Frang / Boyd / Altstaedt / Lonquich
Antonín Dvořák — Sándor Veress — Richard Strauss
Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-12-08
2016-08-23 — Brushed up for better readability
Lockenhaus on Tour
This concert ran under the title “Lockenhaus on Tour“. The four musicians playing have met at the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival (located in Lockenhaus / Burgenland, Austria). Around 1981, that festival grew out of the series “Lockenhauser Konzerte” (started 1974). Its founder was the violinist Gidon Kremer (*1947), who ran this festival till 1990, when it became too exhaustive for him. However, he remained Artistic Director of the successor series, called Kremerata Musica. In 2011, the artistic direction transitioned to the cellist Nicolas Altstaedt (*1982), one of the musicians in this concert.
As the audience apparently was smaller than expected, the concert had been moved from the big hall into the “Kleiner Tonhallesaal”. This actually is the preferred venue for chamber music concerts.
Dvořák: Piano Trio No.3 in F minor, op.65, B.130
The first piece in this program was the Piano Trio No.3 in F minor, op.65 by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904), completed in 1883. The trio features four movements:
- Allegro ma non troppo — Poco più mosso, quasi vivace (4/4)
- Allegretto grazioso — Meno mosso — Allegretto grazioso (2/4)
- Poco adagio (4/4)
- Allegro con brio (3/4)
I. Allegro ma non troppo — Poco più mosso, quasi vivace
The first movement was played with lots of expression, emotionally, vividly. I particularly liked Vilde Frang’s mellow, warm, yet very well-defined violin tone, and its perfect mixing with Nicolas Altstaedt’s cello sound — right from the first bars. Notable moments in this movement were the resting notes around bar 110 (with the punctuated piano accompaniment): mysterious, intimate, and full of tension. And similarly, the whispered pp in the strings after bar 185.
Also Alexander Lonquich’s playing was very expressive and differentiated. Unfortunately, the Steinway D remained fully open during the entire concert. Together with a slight over-enhancement of the piano sound by the acoustics of the smaller hall, I found the piano to be far too dominant. Often, it was hard to hear the cello, especially in the lower tonal range. I also felt that the sound of the concert grand wasn’t clear enough. To me, this was an indication that the piano should have been closed at least partially for this trio. But also, using a historic instrument from Dvořák’s time (i.e., the late 19th century) would have been far better for this composition.
II. Allegretto grazioso — Meno mosso — Allegretto grazioso
Also the Allegretto grazioso was vivid and full of expression. It was maybe at the upper tempo limit for the grazioso attribute. Particularly with the given acoustics. The string instruments played the syncopes very clearly (almost heavy). In the piano I would have wished for them to be clearer, more pronounced. The movement is full of polyrhythmic passages (mostly 4-versus-3 and 3-versus-2). Due to the limitations just mentioned, these sometimes sounded like an amorphous mish-mash, hiding the intricacies of Dvořák’s texture.
III. Poco adagio
The Poco adagio featured beautiful, very expressive cello and violin cantilenas, often almost just whispered — especially in periods where the piano accompaniment consisted of resting chords only. It’s mostly a dreamy, intimate movement, though with two extended periods with intense emotionality. To me, the short piano cadenza at the transition to the coda was a touching, almost magic moment. This includes the contemplative ending of the movement, immersed in thoughts and sentiment.
IV. Allegro con brio
The composition ends with an Allegro con brio; primarily in the middle part, starting with the tranquillo, I really liked expressive dynamics, especially in the piano part the active, alert playing in general. The violin was almost too expressive!
Veress: Trio per archi (1954)
Sándor Veress (1907 – 1992) was a Swiss/Hungarian composer, born in Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca, in Romania). Veress moved to Switzerland in 1949, where he spent the rest of his life (he obtained the Swiss citizenship months prior to his death). The composer studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where he was a pupil of Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók.
He was an influential composer whose pupils included György Ligeti, György Kurtág, Heinz Holliger, Heinz Marti, Jürg Wyttenbach and Roland Moser. Veress’ compositorial oeuvre covers the full width of the genres, from opera, orchestral works, concertos, chamber music, piano music, vocal and choral works.
His only String Trio (Trio per archi) was completed 1954; it features two movements:
- Andante affettuoso
- Allegro molto
Performance & Reactions…
James Boyd at the viola joined Vilde Frang and Nicolas Altstaedt for these two movements. Those who are confronted with this music for the first time (especially after the Dvořák Trio) may first need some time to get acquainted to its consequent dissonance and atonality. Quite obviously, not everybody succeeds (or even wants to succeed) in this. One person left the hall during this piece, and the ladies in the row in front of me probably found this ridiculously cacophonous (or just needlessly provocative?). They kept laughing & giggling throughout the piece. Luckily, such listeners were a very small minority.
I. Andante affettuoso
Of course, I had prepared myself by listening into this music for a little while. Honestly: that String Trio is a fascinating composition, and the above reactions could not be more inappropriate. At least with the interpretation in this concert, it only took moments of the Andante affettuoso for me to totally immerse in this music, At that point I barely heard dissonances as such any longer! Quite to the contrary: despite the atonality and the “dissonances”, I heard very nice, beautiful cantilenas. The three musicians were playing with a warm tone, with excellent balance and very careful intonation, often as gentle and mellow as flutes, from the lowest tones up to the highest flageolet sounds.
I found Veress to be a clever, refined sound painter, and I experienced many touching moments. That first movement returns to the initial theme towards the end, and it finishes off in absolute calmness. Throughout the piece, the ensemble’s intonation purity was excellent. One should note that (contrary to what those giggling ladies might believe) playing a dissonant piece with proper intonation almost certainly is substantially more difficult than getting the intonation right in a classic or romantic composition!
II. Allegro molto
The Allegro molto is very demanding, too, though in different areas. The movement is full of sequences of tremolo, spiccato, pizzicato, wild runs / scales, mixed with rapid knocking on the instrument body. It’s a spooky chase, rhythmically enthralling, never losing momentum. The artists played as if they were all sitting at the front edge of their chairs, with electrifying tension during the few calm periods. An extremely entertaining piece, overall!
To me, everything was “right”, near-perfect in the entire composition, clearly the highlight of the evening. To my relief, the strong applause proved that I wasn’t the only one feeling that way.
R. Strauss: Piano Quartet in C minor, op.13
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) wrote his Piano Quartet in C minor, op.13 in 1885, i.e., at a young age. That music moved us back into the late- or post-romantic era. The quartet has four movements:
- Allegro (4/4, 1/4=120)
- Scherzo: Presto (3/4, 3/4=104) — Molto meno mosso (3/4=54) — Tempo I
- Andante (4/4, 1/4=66 – 88)
- Finale: Vivace (2/4, 1/4=112)
Within a few bars of the first movement, the listener is completely immersed in the melodic and harmonic world so typical of Richard Strauss: expressive, emotional, especially towards the end of the movement. I really liked the excellent balance among the string instruments, and in particular the fact that Vilde Frang never tried dominating the others. On the other hand, with the piano also the balance issues from the Dvořák Trio were back, at least to some degree. Richard Strauss’ score disposition is more subtle, though, the texture more transparent. But I think it would still been helpful to keep the concert grand half-closed, especially with the acoustics in this venue. Simply stated: the polyphonic segments in this movement were not transparent enough.
II. Scherzo: Presto — Molto meno mosso — Tempo I
The Scherzo is an extremely virtuosic piece, light-hearted, playful. It requires an excellent sense for rhythm and coordination. The playing here was alert, very active and attentive. Especially with the acoustics in this venue, the tempo was almost too fast. For the listeners, many details were hard to capture, and the fast, hemiolic quaver passages were not very effective. Still, it was very entertaining music, of course.
The intonation in the subsequent Andante was perfect, particularly in the violin part. I liked the very nice, calm, silent and serene ending. But also here, the sound balance wasn’t always ideal.
IV. Finale: Vivace
The Finale (Vivace) is a very emotional ending, with really sumptuous segments, and with a very demanding piano part. Also here, I found the balance within the strings very compelling, in particular, the absolute equivalence between violin and viola. On the other hand, some of the fast figures sounded slightly superficial, not clear enough. Definitely, this was the upper tempo limit in this acoustic environment. Playing even faster would have been detrimental to the music. In the piano part for this movement, the Strauss employed some deliberately queer rhythms. I felt that Alexander Lonquich could have played those out a little more, e.g., by using more accentuation on the syncopes.
Despite some of the remarks above: overall, also Richard Strauss’ Piano Quartet received an excellent performance that deserved the strong applause!
The artists rewarded the applause with the third movement (Andante con moto — Animato) from the Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, op.25 by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897), composed 1856 – 1861. It was a step back in time from Strauss’ composition, but still an excellent fit: an excellent composition, and one of Brahms’ masterpieces in chamber music. We heard it in an expressive, intense and enthralling interpretation, especially towards the end. I particularly liked the “de-escalation” after the emotional climax! It was a long, but really enjoyable, romantic and serene encore. With its 10 minutes, this added up to a concert duration of over 2 hours (including the intermission).
To me, this was a very memorable concert experience. I say this primarily because of Sándor Veress’ Trio, but also the strings performance in general contributed to this. And of course all of the music: masterpieces, throughout!
For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.