Sol Gabetta, Yannick Nézet-Séguin / Rotterdam Philharmonic
Tchaikovsky / Shostakovich / Prokofiev

Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-04-25

4-star rating

2016-04-28 — Original posting
2016-10-11 — Brushed up for better readability


Introduction

Invariably and unwillingly, when a guest orchestra appears on the local podium (in this case the big hall of the Tonhalle in Zurich), the local listener starts making comparisons: are the visitors “as good as” the local orchestra? Are they even better? How can they / do they adjust to the local acoustics?

The Orchestra

The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, one of The Netherland’s two top orchestra (along with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam), is definitely in the same league as the local / Swiss top orchestras, and also size-wise it is comparable to the Tonhalle Orchestra, maybe slightly bigger. Yet, it differs substantially, both visually, as well as in its acoustic appearance. The first impression: the large body of string players. This displaced the wind and percussion instruments to the rear end of the stage.

Certainly, in the first piece (Tchaikovsky), the sound of the orchestra matched the visual impression. The large number of string desks ensured a dense, homogeneous sound, also thanks to the very disciplined and focused playing as in this concert. In large orchestras one will always find individual string players who are out-of-sync in written-out tremolo passages. For the overall acoustic result this is usually not relevant—even though visually such instances are easy to spot.

The brass group (4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba) of course had no problems making themselves heard in the large orchestra. However, some of the woodwinds (especially the flutes) were in danger of getting lost, as soon as the strings were playing mf or louder. For the cello concerto, the number of string players was reduced to about half. Shostakovich’s prudent orchestral setting further helped avoiding problems with balance and transparency. The last work, Prokofiev’s SymphonyNo.7, again asked for the full orchestral setting. But there, already the composer’s ingenious, diligent orchestral disposition ensured transparency.

The Conductor

The conductor this evening was the Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin (*1975). He is one of the rising stars of his generation. As a child, he first learned the piano, then, at age 10, he decided to become a conductor. He states that his early inspiration was Charles Dutoit, but his most important teacher was Carlo Maria Giulini.

Important career positions were with the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montréal (music director, starting 2000) and the Victoria Symphony in British Columbia, Canada (starting 2003). He took over the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from Valery Gergiev in 2008. In 2010 he became music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been conducting in numerous major orchestras and in opera houses. Since 2009 he has made several appearances in the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For more information see his Wikipedia entry.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin must have taken over the orchestra in excellent shape from his predecessor, Valery Gergiev. Judging from this concert, he has since made this orchestra “his” instrument. The musicians know his intentions, Nézet-Séguin is thoroughly familiar with the scores. He can focus on shaping the sound, forming the phrases and dynamics, rather than having to indicate every beat to coordinate the groups in the orchestra. He appeared as an open, friendly personality, conducting with sporty-jovial movements, almost dancing in the Prokofiev symphony.


Tchaikovsky: “Francesca da Rimini”, Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, op.32

The program opened with a 25-minute piece of “program music”, Francesca da Rimini”, Symphonic Fantasy after Dante in E minor, op.32, which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) wrote during a visit to Bayreuth, in less than 3 weeks: a symphonic poem after a tragic episode from the fifth song of Hell (Inferno) in Dante’s Divina Commedia. The music depicts the descent into Hell, then the arrival in the second circle of Hell, and the encounter with several ill-fated couples trapped in a violent storm. In the middle section, Francesca da Rimini tells her tragic story of love. And how she and her lover are murdered. The story ends with their eternal punishment.

The Performance

Tchaikovsky’s composition is very dramatic music that puts the listener amidst its somber tragedy. Its masses of sound feel like the vortex of a whirlwind (especially towards the end), pulling the audience straight into Hell. The orchestra produced an almost pictorial representation of the unfolding drama. It acted as a unity, as if enthralled itself under the baton of Nézet-Séguin. Especially in the first part, the warm, rounded sound of the masses of string instruments dominated the music. In the last part, representing the violence of the eternal punishment, the excellent brass section dominates the sound. In a way, this anticipates the composer’s fifth symphony, even though that only emerged more than 10 years later. That’s a resemblance which may in parts be based on the common E minor tonality.

The middle part is less dramatic, less turbulent. Here, the clarinet represents the protagonist, Francesca da Rimini, telling her story, the events that led to her damnation. With maybe the one minor exception that the clarinet solo started a tiny bit low, this was an enthralling, near-perfect performance. The orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin acted securely, with thorough experience. Tchaikovsky’s music is definitely more than a mere overture: I could easily imagine it being the last piece in a concert!


Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No.2, op.126

The next piece, the Cello Concerto No.2 in G minor, op.126 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975), asked for a much smaller orchestral setting. Shostakovich wrote this “into the hands” of Mstislav Rostropovich (1927 – 2007). Not unexpectedly, this concerto features a solo part that is full of extreme technical demands, especially in intonation, but also in unusual technical “features”, such as parallel tenths. The composition features three movements in the unusual arrangement slow – fast – fast, with a common base beat. The two fast movements are played attacca:

  1. Largo (4/4, 1/4 = 100)
  2. Allegretto (2/2, 1/2 = 100) —
  3. Allegretto (2/2, 1/2 = 100)

The Performance

The soloist of the evening, Sol Gabetta was born in Argentina, but now living in Switzerland for many years already, hence playing in her “home turf”. She did not have any technical issues with this composition and appeared to play without effort.

I. Largo

Already the very beginning of the first movement starts with a solo featuring tricky intonation, completely without support from the orchestra. Sol Gabetta played with clean, secure intonation, with agility and clear articulation. Her tone was light, but well-projecting. The instrument did never dominate, but remained clearly audible throughout the concerto, also for listeners in the rear of the hall (I had a balcony seat), even when she was playing p or pp. Of course, that’s in parts also attributable to the well-dosed orchestra sound. I liked her natural, never obtrusive vibrato. In the first movement, I liked Sol Gabetta’s sense of humor, her playful approach, which also avoided any harshness in the semiquaver passages which some other cellists make sound forceful, “industrial”. I would regard both as viable approaches, though.

II. Allegretto

Also the second movement starts with the soloist taking the lead; Sol Gabetta took this again playful, almost swinging at times, jazzy with all the syncopes. My only (minor) criticism here: I would have preferred more pronounced crescendi in some of the glissando motifs.

III. Allegretto

Similarly, in the final movement, some of the dynamics in the score (crescendo “forks”) were hardly noticeable. The dynamics in general appeared to be treated rather freely. In that movement, there are several passages where the cello descends into the depth, jumping in fourths and fifths (in the final instance even in fourth parallels). To me, these were too tamed, almost gentle. I like the “diabolic” aspect that some cellists expose in these passages. But even without that extra contrast, the short, little “windows” with the wonderfully harmonious “Tchaikovsky melody” (my personal association) stood out nicely.

That last movement also presents some tough, virtuosic challenges to the two horn players. These were all mastered really well, except for a very short period with coordination issues, towards the end. Overall, this was a masterful performance, even though to me a little bit too focused on producing a beautiful sound. Superficially, this may be what the score asks for. However, one may want to consider that even after Stalin’s death, the composer felt under threat of accusations of “formalism”. After all, he had faced denunciations several times in the past. So, the “nice sound” may in parts be due to attempts to avoid conflicts with the authorities.


Cello Encore

Judging from the strong applause, the audience obviously liked Sol Gabetta’s performance. She grabbed the opportunity of the presence of the orchestra’s cello group, playing El cant dels ocells (“The Song of the Birds”) by Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973). This was such a reflective, calm piece, offering comfort after all the virtuosic excitement in the Shostakovich concerto.


Prokofiev: Symphony No.7, op.131

The remainder of the program, after the intermission, was devoted to the Symphony No.7 in C♯ minor, op.131, by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953), featuring four movements:

  1. Moderato (4/4, 1/4 = 80) — Poco meno mossoTempo I
  2. Allegretto (3/4, 3/4 = 48) — Allegro (3/4 = 72) — Più mossoPoco più espressivoMeno animato (Tempo I)Meno allegroPiù mosso
  3. Andante espressivo (4/4)
  4. Vivace (2/4, 1/4 = 144) — Moderato marcato (1/4 = 96) — Poco più animato (Tempo I)Poco meno mossoPiù lento (1/4 = 48) — Tranquillo

This is the composer’s last symphony, written 1 – 2 years before he died (he died the very same day as Josef Stalin). Just like Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev (having returned to the Soviet Union in 1936) lived in constant fear of denunciation / accusations about “formalism”. Essentially, “formalism” was an excess of atonality, allegedly making the music unintelligible by the “people”. So, this fear has likely contributed to the popular sound, the friendly, even joyful tone in this symphony. In addition, it was a radio station for children that originally commissioned the composition. This also may explain its friendly character, its resemblance to works of the composer’s classicist period.

On the other hand, there are voices stating that the symphony is “emotionally restrained” and has significant nostalgic-melancholic traits. One of these certainly is the silent, calm ending. Prokofiev wanted this symphony to be a success. So, it should not be too harsh. At the same time he worried that it may be “too nice”. Friends recommended to add an optimistic, more energetic ending. The composer complied, but shortly before his death he indicated that he preferred the original, silent ending.

The Performance

For this work, the orchestra was again staffed up to full size. This now included a harp and a piano, which helped strengthening the rhythmic contours in this music. Just to re-state: Prokofiev’s instrumentation / orchestral disposition is really masterful. It keeps the sound transparent at all times, also allowing the woodwind players to be heard adequately. At the same time, the instrumentation avoids problems with the sound balance.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin almost entirely focused on the joyful, friendly view of the symphony, presenting serene music, full of singing melodies, especially in the two slow movements.

The second movement with the occasional “Italian motif” was almost swinging, dancing lightly in waltzing happiness. Certainly, Yannick Nézet-Séguin was dancing on the podium! The movement was dynamically well-differentiated, full of momentum in the Più mosso parts, though maybe with a few melancholic moments.

Finally, the last movement turned into a true, virtuosic orchestral showpiece. It requires utter, dancing agility and excellent coordination. I was glad that Nézet-Séguin selected the original, silent ending. Overall, it was an excellent performance, though in my opinion maybe a little too playful and light-hearted.


Orchestral Encore

Needless to say that—despite the silent ending—the symphony provoked enthusiastic, lasting applause. So, Nézet-Séguin offered an encore. He returned to Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975), with the third movement, “Folk Festival”, from the Suite “The Gadfly” (Oвод), op.97a. That’s a true “hit”, a virtuosic orchestral showpiece. I found it to be entirely in the spirit of the fast movements in Prokofiev’s Symphony No.7. Shostakovich originally wrote the music for the 1955 Soviet film The Gadfly. That film is based on the novel of the same name by Ethel Lilian Voynich (1864–1960). It was the Armenian composer Levon Atovmian (1901 – 1963) who selected and arranged the music for the Suite .


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create 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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