading. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) never called this “Symphony No.2”. The title was rather just Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), which the composer called a “symphony-cantata”. In other words: a cantata (if not more than that!) with an introductory, multi-part symphony (sinfonia, in baroque terminology). The composer had never published a Symphony No.2. So, after the composer’s death, the publishers called it Symphony No.2 in B♭ major, op.52. It is now also listed as “MWV A 18”. The subtitle is “A Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible, for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra”. The soloists include two sopranos and one tenor. The introductory symphony actually comprises three movements, the cantata part features 10 segments:

  1. Symphony:
    1. Maestoso con moto — Allegro
    2. Allegretto poco agitato
    3. Adagio religioso
  2. Cantata:
    1. Chorus: “Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn!
      “All men, all things, all that have life and breath”
    2. Soprano & Semi-Chorus: “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele
      “Praise thou the Lord, O ye Spirit”
    3. Tenor, Recitative & Aria: “Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid durch den Herrn
      “Sing ye Praise”
    4. Chorus: “Sagt es, die ihr erlöset seid
      “All ye that cried unto the Lord”
    5. Soprano Duet & Chorus: “Ich harrete des Herrn
      “I waited for the Lord”
    6. Tenor, Aria: “Stricke des Todes hatten uns umfangen
      “The sorrows of Death”
    7. Chorus: “Die Nacht ist vergangen!
      “The Night is Departing”
    8. Chorale: “Nun danket alle Gott
      “Let all men praise the Lord” (Chorale of “Now Thank We All Our God“)
    9. Tenor & Soprano: “Drum sing’ ich mit meinem Liede
      “My song shall be always Thy Mercy”
    10. Chorus: “Ihr Völker, bringet her dem Herrn Ehre und Macht!
      “Ye nations, offer to the Lord”

The Artists

The contributions by the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and Lionel Bringuier were obvious. However, a key role in the cantata part was occupied by the choir. Here, this was the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, prepared by chorus director Andreas Felber. I have written about earlier concerts with this excellent choir (then still under the direction of Tim Brown). In this concert, the choir included 58 members (17 + 14 + 13 + 14). These were mostly professional singers, but also student and (very) experienced lay singers. The three solo singers were

The Performance

I. Symphony

1. Maestoso con moto — Allegro

The three movements of the introduction / symphony are purely instrumental. However, already in the first bars of the Maestoso con moto, the trombones present the melody of the entry chorale in the cantata part, “Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn!” (All men, all things, all that have life and breath). That theme & chorale appears again at the very end of the cantata, hence bracketing the entire composition. The entry theme was framed by the dense sound of the Tonhalle Orchestra’s string section. Lionel Bringuier followed the “con moto” annotation in the score, avoiding unnecessary pomp. The theme was (and ought to be) vocal. The articulation in the strings was light. The tempo felt “right”, even though Mendelssohn’s metronome mark (1/4 = 96) points to an even (slightly) faster pace. Sadly, Bringuier broadened the tempo towards the Allegro part.

The fast part then came at an instrumental pace. It was as demanding as defined by the composer (the score asks for 1/4 = 160). That tempo is demanding. However, it helps keeping up the tension throughout the movement. The orchestra sound was transparent at all times. The dynamics were expansive, vivid. The transparency was not only the result of light articulation. It was also due to what I experienced as “split sound” (“Spaltklang” in German). In parts this was the result of differentiated articulation. However, it was equally due to Mendelssohn’s judicious disposition. Strings and brass section sound-wise appeared as autonomous groups. The woodwinds in the center of the stage sometimes sounded like a little serenade for wind instruments.

2. Allegretto poco agitato

Also here, Bringuier’s tempo very much followed the score (6/8 time, 3/8 = 80). The conductor applied gentle agogics, was moderate in the dynamics, carefully shaping the phrases. I should say, though, that to me, the movement felt somewhat static in its melancholic melodies. It almost seemed a bit monotonous. On the other hand, this allowed the atmospheric middle part to flourish even more. I really liked how the excellent woodwinds played the well-articulated chorale verses in the middle part. The chorale is in G major. Interestingly, the interjections in the strings stay with the minor tonality that dominates the rest of the movement.

3. Adagio religioso

The soothing Adagio religioso offered pure pleasure, indulging in its calm, deep atmosphere. Out of this, the nicely formed, melodic phrases were glowing beautifully. Bringuier never pushed the tempo, stayed on the initial tempo (the score states 2/4 time, with 1/8 = 76). Yet, he was able to keep the tension, even build it up towards the vocal part.

II. Cantata

1. Chorus “Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn!

Immediately evident to me: the very impressive sound of the Zürcher Sing-Akademie. That choir demonstrated excellent diction, understandability, amazing volume and homogeneity, virtuosity and flexibility in the fugato parts, and balance within the choir, as well as in relation to the orchestra. Excellent, if not overwhelming!

2. “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele

Sadly, I found Mojca Erdmann‘s soprano far too dramatic for this music. Her voice has excellent volume and a pleasant timbre, but the vibrato is too nervous and strong. Also, I found her to push, force out too much for the high peak notes. In my opinion, this role calls for a more lyrical voice and interpretation. Mendelssohn’s accompaniment is nervous enough.

3. “Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid durch den Herrn

I found Christian Elsner‘s tenor to be equally dramatic. However, here, that voice fits, as the tenor fills the role of the narrator. In the subsequent aria “Er zählet uns’re Tränen”, he switched to a more lyrical tone. A really great, well-projecting voice!

4. Chorus “Sagt es, die ihr erlöset seid

Excellent dynamic control in the choir, careful shaping of the phrases!

5. “Ich harrete des Herrn

And again, the dramatic character of Mojca Erdmann’s soprano didn’t fit the role! I found Katharina Konradi‘s soprano to be more natural, more lyrical. And yet, it may even have more “ping” in it! Unfortunately, that role is short (just this one duet with intermittent choir verses)! Still, also her vibrato is heavy enough, to say the least, in my opinion.

6. “Stricke des Todes hatten uns umfangen

This the core piece of the cantata (together with the subsequent choir). And Christian Elsner gave an excellent performance here! The biggest part is a multi-role recitative. The tenor (appropriately!) filled that with drama, gave almost a stage performance: vivid, dramatic, supported by the orchestra. Elsner explored the full scope of his voice, from brilliant, radiant Heldentenor to the softest sotto voce and falsetto. He was brilliantly switching between characters/roles. That was excellent, the dramatic climax! In that scene, the soprano’s short response wasn’t as clean in the intonation as it should have been.

7. “Die Nacht ist vergangen!

Excellent balance between choir and orchestra, even when both are pushing the volume to full fff. However, it was equally excellent and controlled in the closing decrescendo!

8. Chorale “Nun danket alle Gott

Initially, this chorale is a cappella, and felt a bit too heavy, celebrated. Especially compared to how Bach chorales are typically performed these days. However, homogeneity, articulation, phrasing and dynamics were excellent, the singing expressive, “talking”. The question of tempo resolves itself, as in the second verse the orchestra joins in. And that does not allow for a faster pace, really. So, in the aftermath, it all made sense and seemed to be the way the composer intended. A really great, heart-warming chorale!

9. “Drum sing’ ich mit meinem Liede

I wasn’t always quite happy with the soprano’s intonation. Overall, this was less convincing than the earlier, big tenor role, even though Elsner was producing some highlights here, too.

10. Chorus “Ihr Völker, bringet her dem Herrn Ehre und Macht!

The cantata closes with a big choir piece. The Sing-Akademie again presented excellent homogeneity, sound / volume, and transparency. That was also helped by Mendelssohn’s careful disposition, of course. This was another highlight for the choir, and a worthy closure to Mendelssohn’s symphony-cantata!


Conclusion

It seemed that Lionel Bringuier really felt “at home”, at ease with the big gestures, the pathos in Mendelssohn’s religious, almost missionary music. Throughout the cantata, the orchestra closely followed the conductor’s intent, was a perfect accompaniment to choir and soloists. Most importantly, though: I don’t think that there is any better choir in Zurich, maybe in Switzerland altogether. I can hardly imagine any better choir performance!


Addendum:

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



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