2017-11-03 — Original posting
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2017-10-30
Vilde Frang, Trevor Pinnock / Kammerorchester Basel
Reger / Beethoven / Arter / Mendelssohn Bartholdy
This was my second concert experience in the temporary home of the Tonhalle Orchestra, the newly built Tonhalle Maag. However, this time, it was not the Tonhalle Orchestra playing, but rather the Kammerorchester Basel. This orchestra emerged in 1984 under the name Serenata Basel, which renamed itself 1999 into Kammerorchester Basel. The name alludes to the name of an earlier orchestra, the Basler Kammerorchester. The conductor and patron Paul Sacher (1906 – 1999) founded the latter ensemble in 1926. The ensemble was disbanded in 1987. Under its founder and principal conductor Paul Sacher, it focused on music of the 20th century.
So, one should not mix up the Kammerorchester Basel with the Basler Kammerorchester. The former does not have a principal conductor, but an “Artistic Partner”, currently Renaud Capuçon (*1976), and a Principal Guest Conductor, currently Giovanni Antonini (*1965). With the latter, the ensemble is currently working on a project covering all of Franz Joseph Haydn’s symphonies. A recording of all symphonies by Franz Schubert under Heinz Holliger (*1939) is planned. Also a cycle of all of Beethoven’s symphonies is in the making.
With Giovanni Antonini, the ensemble works “in the HIP (historically informed performances) camp”. However, this concert featured a mixed repertoire, predominantly from the classic and early romantic periods, but also reaching into late romantic music (Reger) and even contemporary music (Arter). So, it was certainly OK for this concert to use modern instruments, i.e., modern string instruments with Tourte bows, valve horns. The one influence from HIP practices that I noted were the slightly harder-than-traditional/romantic drum sticks. The stick heads were felt-covered, not pure wood, though. The main advantage of the modern wind instruments was in their firmer intonation, their more fail-safe response & articulation.
The orchestra setup was “antiphonal”, i.e., violin 1—cello—viola—violin 2. This was very helpful particularly in the first movement of the Mendelssohn symphony, which has several segments where the two violin voices operate in dialog/alternating fashion. The program booklet listed 8 + 7 violins, 5 violas, 5 cellos, 3 double basses, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, and 1 percussionist.
The English harpsichordist and conductor Trevor Pinnock (*1946) is well-known in the period-performance domain. For most of his long career, he performed baroque and early classical music with his ensemble The English Concert. He resigned from that ensemble in 2003 and is since pursuing an international career as guest conductor, with numerous orchestras all over the world.
Both halves of the program started with a piece that has its root in a composition by J.S. Bach. The first part featured a transcription by Max Reger, relatively close to the original, while after the intermission, the artists played a very recent adaptation of the “Ricercar a 6” by the oboist and composer Matthias Arter, himself a member of the Kammerorchester Basel.
Reger: Aria “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” after J.S. Bach
1708 – 1717, while he was working in Weimar, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) collected 46 chorale preludes in his “Little Organ Book” (“Orgelbüchlein“, BWV 599 – 644). One of these is “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß“ (Oh Man, bewail your great sins) a 2 Clav. et Ped., BWV 622. The cantus firmus for this prelude is a composition by Matthias Greitter (c.1495 – 1550). Bach used this chorale in one version of his St.John Passion, BWV 245, as a substitute for the entry choir “Herr, unser Herrscher“. In his St.Matthew Passion, BWV 244, this same chorale appears as closing chorale of the first part.
In his Aria “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” for string orchestra, Max Reger (1873 – 1916) created a piano transcription of Bach’s popular chorale as part of a collection of 13 chorales (1900). Later (1915), he also create a version for violin and piano—and the version for string orchestra that opened this program.
This was a very gentle start: solemn, simple, romantically slow (it’s Reger, after all!), with smooth build-up waves, all dynamically finely tuned, however, not over-romantic or exceedingly sweet. It was a good start for familiarizing with the—still unfamiliar—acoustics, and to listen “into” the sound of the ensemble.
The music is exclusively by Bach, i.e., the melodic and harmonic structure of the piece remains unaltered—almost: towards the end, Reger could apparently not resist momentarily “spicing up” the harmony with one or two accidentals—so typical of Reger, yet in this case not very conspicuous.
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, op.61
I can save the space for discussing the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, op.61 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) here: I have written an extensive blog post about this work, comparing numerous recordings of this work from 1806. Here’s the structure of the concerto, with its three movements:
- Allegro ma non troppo (4/4)
- Larghetto (4/4)
- Rondo: Allegro (6/8)
Also Vilde Frang (*1986, see also Wikipedia for more information) is no stranger to this blog. I have written about concerts where she was playing (chamber music only, so far), and I have also discussed selected of her recordings on CD.
The transition to Beethoven’s violin concerto was a fairly big one, musically, character-wise. At the same time, I wanted to have a closer “look” at the orchestra, to find out whether the performance deserved the label “HIP”. After all, Pinnock’s background is in performances on period instruments. Also, as mentioned above, together with Giovanni Antonini, the Kammerorchester Basel is working on a project covering all of Haydn’s symphonies, “under the HIP label”. Here, the modern instruments certainly reduced my “HIP expectations”.
But on the other hand, the orchestra setup was antiphonal, i.e., historically correct. And I soon realized that even with modern instruments, Trevor Pinnock was able to create a musical soundscape that to a large extent follows the composer’s intent. His choice of tempo was inconspicuous. The articulation remained light, never coarse, nor revolutionary in any way. The dynamics were always carefully adjusted.
After the orchestral introduction, with the entry of the solo violin, the focus of course entirely switched to Vilde Frang. In addition, I was really curious to see whether the acoustics in the Tonhalle Maag are good enough for a violin concerto. Actually, I didn’t have real concerns about the acoustics, based on the experience with the previous concert in this venue (2017-10-18).
Indeed, Vilde Frang’s violin, a 1864 instrument by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798 – 1875), projected extremely well in this venue. Its sound effortlessly carried into the remotest corners of the hall, down to the softest ppp. Never, Vilde Frang and her instrument had any problem in making themselves heard, also across the orchestra. The latter was of course not just a matter of acoustics and its clarity & transparency, but equally a benefit of the moderate orchestra size, Pinnock’s diligent dynamic control, as well as of course the composer’s careful instrumentation / disposition.
I. Allegro ma non troppo
The acoustics were of course just a necessary ingredient for a good concert. An excellent performance it was, indeed, particularly because of the solo part! It was fascinating to observe how Vilde Frang was able to fill every single bar with life, using agogics. She appeared to scoop energy in the weak parts of the bar, putting that energy into peak notes. She often added little ritenuti prior to focal notes, and throughout the movement, her playing was active, energetic, impulsive, full of momentum.
There was never anything superficial or peripheral. At the same time, despite the careful articulation and phrasing, she never got lost in details. She kept the focus on the big phrases, consequently working towards the climax in each arch. On top of that, Vilde Frang’s intonation was absolutely firm, flawless up into the highest regions.
The cadenza often serves as “internal showpiece” where artists demonstrate their virtuosic abilities. Beethoven himself did not write down a cadenza for this concerto. There is a very elaborate one by Beethoven for the piano version of this concerto, though. Many of the great virtuosos of the past (and the present) have written and performed extensive cadenzas for this concerto. Among the “third party violin cadenzas”, the ones by Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962) certainly are the most popular, the most frequently played ones. They are maybe not quite as artistic and virtuosic as the grandiose cadenzas by Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907), but certainly still demanding.
Vilde Frang decided not to “abuse” the cadenza to show off her abilities, or for artistic excursions, virtuosic excesses: she took the Kreisler cadenza, but only selected the first 12 and the last 6 bars (out of 66 total!). She reduced the function of the cadenza from a showpiece to an excellent, very subtle transition to the Coda. That transition was almost lyrical rather than virtuosic, carefully, almost modestly presented. Definitely, it felt natural, an excellent fit. It rounded off Beethoven’s movement, rather than expanding it. Indeed, nothing seemed amiss in her interpretation. After all, Beethoven’s first movement is exceptionally long already.
The mellow, gentle and deliberately slow beginning of the Larghetto almost reminded of the first bars in Reger’s Bach transcription. It created an almost religious atmosphere, without being overly sweet or celebrated. Within that realm, Vilde Frang maintained the liveliness of her playing, shaping bars, motifs and phrases with “local momentum”. At the same time, in this movement, the solo part was not as much the diving force as in the Allegro ma non troppo. The soloist used vibrato consciously and carefully, supporting her eloquent articulation (Klangrede).
Her playing often felt meditative. However, it was clear that she kept close contact with the orchestra, particularly oboes and clarinets—mediated by Trevor Pinnock. She let the solo part end in the faintest ppp, in those almost whispered, ascending figures, until the orchestra almost forcefully closed the movement in the final bars. The end of the movement is a fermata, annotated Cadenza ad libitum. After the previous movement, it was logical that Vilde Frang would not expand into a (short) cadenza: she did not even play the ff trill on the fermata, but merely the six notes of the transition phrase into the Rondo.
III. Rondo: Allegro
So far, Vilde Frang relied upon the congenial accompaniment & partnership with Trevor Pinnock and the Kammerorchester Basel. In the last movement, however, it is up to her to set the pace. And she did so with determination and iniative, taking more control than before. With her energetic articulation, she determined the impulse in phrases, delivering a gripping interpretation, with vivid accents on peak notes. And the orchestra picked up her impulses, high-spirited character of the solo part.
Consistently, the cadenza was again an excerpt from Fritz Kreisler’s, but also here, the soloist just picked the final 12 bars (out of 50), omitting virtuosic excesses. Thereafter, the closer she got to the end, the more the soloist took control. She seemed to fire up the orchestra into an enthusiastic ending. Though, Beethoven doesn’t simply end in a firework, rather adds a diminuendo — perdendosi in the final bars, before the solo ascends into the two closing chords. A quibble in all this? These two closing chords felt unnecessarily broadened.
In any case, to me, this was a really masterful interpretation. I think it can easily stand a comparison with my favorites, even without virtuosic excesses, revolutionary or radical approaches. My references so far are the interpretations with Isabelle Faust, or the one with Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Sure, Vilde Frang is not nearly as radical as the former, nor as colorful as the latter in this concerto. However, her playing nevertheless is compelling and full of life. The key is: there isn’t just one single “right” interpretation, let alone one that I would call “best”: I’m so happy that there is space for many excellent performances—each in its own right!
Arter: Aquarell about the Ricercar a 6 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Matthias Arter (*1964) is a Swiss oboist and composer—and in the former function, he also is a member of the Kammerorchester Basel (and of course present in this performance). Arter defines himself as “musician, composer, oboist and research scientist”. He lives and works predominantly in the Zurich area. He dedicated his 2016 composition Aquarell about the Ricercar a 6 by Johann Sebastian Bach to “Trevor Pinnock and my friends of Kammerorchester Basel”.
The basis of Arter’s composition is the “Ricercar a 6” from the Musical Offering (Musikalisches Opfer), BWV 1079 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). BWV 1079 is a sophisticated, elaborate collection of canons and fugues on a single theme that was given to Bach (as a challenge) by Frederick the Great (Frederick II of Prussia, 1712 – 1786), who also is the dedicatee of the collection. The densest, most elaborate fugue construct in BWV 1079 is the famous Ricercar a 6, which has seen several adaptations in the 290th century.
Arter was very careful with his adaptation of the Ricercar a 6. Bach’s melodic and harmonic framework remains largely unchanged. As the “Aquarell”—Watercolor painting—in the title already indicates, the adaptation mainly works through added colors, acoustic alterations:
The five initial half-notes of the “royal theme” stand out through extra-strong (vertically snapped) pizzicati, supported by the percussion (metallophone). My initial thought was that this forms / defines the “frame” around the painting. However, the head of the theme is quite consistently marked throughout the piece. This greatly helps the listener in identifying the theme in Bach’s dense texture.
Apart from the theme head, ethereal tones dominate in this piece: notes that are gently swelling and fading off, often flowing into each other—exactly like in a watercolor painting. In a way, it felt as if we were looking at / hearing Bach’s music through a semi-transparent curtain. Often, a bow was used to make the plates of the metallophone sound like a glass harp. This reinforced the ethereal character of the music. Soft ppp tremoli supported this, as did the muted sound of a small group of musicians up on the right-side balcony (piccolo, muted trumpet, muted horn, violin, viola, and bassoon). The splitting of the orchestra further helped untangling the fugue texture, along with the marking of the beginning of the theme.
Overall, I certainly found this to be a successful and interesting adaptation of Bach’s rarely performed masterpiece.
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) originally planned to write a symphony for the 1830 celebration of the Reformation (300th anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession). The celebration was to take place in Berlin. Due to political unrest, the official celebrations were cancelled in the end. On top of that, Mendelssohn fell ill, and the composition took longer than expected. The composer finished the symphony in May that year, but that was too late for the celebrations. 1832, Mendelssohn took up the symphony again and revised the score. The symphony premiered that year, but did not have much success at all.
Some 6 years later, Mendelssohn apparently would have preferred that work to disappear altogether. He never performed it again. The publication of the symphony only happened in 1868. It is now known as Symphony No.5 in D major/D minor, op.107, “Reformation”. The numbering is misleading here: the symphony is the last published one. Hence the number 5 and the high opus number. However, in the chronology, it really is Mendelssohn’s second symphony.
The autograph apparently states the key of D major, and the introduction indeed is in that key. However, the main theme is in D minor, and Mendelssohn later also referred to the “Symphony in D minor”.
The symphony has four movements—the first movement with a slow introduction, and the last movement features three segments with different tempo annotations:
- Andante (4/4) — Allegro con fuoco (2/2)
- Allegro vivace (3/4)
- Andante (2/4)
- Andante con moto (4/4) — Allegro vivace (6/8) — Allegro maestoso (4/4)
From looking at the score, and from listening to certain recordings, I personally got the impression that sections in the first movement (e.g., in the development section) look rather “sketchy”. Like a draft, in which one can only see a rough / sketchy outline of the instrumentation in the wind instruments. After this performance, however, I think that this may just as well be a matter of dynamic balance and / or articulation.
I. Andante — Allegro con fuoco
Trevor Pinnock and the Kammerorchester Basel did not want to present a revolutionary or youthfully rebelling composer. They avoided harsh contours, overly marked accents—anything that might feel like a magnifying glass. Rather, they opted for a mellow, harmonious sound, warm string colors. Compared to a traditional symphony orchestra, the string body in this ensemble is relatively small. This helped—along with the acoustics of the venue—giving the excellent wind instruments adequate weight within the soundscape.
In the Allegro con fuoco part, however, Pinnock opted for a more gripping articulation. At all time, however, the orchestra maintained excellent sound balance. In addition, I was pleased to note that what I used to perceive as shortcomings in the score (e.g., the instrumentation in the evolution part) suddenly seemed a non-issue: it all made sense, seemed to be in balance. Of course, the movement retains the characteristics of a youth composition: Pinnock did not hide the proximity of this work to Mendelssohn’s early string symphonies.
II. Allegro vivace — Trio
In contrast to the first movement, this light, serene Allegro vivace seemed to anticipate aspects of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony No.4 in A major, op.90, and to the Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, op.61.
The slow movement remained calm, though very expressive in the middle part, where the first violin voice is very melodic, sometimes reminding of a recitative. In Mendelssohn’s score, the movement ends in a bulging drum roll that fades away. After this, the music fades away into a fermata. The last movement follows attacca, with the flute playing the chorale “Ein’ veste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A mighty fortress is our God”) by Martin Luther (1483 – 1546). This regular version makes up for a very sudden, almost surprising change in atmosphere.
In this performance, however, the flute is also setting in at the fermata, but playing an extended, lyrical cadenza. This is supported by patches of other wind voices, as well as pizzicati and interjections by the string instruments. I’m not sure whether this is from an early version of the symphony (the movement was much longer in the early versions). In any case, I found this to be a wonderful transition. It reminded me of the trial scene in the second act of the Opera “The Magic Flute” (Die Zauberflöte), K.620 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791). At the same time, this made up for a magically fitting, perfect transition to the chorale, which harmoniously grew out of this cadenza. Excellent, enchanting, indeed!
IV. Andante con moto — Allegro vivace — Allegro maestoso
It seemed logical that with this transition, the beginning of the last movement did not feel celebrated of proclaimed (as it sometimes is). Instead, it felt lyrical, but still retained the urgency of Luther’s chorale.
The lyrical beginning caused the festive character of the subsequent Allegro vivace. However, nothing in the fast part felt bombastic: it was a harmonious built-up to the Maestoso ending. Altogether, this concluded an intense, touching interpretation—compellingly natural.
Throughout the evening, I noted that Trevor Pinnock received support through the active roles of the lead string players (Peter Rainer and Anna Faber for the violins, Mariana Doughty, viola, and Oliver Marron at the first cello desk). The orchestra, especially also the woodwinds, definitely deserved the lasting applause. And there was an extra applause for the solo flute (Isabelle Schnöller Hildebrandt) in the last part of the Mendelssohn symphony!
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.