Isabelle Faust, Jakub Hrůša / Tonhalle Orchestra
Bartók / Schumann / Janáček
Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-06-21
Slowly, but surely, visiting the grand hall in the Tonhalle Zurich is evoking feelings of melancholy: within very few weeks, that venue will be closed for three years, when the whole complex (Kongresshaus Zürich) is being renovated & restored. On the bright side, in 2020, we’ll be able to enjoy the hall in the colors and the original glory in which Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) encountered it while he was here in Zurich! Plus, as it was just announced a few days ago, the hall is also getting a new organ. The current one, which apparently is very expensive in maintenance (plus, only few organists really know how really to use it for its designated purpose) will be sold and moved elsewhere.
In any case, on that particular evening, for most people, the predominant feeling might (initially) have been satisfaction about having escaped the unusual heat outside! Yet, the nice weather may at the same time have motivated some people not to attend the concert: the number of people in the audience was not overwhelming. Another reason may have been that the repertoire in this concert consisted of pieces that one doesn’t encounter in concert very often. On the other hand, the soloist for sure guaranteed an impressive performance—one that certainly should “go under one’s skin”!
In a year from now, the contract with Lionel Bringuier (1986) as chief conductor to the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich will end. Bringuier’s successor will be Paavo Järvi (*1962), starting as the orchestra’s chief conductor and artistic director, starting with the season 2019/2020.
Of course, this does not stop emerging, young talents, such as Jakub Hrůša (*1981) to make a guest appearance here in Zurich. Hrůša grew up in Brno. He originally studies piano and trombone, but soon got interested in conducting. At the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, his teachers included Jiří Bělohlávek (1946 – 2017), Radomil Eliška (*1931) and Leoš Svárovský (*1961). Meanwhile, his international career is in full swing. He now is chief conductor with the Bamberg Symphony, and the Philharmonia Orchestra has just named him principal guest conductor. For more information see also Wikipedia.
I don’t need to introduce the German violinist Isabelle Faust (*1972, see also Wikipedia) — she is one of my top favorite violinists, and I have written numerous blog posts featuring her, both about CD recordings, as well as about appearances in concert. Here, she is playing the solo part in Schumann’s violin concerto, see below. Her instrument is a Stradivarius from 1704, named “La Belle au bois dormant” (“Sleeping beauty” / German: Dornröschen)
For the “outer” pieces in this concert, the podium had been extended, in order to fit the Tonhalle Orchestra in a really big formation. This alone evoked high expectations for an interesting, impressive concert!
Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) composed his one-act pantomime ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin”, op.19, Sz.73 / BB 82 in the years 1918 – 1924. The premiere in Cologne (1926-11-27) caused a scandal, and the ballet was banned on moral grounds. The scandal was not so much about the music, but about the action in the ballet. I won’t dwell on the ballet aspect, as the concert featured the concert suite only. The numbers / movement in the original ballet are as follows:
- Beginning—Curtain rises
- First seduction game
- Second seduction game
- Third seduction game—the Mandarin enters
- Dance of the girl
- The chase—the tramps leap out
- Suddenly the Mandarin’s head appears
- The Mandarin falls to the floor
The rich instrumentation for the ballet calls for
- 3 flutes (& piccolo), 3 oboes (& cor anglais), 3 clarinets (& tenor/bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (& contrabassoons),
- 4 horns (& Wagner tuba), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba,
- timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam,
- xylophone, celesta, harp, piano, organ,
- choir, and
Given the scandal at the premiere in Cologne, Bartók then created a Concert Suite, also played in this concert. This omits the last part, including the choir. It runs up to the fight between the girl and the Mandarin (No.6 above), then adds a new ending, preserving about two-thirds of the music in the ballet.
Certainly as far as the music is concerned, the scandal is hard to understand these days! The street noises, the chaos that the introduction depicts, have become so common in our daily lives, has been “burnt into our minds”, that the music no longer appears as rebelling and revolutionary as 90 years ago. Also as far as the ballet action goes, the social norms have shifted since. One could even claim that Bartók starts off by taking up the scenery from which the audience fled into the cooler temperatures of the concert hall!
Bartók’s composition starts with rolling motifs in the strings, accompanying a wild, turbulent scenery. It’s as if the composer had anticipated the chaotic traffic situation in today’s cities: one can vividly picture the mingling of people, the cars, the horns.
Already here, it was obvious that Jakub Hrůša was in full control of both the orchestra and the score. His conducting gestures were very clear, unambiguous and precise. At the same time the orchestra left no doubt that it was ready and willing to give everything, to contribute to the success with the best of its abilities. Coordination and articulation were flawless, even in the densest of textures.
Tempo, Initial Scenes
Hrůša chose a challenging tempo, which only increased the extreme contrast to the three seduction scenes: sudden silence, then low, resting notes as background to the solo by the bass clarinet. The latter rapidly gains drama, while the conductor formed the melody lines with his baton. I felt that the music was almost visual, so pictorial that I could vividly imagine ballet sceneries. The motoric drive in this music was enthralling, the dynamic contours smooth, carefully modeled by Jakub Hrůša.
Third Seduction Game, Conclusion
Gradually, in the third seduction scene, far-eastern melodies start to creep into the music. These are not catchy in the traditional sense, but anything but repellent. Shiny sounds from trumpets and trombones announced the arrival of the Mandarin. This was followed by a change to more covered sounds, featuring warm cello sounds, together with the violins playing con sordino. In my imagination, the color “blue” emerged. Along with the imagined scenery in the ballet, the music arouses in volume, up to or close to the pain barrier. This was driven by virtuosic solos in the brass section, and by a motoric percussion parts. After developing an enthralling forward-pull, the piece ends almost with a little explosion. To me, this was an interpretation from one single mold—compelling, simply excellent!
Schumann: Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO 1
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote his Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO 1 in September/October 1853. I have written a short blog post about this concerto, in which I compared two CD recordings: one by Isabelle Faust, Pablo Heras-Casado / Freiburg Baroque Orchestra from 2014, the other one a live recording from 2009, with Christian Tetzlaff, Paavo Järvi / RSO Frankfurt. In that post, you’ll also find additional information on the composition, as well as references & descriptions for the CD recordings. Here, I therefore just list the three movements.
- In kräftigem, nicht zu schnellem Tempo (vigorous tempo, not too fast)
- Langsam (slow)
- Lebhaft, doch nicht schnell (lively, but not fast)
For the description for Isabelle Faust’s CD recording see also the bottom of this posting.
Here, of course, the orchestra was “diluted” to “more human dimensions”, appropriate for mid-19th century music. The focus here was naturally on the soloist, Isabelle Faust, who has already recorded this concerto 3 years ago (see below). It would be unfair, however, to compare that recording with this performance in the Tonhalle:
- On the CD, the accompaniment is truly historically informed, with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado, whereas here, the Tonhalle Orchestra was playing on modern instruments, and (even though smaller than in the opening piece) it also was bigger than their counterparts on the CD. Overall, I expected a slightly less “historically informed / correct” performance.
- Quite likely, Isabelle Faust’s interpretation has moved on over the past 3 years, and
- recordings are never the same as live performances.
While I obviously know and like Isabelle Faust’s CD recording, I still decided not to think about that while listening to the concert performance.
I. In kräftigem, nicht zu schnellem Tempo
Jakub Hrůša started off into the initial, imperiously rebelling theme with lots of drive and momentum. For the more intimate second theme, he slowed down noticeably, but switched back to the original / initial pace when the main theme returned. With the entry of the solo violin, Isabelle Faust and her precious violin dominated the scene. The sound from this instrument was full of expression in Schumann’s wonderful melodies, warm, even effusive, singing. Isabelle Faust enriched her part with expressive agogics, and always, even in fast, technically demanding, virtuosic passagework, the violin projected through the sound of the orchestra, which of course is also due to Hrůša’s careful direction, and due to Schumann’s diligent accompaniment setup.
In more measured, thoughtful, pensive segments, the soloist seemed to lean or hold back. However, there was never the slightest loss in mental presence, in intensity, and Isabelle Faust managed to keep the tension even in the softest pp, and also when she reduced the vibrato to a minimum.
I can’t resist saying something about the music here: to me, this concerto deserves a place among the very top works from the 19th century in this genre. For example, it does not need to shy away from comparisons with the D major concerto (op.77) by Brahms!
It’s an absolute pity that this concerto was kept locked away for almost a century! The sole reason was that the slow movement anticipates the theme of the “Ghost” variations, Schumann’s last composition. He wrote these while already in the mental asylum, around the time when he tried committing suicide. To Brahms, Schumann’s wife Clara, and other relatives, this theme therefore was taken as a sign of mental illness or decay. The term “ghost” comes into play because Schumann mentioned dreams / hallucinations, in which for one angels were singing heavenly melodies to him (which he tried cdapturing in that theme), while at other times, these angels turned into ghosts with the most awful, dissonant voices from hell.
True, that “ghost” theme (“angel theme” would be more appropriate, actually!) is of most touching simplicity: nevertheless, in this performance, it instantly caught the listener’s attention. The orchestra seemed transfigured, seemed to accompany from a hereafter. Schumann almost lets the musical flow dry out, come to a rest, as if he had lost a target for the modulations. However, the “ghost theme” comes back, in a different tonality (transfigured itself), and gradually the music is hinting at the upcoming last movement…
III. Lebhaft, doch nicht schnell
…and suddenly (attacca), we find ourselves in the finale. That movement is warm-hearted and elegant—yet, at the same time it also features the typical, Rhenish heaviness, and it is so typical of Schumann! In Isabelle Faust’s hands, that solo sounded flattering, begging, singing, telling, narrating. At the same time, it is technically challenging, virtuosic. The only, minor point of criticism in this performance would be that there were a few, occasional sections where the orchestral accompaniment sounded somewhat flat, lost some of the tension. That aside, in any case, this performance without doubt was a full success: Isabelle Faust rewarded the long applause with a lovely, short, baroque encore.
I must confess that prior to that concert, I occasionally caught myself thinking: now that I’m so familiar with Isabelle Faust’s performance of that concerto on CD, is it really worth hearing that concert live, with the same violinist? Now, after the concert, I’m even so happy that I came! Not just because this was a live concert and sufficiently different from the CD recording. At the same time, I think that this concerto can’t be performed and heard often enough: it’s such beautiful music that anything helping its popularity is worth the effort (actually a joy, not an effort!).
Janáček: Sinfonietta, op.60
Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928) initially also called his op.60 “Military Sinfonietta“. To me, the term “Sinfonietta” sounds like an oxymoron, a contradiction in itself. The only reason for a diminution here might be in the brevity of some movements, and maybe in its structuring into small, often repeated segments. Otherwise, the work asks for a fairly large orchestral apparatus: among others, it requires 4 horns, 4 trombones, 12 (!) trumpets, 2 bass trumpets, 2 tenor (Wagner) tubas, a bass tuba. So, we found ourselves with an orchestra about the size of the one for the opening work by Bartók.
As the article in Wikipedia explains, it is a late work (premiering 1926), festive, expressive work, dedicated “To the Czechoslovak army”, intended to express “contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, courage and determination to fight for victory”. The Sinfonietta features the following five movements:
- Allegretto — Allegro maestoso (Fanfare)
- Andante — Allegretto (The Castle, Brno)
- Moderato (The Queen’s Monastery, Brno)
- Allegretto (The Street Leading to the Castle)
- Andante con moto (The Town Hall, Brno)
In the rehearsals, Jakub Hrůša mentioned to the orchestra that Janáček got the idea to this symphony when listening to a true, military brass band in uniforms, etc.—and to his total surprise (and to the audience’s delight), the extra brass players in the rear-most row appeared in white shirts and uniform hats! This alone shows the orchestra’s esteem for the conductor: they must have realized how much Hrůša values the music of his fellow countryman.
I. Allegretto — Allegro maestoso (Fanfare)
The melodies, the themes in this composition arte simple, catchy. All the more, the shiny, brilliant sound from the many brass players in the last row stood out!
II. Andante — Allegretto (The Castle, Brno)
Here, a rolling motif is wandering through the various groups of wind instruments: effective and virtuosic. Hrůša seemed to shape the dynamics by spreading the crescendo forks with his hands.
III. Moderato (The Queen’s Monastery, Brno)
The third movement starts like a relaxed, complacent peasants’ dance with an elegiac melody, to which a resting note in the bass tuba forms a steady foundation, a resting pole. But the movement livens up, evolving into enthralling rhythms, accompanying jubilant calls by piccolo, flute, and oboe.
IV. Allegretto (The Street Leading to the Castle)
Short, but expressive, and full of momentum.
V. Andante con moto (The Town Hall, Brno)
Another movement with elegiac melodies in the wind instruments. Here, Janáček adds echo-like repeats of a rolling motif, creating the impression of vast spatial depth. But then, the music picks up momentum through virtuosic melodies in the woodwinds. Tremolos in the strings increase the tension—and finally, the fanfares from the initial movement set in again—and the piece ends in splendid, musical fireworks that are hard to find elsewhere!
A fascinating, catchy composition—even though it’s probably not music that one wants toi listen to day-in, day-out: excellent, even splendid entertainment, for sure, especially if performed as well as that evening!
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.
Here’s Isabelle Faust’s recording of the Schumann violin concerto:
harmonia mundi France HMC 902196 (CD + DVD, stereo); ℗ 2015
Booklet: 24 pp., fr/en/de
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—