Gabriela Montero, Daniel Bard / Kammerorchester Basel
Mozart / (Montero) / Fauré / Milhaud

Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2019-11-12

4-star rating

2019-11-16 — Original posting


Gabriela Montero (© Anders Brogaard)
Gabriela Montero (© Anders Brogaard)

Outline


Introduction & Artists

This was this season’s first subscription concert in the context of the “New Concert Series” that Hochuli Konzert AG offers in the Tonhalle Maag, in the fashionable district in Zurich’s western periphery.

As outlined in a recent posting, I’m saving my words and time for the actual concert and my comments. Rather than posting excerpts from artist’s biographies and extensive work descriptions, I’m relying upon artists’ Websites, as well as links to relevant Wikipedia articles, as available:


Program

The first half of the concert featured works by Mozart, the second half (after the intermission) turned towards music of the 20th century, with works by Fauré and Milhaud:

After the Mozart concerto, Gabriela Montero offered three improvisations on popular themes that the audience would sing to her. See below for details.

Setting, etc.

As the pictures show, the string section of the orchestra was performing standing (cellos excepted, of course). The ensemble used ya antiphonal setup (5 second violins on the right, 4 violas behind the 5 first violins, followed by 4 cellos, two double basses on the right, behind the second violins). My wife and I had seats in the middle of the right-hand side gallery. This was ideal for taking photos. The venue with its 1226 seats was well-occupied that evening.


Concert & Review

Mozart: Overture to the Opera “Lucio Silla“, K.135

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) finished his Opera “Lucio Silla“, K.135 in 1772, aged 16. The overture consists of three short movements that some musicologists connected these movements with a Minuet, K.61h to form a hypothetic “Symphony in D major, K.135 + 61h”. The movements of the original overture bear the following annotations:

  1. Molto Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Molto Allegro

In this concert, only the opening Molto Allegro was performed. It is a movement of less than 4 minutes.

The Performance

The orchestra performed on modern string instruments, using Tourte bows. Also the oboes and the bassoon looked modern(ish) to me. However, the brass instruments and the timpani were “historically correct” (historic or replicas): there were two natural horns (cor d’orchestre, without valves) and two natural trumpets. The timpanist used light sticks with small wooden heads. The violinist Daniel Bard led the ensemble as concertmaster. And of course he received support from the other first desks.

Even though my personal ideal would be truly historic instrumentation, I’m just fine with the partly modern setup in this ensemble:

  • The repertoire for this evening included 20th century compositions.
  • With the string instruments, the use of bow & right hand (i.e., the dynamics, the articulation) is far more important for the outcome than using classic bows and/or gut strings: with the appropriate diligence, one can make a modern violin (viola, etc.) sound almost like period instruments (at least in a mid-size ensemble like this one).
  • The oboes and the bassoon are of minor importance in these compositions by Mozart: these instruments mostly perform colla parte with other voices.
  • However, the softer, but color- and characterful sound of the natural brass instruments, as well as the poignancy of the historic timpani are all truly crucial for the listener’s impression.
  • In all likelihood, at Mozart’s time, a keyboard instrument (harpsichord) would have complemented the bass line with (implicitly) ciphered bass (i.e., basso continuo) accompaniment, as a “rhythmic backbone”. However, it is understandable that the artists omitted this for the few minutes of the overture.

I. Molto Allegro

The orchestra opened the concert with a truly refreshing performance of Mozart’s early overture/symphony: refreshing, lively dynamics with pronounced crescendi and accents, a brisk tempo, concise and light articulation. What a joy to listen to, and what a contrast to a typical performance of, say, 60 years ago! Without any doubt, this was at the level of top historically informed performances and strongly reminded of interpretations by pioneers such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016), full of Klangrede, though without the often “didactic / demonstrative” attitude of the latter.

Rating: ★★★★


Mozart: Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K.466

Among the 27 piano concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, only two are in minor keys (K.466 in D minor, K.491 in C minor). The first one of these (dated: Vienna, 1785-02-10) was part of the program here: Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K.466, with the following three movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Romance
  3. Rondo: Allegro assai

The Performance

Here, of course, the soloist, Gabriela Montero, became the center of the performance—and of the listener’s attention. At least from my position on the right-hand-side gallery, the pianist seemed closely surrounded by orchestra musicians. The music stand of the first desk stood right to the pianist’s left. Daniel Bard often seemed to be looking over her shoulders (he may have seen and watched her hands, but was of course no score or sheet music to glean from).

With a Steinway D-274 as solo instrument (in excellent condition, provided by Gebrüder Bachmann in Wetzikon) I did not expect a historicizing performance. So, not surprisingly, the soloist ignored the (unciphered) bass line in the solo part for tutti segments (such as the orchestral introduction). To be fair: older editions suppressed that bass notation. Although for many decades, musicologists have been pointing out the continuo function of the solo instrument. However, the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe certainly has this restored.

I. Allegro

For the orchestral introduction, the concert continued in the spirit of the above overture: all sotto voce, but electrifying, with short articulation. The latter highlighted the rhythmic shifts in the violin and viola voices. It definitely avoided all hints of Nachdrücken, which is an inherent danger with broad articulation in syncopes. I liked the well-balanced, harmonious voices of the wind section.

Solo

The soloist took the lyrical beginning (second theme) of her part restrained, with strong (extreme?) agogics, frequent ritenuti, with a strongly singing tone & articulation. That also applied to subsequent, lyrical segments, where she often switched to a distinctly slower pace.

However, as soon as those continuous chains of semiquavers set in, that agogic differentiation vanished in favor of fluent, continuously rolling figures. The entire solo seemed predominantly (rather, if not very) lyrical, mellow, flowing, smooth. There wasn’t much of the earnest revolting—only in short episodes, if at all. Overall, a playful, even serene attitude seemed to dominate the movement. D minor, really? The darker colors, the drama, the rebellion seemed to reside in the orchestra only. I liked the differentiation in the lyrical passages, and I don’t mean to say that the solo should be dissected in tiny, “talking” motifs. However, to me, this was too smooth, too fluent in the semiquavers—a smoothness that occasionally was bordering on superficiality.

The highlight of the movement (in the solo part, at least) was the cadenza. Expectedly, Gabriela Montero did not select the usual Beethoven cadenza, but (almost certainly) was improvising her own. Yes, it was smoothly flowing, too, mostly mellow and legato, with little differentiation in the articulation or agogics. However, it was not excessive, but perfectly appropriate, there was plenty of fantasy, even drama in the harmonic progression. Yet, its style did not move away too far from that of the concerto. It all made sense, went through a climax and harmoniously returned to Mozart’s score.

I should add that some of the mellow, legato-like tone is almost inevitable with a modern concert grand.

II. Romance

The serene, idyllic and peaceful Romance (B♭ major) certainly was the right place (and better suited) for Gabriela Montero’s singing articulation, her lyrical tone and agogics. And I did note her careful and detailed left-hand articulation.

Strangely: here, I noted an occasional tendency for the orchestra to push momentarily and very slightly (e.g., in the bars with isolated quavers in the violin, such as bar 11). Was this just my personal impression? On the other hand, I noted the very careful dynamics, especially in the soft segments (p, pp).

Not surprisingly, the middle part in G minor wasn’t overly dramatic. Rather, it returned to the fluent, almost lyrical playing of the first movement. Her expression did not seem to fit that of the orchestra, I felt.

Sadly, Gabriela Montero (despite her fantasy, her talent for improvisation) did nothing to enrich the solo part: very occasionally, she added a turn. However, this happened merely where the composer seems to have forgotten one. And it remained in strict analogy to similar passages. No extra ornaments, even where the solo part appears a mere skeleton that almost asks for extras to be filled in. Rather: pure lyricism: mellow, with little tension (even some acciaccaturas appeared merely playful, relaxed, devoid of tension).

III. Rondo: Allegro assai

Montero attached the last movement (virtually) attacca, at a very fluent pace. For the modern grand, the tempo may have been a tad fast, as some of the fast quaver figures were bordering on being a tad superficial. As in the first movement, the orchestra certainly was appropriately dramatic in the tutti segments. However, with the exception of a few passages, the solo part remained mostly playful rather than differentiated in articulation, let alone dramatic. Strangely, once or twice, the soloist seemed to accelerate, as if she wanted to get done with the piece? This was most pronounced in the segment preceding the cadenza.

The best part of the movement seemed to be the short cadenza. It was again clearly Montero’s own, presumably improvised: rich, almost abundant in fantasy. Pianistically / technically, though, it was way beyond Mozart’s time, I’m afraid. Still, it worked with material from the movement. Harmonically it seemed to fit the composition very well.

Overall Rating: ★★★


Montero: Improvisation Session

Gabriela Montero is well-known for her piano improvisations on stage. She has started doing this very early-on in her career, it even has become a standard feature in her concerts. So, she dismissed the orchestra and offered three improvisations on themes given by the audience. It took awhile for her to motivate somebody (or a group of people) in the audience to sing a theme to her: a Swiss folk song, a classical theme, or just about anything, as long as the melody is generally known… so, here’s what the audience came up with:

Improvisation I

The beginning of the Duke of Mantua’s famous canzone “La donna è mobile” from the Opera Rigoletto (1851) by Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901).

With all three improvisations, Gabriela Montero played the given theme a few times by itself, maybe slightly varying rhythm, phrasing, tempo, etc.—just to memorize it. Then, after a few seconds of thinking, she started playing her improvisation.

In terms of atmosphere, harmonies and texture, this started off as (sounding like) a Nocturne by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1949), gradually turned more dense, soon resembling a Scherzo or a Fantaisie by the same composer, with the melody mostly in the top voice initially, then wandering into other voices, along with denser and denser textures, outgrowing typical Chopin, even Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). At the climax it reminded of piano music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), even momentarily a paraphrase by Leopold Godowsky (1870 – 1938). Finally, the music calmed down, ended in the style of the late Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828).

All composer associations are spontaneous and my own, of course. Whatever the associations were: without reservations I concede / must state that this improvisation was truly masterful, and unique in its own way. Most improvisations that I heard so far were on the organ (among organists, improvising is much more common than with most other instrumentalists). However, typical organ improvisations are much more restrained in the range of styles they cover (e.g., they may imitate a chorale prelude by Bach, or the style of a French romantic or 20th century composer).

Improvisation II

The (beginning of the) 19th century Swiss folk song “Lueget, vo Bärg und Tal (“Look, from mountains and valleys”). This is truly known to everybody in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. So, indeed, at least half the audience was singing it to the soloist. It took a bit longer for her to memorize it, as she did not know the melody.

Those who might have expected “something similar to the first improvisation” were in for a surprise! She played the melody a few times, momentarily alluded to romantic harmonies, then stopped. And she started in the richly ornamented style of a baroque Prelude. Also here, the textures grew denser, polyphonic, with a leisurely stepping bass line. It was as if she was playing the piece by heart! She started enriching the harmonies, then gradually went back to a single line, while her musical brain must have been developing the next stage.

And indeed, suddenly, we found ourselves confronted with music in the style of the famous, classic piano rag “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin (1868 – 1917). As the music livened up, was there a trace of Fats Waller (1904 – 1943) mixed in? In any case, another, brilliant masterpiece of an improvisation!

Improvisation III

Finally—what else?—the famous theme from the Overture to the Opera “Guillaume Tell” (William Tell, 1829) by Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868). This one, the pianist didn’t need to memorize.

Gabriely Montero started off with the melody alone. However, she promptly switched to Latin America: Habanera rhythm and Tango style in the left hand, and switching to a minor key. More and more syncopations made the music sound jazzy. With the unfailing firmness of a sleepwalker, she moved around in harmonic excursions and rhythms, switching pace, gradually switching to a fast waltz. Chopin again? Only for moments! Then, she modulated into late Chopin and gradually mutated to virtuosic, swinging modern Jazz with drive and momentum, finally closing with the fireworks of a furious ending. Fabulous, indeed!

Rating: ★★★★½


Fauré: Suite “Masques et bergamasques“, op.122

Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924) took his Suite “Masques et bergamasques“, op.122 from an incidental music that he put together in 1919—entirely using movements from earlier compositions (c.1869 – 1887). The suite consists of four movements as follows:

  1. Ouverture: Allegro molto vivo
  2. Menuet: Tempo di minuetto, molto moderato
  3. Gavotte: Allegro vivo
  4. Pastorale: Andantino tranquillo
Daniel Bard, Kammerorchester Basel @ Zurich, 2019-11-12 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Daniel Bard, Kammerorchester Basel @ Zurich, 2019-11-12 (© Rolf Kyburz)

The Performance

Here, the string configuration (size and arrangement) was the same as for Mozart (5 + 5 + 4 + 4 + 2), just a bit closer to the center, as the concert grand had been removed. The wind section had been expanded, as required for this score, the brass section now switched to modern valve instruments and a harp joined the group.

While Mozart wrote the works above for small size orchestra (possibly even smaller than this one!), Fauré’s Suite is typically performed with bigger orchestras. I was curious to see how the chamber orchestra would fare with this.

I. Ouverture: Allegro molto vivo

Fauré’s suite is not only originating from (late) 19th century compositions, but in its style and texture it actually refers to music by early 19th century composers, such as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) or Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868). The Ouverture is lightweight, dancing. The relatively small Basel Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Bard emphasized that character with a swift tempo and light articulation—at least initially. Towards the climax of the short movement, where the music grows “bigger”, the ensemble broadened the articulation somewhat, creating a denser texture that produces more sound. A bigger orchestra might avoid such broadening. On the other hand, the limited number of strings allowed for more focus and colors from the wind instruments.

II. Menuet: Tempo di minuetto, molto moderato

A somewhat harmless minuet—a nice miniature with late-romantic allusions in the harmonies. I liked the gentle sound of clarinets, bassoon and horn (later also oboes and flutes). They produced a very harmonious soundscape, almost like chamber music. In the second part, where the music modulates from F major to B♭ major, the sound got bigger and more dramatic momentarily. This was mainly through the brass instruments, the (modern) timpani, and somewhat heavier articulation. I liked the gentle, melancholic-nostalgic ending—a question mark, leading to the Gavotte.

III. Gavotte: Allegro vivo

At least in the opening / main theme, the movement didn’t feel so much Allegro vivo. Rather, the orchestra presented it as a somewhat heavy, almost clumsy peasant dance. The score supports this with the strong ff downstroke accents. The intermezzi (the first one lighter, the second one lyrical and singing) allowed the wind instruments (particularly the woodwinds) to shine. And they also exposed the qualities of the string voices. They were very good in intonation, homogeneity and coherence.

Even without conductor, the orchestra in general performed with excellent coordination, firm also in tempo transitions. That said, the orchestra didn’t appear to aim for ultra-polished virtuosity and show (this might have required a conductor). The standing performance enhanced the liveliness, the vivacity of the interpretation, as it allows for (even necessitates) a much closer and intense interaction between the musicians.

IV. Pastorale: Andantino tranquillo

Here now, the music definitely turned late-romantic, with its melancholic, lyrical theme that reminded of a somewhat naïve children’s song. The movement also made me realize how much of his style the Swiss composer Aloÿs Fornerod (1890 – 1955) inherited from Gabriel Fauré. There are moments in the former’s piano concerto which almost seem to quote the Pastorale directly.

The main accents in this movement are provided by the strings, the harp and the flutes. Among the four movements, the (short) Pastorale certainly offered the richest musical experience. As compositions, the first three movements in retrospect felt rather easy-going, lightweight. The suite was a very enjoyable listening experience, nevertheless.

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Milhaud: Music to the Ballet “Le boeuf sur le toit”, op.58

Darius Milhaud (1892 – 1974) composed the music to the Ballet “Le boeuf sur le toit” (The Ox on the Roof: The Nothing-Doing Bar), op.58, in 1920. As the title might suggest, the ballet is a surrealist creation based on a scenario by Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963). That scenario is truly absurd (the concert booklet called it crude). Of course, no ox is appearing on a roof. However, musically, Milhaud is (apparently) quoting close to 30 Brazilian Tango tunes. At the same time, the composition artfully modulates through 24 different major and minor keys.

Mostly, the composition is performed as orchestral piece rather than as ballet (maybe understandably, given Cocteau’s scenario). Milhaud also created an arrangement for piano duet. In 1921 another one with an intricate, highly virtuosic (and dissonant) violin solo.

The Performance

More than the previous pieces, this composition with its frequent changes in tempo and character required utmost attention and the active participation of every single musician. The ensemble proved to be really firm in this music, with all of the voices acting in relative autonomy. This of course is a necessity in the absence of a conductor.

As for the interpretation: strangely, here, I found that the wind instruments (mostly the woodwinds, but sometimes even the trumpets) could well have shown up more prominently. On the other hand, in softer segments, this allowed for more presence of the string voices.

The overall impression was that of playful, certainly fun and later jazzy music. My main reservation is that the grotesque aspects of the composition (mostly portrayed in the woodwinds) didn’t really come through strong enough. Sure, the changes in mood and atmosphere were excellent (especially for an ensemble without conductor), as were the fun and jazzy aspects.

Around the middle of the movement (Modéré), the performance momentarily tended to lose some momentum and tension. However, the returning ritornel picked up the drive again.

Technically, the performance was certainly at a very high level. Even though it didn’t exploit the full grotesqueness, the music was fun, even enthralling to listen to!

Overall Rating: ★★★★



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