Jan Willem de Vriend / Tonhalle Orchestra
Mozart: Symphonies Nos.39, 40, 41

Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-03-15

3-star rating


2017-03-23 — Original posting

Jan Willem de Vriend (© Challenge Records / Hans Morren, photographer)
Jan Willem de Vriend (© Challenge Records / Hans Morren, photographer)

Introduction

The Orchestra’s Tradition

The Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich comes out of the late-romantic tradition. So, traditionally, one would expect “traditional” performances from this orchestra. However, the ensemble is not entirely devoid of experience with historically informed playing (HIP). Also during David Zinman‘s “regime”, the orchestra frequently hired guest conductors such as Ton Koopman, who introduced the orchestra into “more historically informed” performances. Actually, David Zinman himself definitely introduced HIP aspects in his interpretations of, e.g., the Beethoven symphonies.

However, over the recent years, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (Zürcher Kammerorchester, ZKO), particularly while under the direction of Sir Roger Norringtion, has certainly led the way towards strictly / truly historically informed performances at the forefront  of the “HIP scene”. In particular, the Mozart symphonies played in this concert have also been performed by Sir Roger Norrington and the ZKO, see my concert reports from concerts on 2014-11-25 (Symphony in G minor, K.550) and on 2015-03-28 (Symphony in C major, K.551). It would be interesting to see how the Tonhalle Orchestra performs in this area, in comparison to the local competition by the ZKO!

The Conductor: Jan Willem de Vriend

For this concert, the Dutch conductor Jan Willem de Vriend (*1962) was leading the orchestra. De Vriend originally was violinist. He studied in the at the conservatories in Amsterdam and The Hague, soon also starting to conduct. 1982 he founded the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam, which he led as concertmaster and conductor up till 2014.At that point, de Vriend focused on conducting alone, musicians from the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam then founded a new ensemble, named “Combattimento”.

As conductor, de Vriend has performed with numerous orchestras, such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orkest and other orchestras throughout the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as in Germany, Austria and Sweden. 2006 – 2017 he was chief conductor of the Symphony Orchestra in Enschede, and 2015 – 2019 he is also conducting the Philharmonic Orchestra of The Hague. Jan Willem de Vriend is conducting both in concert as well as operas. This information is extracted from the Dutch Wikipedia.

Jan Willem de Vriend has made his first appearance as guest conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra back in 2015.

The Setup in this Concert

This concert was entirely devoted to the last three symphonies by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791). For this repertoire, the orchestra was suitably reduced—not to the extreme minimum, sure, but definitely smaller than usual.

In deviation from “strict HIP”, as practiced by Norrington and others, the violin voices were both placed on the left side of the podium, the violas on the right (cellos behind the violas, double basses in the middle). The argument typically is that with the violins on either side of the podium, dialogs / echoes between these two voices are easier to hear and follow, and this also provides a better acoustic left/right balance. On the other hand, that setting makes coordination between these voices more of a challenge. However, one could argue that in these symphonies there are also (occasionally) dialogs between the violin voices and the violas / cellos, so the evening was not completely without left/right dialogs.

The orchestra played with modern instruments, but entirely / consequently without any vibrato. Also, Jan Willem de Vriend chose to perform all repeats, the only exception being the second instance of the Menuetto in these symphonies.

One extra remark: I liked the fact that the orchestra carefully re-tuned between the first two symphonies.


Mozart: Symphony No.39 in E♭ major, K.543

The Composition

As the other two symphonies in this concert, the Symphony in E♭ major, K.543, was composed in summer 1788. That’s the same months in which Mozart also created of the other two symphonies in this concert, No.40 (G minor, K.550) and No.41 (C major, K.551, “Jupiter”). These are the four movements in K.543:

  1. Adagio (2/2) — Allegro (3/4)
  2. Andante con moto (2/4)
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto (3/4) — Trio (3/4)
  4. Allegro (2/4)

Apparently, it is unclear whether the symphony ever received a performance during the composer’s lifetime.

The Performance

The beginning of the concert had me delighted—about the non-vibrato sound, the fresh, very vivid dynamics, refreshing crescendi—at the limit of exaggeration, though. The ensemble being the Tonhalle Orchestra, the instruments were modern almost throughout, though (the obvious exception were the wooden drumstick heads, see below). In particular, not just the violins were modern, but also the strings, and—equally important—the bows. I was pleased to note that the strings were quite far from being as dense, warm and homogeneous, often velvety sound, or the highly polished perfection that they cultivated so successfully over the past decades. These would be inappropriate in the context of a historically informed performance.

Belly Notes

One thing I did not quite like: there was a certain tendency towards “belly notes” (< >). These were most prominent when the peak of a phrase was on a long note—which very frequently resulted in such a “belly note”. Even though there isn’t a single indication for such features in the notation, one might justify its occasional use. However, when this occurs too frequently, (to me) it feels “mannered”, exceedingly affected, after a while even tiring, if not annoying (once one starts watching out for this…). The shorter bows that were in use at Mozart’s time, there is far less of a temptation to articulate belly notes, or to use the equally notorious “Nachdrücken” (swelling shortly before a note ends).

Drums

The other, very obvious feature in this performance was the very strong presence of the drums. Yes, the wooden heads on the drum sticks are historically correct, and this makes the sound of the drums very accentuated and quite bright. Initially, I found this very lively and refreshing, both in this symphony, as well as in K.551 (K.550 does not use drums). However, I don’t think that Mozart intended to write a drum concerto! In the course of the evening, the sound of the drums (to me) no longer sounded refreshing, but rather too dominant, too prominent, maybe even tiring. Overall, I personally would have preferred more dynamic differentiation, rather than the exceeding contrast, as in black&white paintings.

I. Adagio — Allegro

The tempo choices were promising right from start: the introduction felt very fluent for an Adagio. However, this is exactly the composer’s intent: the score has alla breve (2/2) notation for this part, which de Vriend correctly observed. He even managed still to make the introduction sound solemn, majestic. Jan Willem de Vriend conducted without baton, yet still very precise, with strong, energetic gestures, forming, modeling phrases with arms and hands.

Also the Allegro part was very fluent, to say the least. Many features in the performance were close to exaggeration, e.g., the frequently persistent forte playing, or the exceedingly pronounced ritenuto for the marcato beats in bar 70. Also, throughout the evening I noted an overly consequent emphasis of each and every crescendo: even the most enthralling “Mannheim crescendo” (a.k.a. “Mannheim rocket” / Mannheimer Rakete) loses its effect, wears off, if performed too frequently.

II. Andante con moto

For an Andante con moto, the tempo was at the lower limit. I clearly felt the 2/4 meter—though the crotchets were clearly below Andante—rather like a 4/8? The explanation is of course in the contrasting, dramatic middle part, featuring notes as short as hemidemisemiquavers. Under that aspect, the tempo was perfectly OK.

III. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio

In the Menuetto part, the tempo rather felt like an Allegretto—probably a little too fast: so fast that the articulation of the short note values started to suffer. I liked the Trio part much more: mellow, singing, especially in the clarinets.

IV. Allegro

It is true that the Allegro is in 2/4 notation, which implies very fast semiquavers. But still, the movement felt (almost) too fast. Yes, there was lots of momentum, but the movement often felt rushed, such that the articulation started to suffer. Sure, orchestras at the composer’s time would not have mastered this tempo. But maybe Mozart deliberately went to the limits, to make the movement sound revolutionary. And in order to reproduce this effect on today’s audiences, in our fast-living times, one could (should?) argue that one needs to push the envelope beyond the ordinary? The concert did not end up short, though, as Jan Willem de Vriend didn’t leave out a single repeat. He even observed the repeat signs in the second half (development & recapitulation) of that last movement, which is unusual for a movement in sonata form.


Mozart: Symphony No.40 in G minor, K.550

The Composition

I have written about this symphony in the context of a CD comparison, so, here I will just list the movements:

  1. Molto allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio
  4. Finale: Allegro assai

The Performance

Many impressions from the Symphony No.39 applied to the G minor symphony as well. Jan Willem de Vriend chose to play the second version, with the clarinets.

I. Molto allegro

In the outer movements, the conductor appeared to demonstrate the revolutionary, turbulent, dramatic character of this music. Again, the tempo was at the limit, but always still controlled. The dynamics were very vivid, if not exceedingly pronounced, overemphasized, or even at the limit of being coarse.

One critical remark: the exceedingly long rest prior to the secondary theme, and the associated switch to a slightly slower tempo felt a bit arbitrary, unmotivated.

II. Andante

I quite liked the tempo in the Andante: to some, it may have felt a bit fast. However the movement is in 6/8 time. There were some rather dramatic phases in this movement, occasionally the tempo even felt pushed. Yet, there were also calm moments with almost solemn serenity.

III. Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio

The third movement was so dramatic (maybe too fast?) that it could barely be recognized as Menuetto. The lovely Trio offered a pleasant contrast.

IV: Finale: Allegro assai

See the first movement above; to me, this felt too much driven, pushed, always urging. I wished for more flexibility through agogics, such as in the suggestion of a ritenuto, e.g., prior to the secondary theme. Here again, de Vriend observed the repeat signs in the second half (development & recapitulation), unusual for a movement in sonata form.


Mozart: Symphony No.41 in C major, K.551, “Jupiter”

The Composition

I have written about this symphony in the context of a CD comparison, so, here I will just list the movements:

  1. Allegro vivace
  2. Andante cantabile
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio
  4. Molto allegro

The Performance

I. Allegro vivace

This movement occasionally felt too much driven, pushed. Also, this was one of the instances where I often wished for a more “percussive” articulation in the strings, rather than these odd “belly notes”. There were also highlights, though, such as the presence of the bassoon in the secondary theme (bar 64). I also liked the powerful, almost brutal re-entry after the rest in bar 80.

II. Andante cantabile

Again, these “belly notes” (especially on the half notes)—too bad! And also this movement felt somewhat too driven, and the triplets in the secondary theme (bar 20ff.) definitely felt rushed. And again, a little suggestion of a ritenuto prior to the start of a theme would have helped.

III. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio

To me, the Menuetto was one of the best movements of the evening. It felt fluent, but at the same time (gradually) settled (even though the drums were a bit too prominent). The Trio was carefully articulated, harmonious, also with diligent tempo control, also in the more dramatic middle part.

IV. Molto allegro

In his explanations to this symphony, Jan Willem de Vriend stated, that the surname for this composition should be “Apollo Symphony” rather than “Jupiter Symphony”. I guess the background for this suggestion is in the tonality (C major). He may also have thought of the Apollonian, intellectual clarity and beauty of the last polyphonic movement with its five different themes. However, in my view, his interpretation definitely reminded of Jupiter, the father of the ancient gods, pitching lightnings at his adversaries, rather than of Apollo’s mellowness and serenity.

An example for this was the last movement: clearly too fast, merely reduced to drama, not leaving time to form, to shape the themes, not even for clear articulation. Yes, the movement has revolutionary aspects. However, in my view, it also features intellectual, almost transcendental serenity—which I was entirely missing here. In line with the rest, the final bars appeared just to look for effect, exaggerated, were even just boisterous and noisy with all the excess of drum beats.


Conclusion

Jan Willem de Vriend’s primary motto and focus appeared to be on the revolutionary aspects in this music. He did that to a degree where he appeared to neglect or ignore the other facets in Mozart’s last symphonies. I really liked the aiming at historically informed, correct playing (ignoring the lack of historic instrumentation for once). However, I missed the more playful components that I also see in this music, more than a somewhat stubborn focus on drama (and drums!). More elasticity in tempo and agogics, some degree of calmness and serenity would not have hurt.

But let me end with a positive remark: I was pleased to see the orchestra’s engagement, the vividness, and the professionalism in which they were follow the conductor’s intent.


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.



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