Alexander Ghindin, Rimma Sushanskaya / Warsaw Festival Orchestra
Borodin / Tchaikovsky / Dvořák
Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-01-27
Despite the popular program, such as Tchaikovsky’s hugely popular first piano concerto and Dvořák’s Symphony No.9, the large hall in the Zurich Tonhalle (1455 seats) was only about 1/3 full. Were the artists not known well enough? Or is the over-saturation in Zurich’s concert life?
Rimma Sushanskaya was first known as violinist: she was the last pupil of David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974). Since 1986 she lives in England, and more recently, starting 2005 in Birmingham, she launched a second career as conductor, cooperating with various orchestras in the U.K., Germany, the Ukraine, Romania, and Russia.
This season, Rimma Sushanskaya works with the Warsaw Festival Orchestra: this is an ensemble with a respectable size of around 80 musicians. The concert booklet states that the orchestra has been appearing at European festivals and venues (e.g., in Berlin, Leipzig, Bremen, Bonn, Düsseldorf) for the past 20 years
The pianist Alexander Ghindin (Александр Гиндин) was born 1977 in Moscow. Even before entering the Moscow Conservatory in 1994, he won the fourth prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. In 1999, he won the second prize at the International Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition in Brussels, and in 2007 he won the first prize at the International Piano Competition in Cleveland. He is pursuing an international career as soloist, mainly in the US and in Russia.
Borodin: Opera “Prince Igor” – Polovtsian Dances
Alexander Borodin (1833 – 1887) worked on his Opera “Prince Igor” from 1869 up to his death in 1887 — and he left the work unfinished. After the composer’s death, he opera was edited (mostly orchestrated) and completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908) and Alexander Glazunov 1865 – 1936). In its final form (1890), the opera consists of an Overture, a Prologue, and four Acts.
There are two dance numbers in Act II of the opera. The first one is No.8, the “Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens” (Пляска половецких девушек), directly following the opening chorus. This is often (also here) omitted in concerts. The actual (“proper”) Polovtsian Dances (No.17) are placed at the end of Act II and consist of the following segments:
- Introduction: Andantino (4/4, A major) —
- Gliding Dance of the Maidens (Пляска девушек плавная): Andantino (4/4, A major) —
- Wild Dance of the Men (Пляска мужчин дикая): Allegro vivo (4/4, F major)
- General Dance (Общая пляска): Allegro (3/4, D major)
- Dance of the Boys (Пляска мальчиков) and 2nd Dance of the Men (Пляска мужчин): Presto (6/8, D minor) —
- Gliding Dance of the Maidens: Moderato alla breve, (2/2, A major) —
- Dance of the Boys and 2nd Dance of the Men: Presto (6/8, D minor) —
- General Dance: Allegro con spirito (4/4, A major)
In this performance, parts I, II, and III were played attacca, though the segments were clearly identifiable, as the melodic themes change with each section. Similarly, segments V — VIII were played together. They actually appeared like one single piece, using material from the first parts. Segment IV stands out with its 3/4 meter.
Rimma Sushanskaya started off with a deliberately moderate, measured tempo—almost elegiac: probably in order to allow the musicians in the orchestra to adjust to the sound of the venue, to “find themselves”, to establish mutual contact in this environment. The beginnings in the wind voices were definitely very careful. But by the time the violins joined in, they appeared to have gained confidence, played more firmly. In the Allegro vivo with its playful, virtuosic clarinet solo, the orchestra formed a firm, unified ensemble.
The subsequent Allegro in 3/4 time is strongly rhythmic, strongly structured—the percussion and a powerful brass section dominate this segment.
The Presto sections (in 6/8 time) in the last part are characterized by a galloping “rider motif”—an opportunity for the well-disciplined string sections, under the firm and competent guidance of the concertmaster, to show their strengths. That “movement” (V – VIII, see above) is a well-known, virtuosic showpiece for orchestras. Not everything was perfect in this concert: the tutti occasionally was in danger of degrading to a hurly-burly. Especially the wind instruments sometimes weren’t rhythmically precise enough, blurring the contours in complex sections (the woodwind instrument were the least convincing ones in this). I almost suspected that in preparations and rehearsals the conductor had been focusing on the work of the string instruments?
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1 in B♭ minor, op.23
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) finished his Piano Concerto No.1 in B♭ minor, op.23 in February 1875, later revised it in 1879 and again in 1888. The work is so famous and well-known that I don’t need to mention details about its history, etc.; strangely, this was the first time that I attended a live performance of this composition in concert. The work features three movements:
- Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito
- Andantino semplice — Prestissimo
- Allegro con fuoco
Needless to say that the expectations in this performance were very high, based on the popularity of the composition (and the same applies to the symphony that followed after the intermission). And even more so in a venue & location with generally fairly high performance standards, such as Zurich’s Tonhalle. Sadly, these expectations were met only very partially.
The Performance: Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito
Rimma Sushanskaya opened the concerto close to the expected, pretty “natural” pace—maybe not entirely molto maestoso as specified by the composer, not too fast, though, but definitely also not too slow. The tempo did not feel extraordinary—yet, Alexander Ghindin rhythmically missed already the first chord in his initial entry, and after that, he appeared to push for a faster tempo.
Worse even, Ghindin’s second, punctuated entry did not appear to fit to the orchestral accompaniment at all, it did not match rhythmically, in the agogics. The pianist may have viewed this as “his personal rubato, etc.” — however, I would have expected this to be coordinated / agreed upon with the conductor and the orchestra?? To me, his playing appeared entirely arbitrary—and this continued throughout the first movement. Repeatedly, Ghindin threw himself into solo entries in ways that felt unreflected, coarse, if not rude. There were ruptures in the musical flow, and passages that felt superficial. The keyboard touch occasionally sounded hard, soft passages too loud. And I did not see any signs of real cooperation with the orchestra.
Who is to Take the Blame?
I can’t blame the conductor for these mishaps. Without active participation by the soloist, even the clearest conducting gestures with the baton, nor the most active assistance by the concertmaster can produce a compelling, self-contained performance or interpretation. The worst rhythmic discrepancies occurred towards the end of the movement.
Even if the conductor is not to be blamed, the failure in this performance can’t be caused by lacking technical skills on the part of the soloist: his virtuosic prowess is definitely respectable. But even if he had felt that his playing was “right”, correct: if a pianist agrees on such a joint venture, a cooperation with an orchestra, this cannot work without attention and cooperation on his part. Given the circumstances, the orchestra did reasonably well. Unfortunately, the wind instruments often sounded out of tune. Prior to the concerto, much more attention should have been paid to re-tuning the (all!) instruments to the piano.
Andantino semplice — Prestissimo
The middle movement sadly did not compensate the flaws from the previous section. In my opinion, the solo was often too loud , lacking all subtlety. One example: the delayed chord sequences in bars 50ff. were far too dominant: the piano is only accompaniment here! It felt as if the rhythm was based on the solo, while the orchestra sounded off-beat and running ahead. It’s the piano chords which should feel off-beat, lagging behind the rhythm in the orchestra.
The Prestissimo section ended up as a pure virtuosic showpiece, superficial, again lacking all subtlety or consideration of phrasing, agogics, cooperation with orchestra and conductor. I felt that such failure to resist the temptation to excel as pure keyboard virtuoso made me understand why Nikolai Rubinstein (1835 – 1881) initially rejected this concerto!
Allegro con fuoco
Confirming the impressions from the opening movement, the piano was pressing ahead almost rudely, lacked all lyricism. There was no dialog, merely the soloist claiming absolute leadership. The pp, leggiero in bars 102ff. felt coarse, mf at best—and the final bars were superficial at best, and lacking all coordination with the orchestra.
Alexander Ghindin offered two encores, rather soon (did he want to correct or offset the previous mishaps?):
Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886): Concert Paraphrase on “Rigoletto”, S.434
Ghindin did not play this as an attempt to create the atmosphere in the Opera “Rigoletto” by Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901), but rather as virtuosic, shiny showpiece. This may not be 100% appropriate for this particular composition, but Liszt did cultivate that aspect in some of his solo works for piano. So, why not show virtuosity here—at least when offering the piece as an encore?
Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849): Fantaisie-Impromptu in C♯ minor, op.posth.66
The second encore was Chopin’s “Fantaisie-Impromptu“. And—alas!—here, at last, Ghindin exhibited lyrical playing and subtle dynamics in the middle part, and a soft keyboard touch, flowing articulation. The tempo in the outer segments was extremely fast, though—too fast for my taste.
I discussed the Symphony No.9 in E minor, op.95, B.178, “From the New World” by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) already in the review of an earlier concert, so I’m just giving a list of the movements here:
- Adagio, (4/8) – Allegro molto (2/4)
- Largo (4/4)
- Scherzo: Molto vivace (3/4) – Poco sostenuto (3/4)
- Allegro con fuoco (4/4)
Adagio – Allegro molto
This major piece after the intermission was an opportunity to focus on the work of the conductor, Rimma Sushanskaya, and on the orchestra. I felt that in the first movement, in fast tempo signatures in general, Sushanskaya tended towards a rather fluent pace. The orchestra mastered that well, generating a respectable, even impressive volume. I did miss some “atmospheric resting” at key points in a phrase, “enjoying the climax”, in a way. Also transitions were sometimes a bit abrupt: they deserved a little more attention, such as an “alluded fermata“, particularly when moving from a dramatic section to a lyrical one.
Initially, the solo flute appeared somewhat out-of-tune — but the soloist appeared to have corrected this in the course of the movement. The exposition was not repeated—trying to save physical endurance for the final movements?
Here now I felt at ease with the tempo selection. I felt that Rimma Sushanskaya for once left more, sufficient room for emotions. And for a change, the cor anglais with its wonderful cantilena was allowed to control the musical flow. Even if the brass entrances towards the end proved real tricky, and even if the intonation wasn’t always as good as it ought to be: to me, this was the best part of the concert evening.
Scherzo: Molto vivace – Poco sostenuto
Too bad, Sushanskaya’s tempo was too much of a challenge for the orchestra…
Allegro con fuoco
… and the same applies to the final movement. Towards the end, I sensed some physical exhaustion in the orchestra. Touring with an orchestra can be really tiring. There is little time for rehearsals, traveling itself is tiring, too, the schedule often very tight. Was the conductor simply too ambitious for this particular situation, and/or maybe for this orchestra?
As for the interpretation: I found the final ritardando excessive, maybe even unnecessary. The composer simply marks the final 18 bars fff, Allegro con fuoco; there is no indication for a ritardando at all. Just the last bar features a fermata (which does not imply “rit.”) and the annotation lunga corona.
In a normal concert situation, offering a repeat of the Scherzo movement as encore might seem logical (a virtuosic “last dance”, not too long). But here, with the orchestra already exhausted, the encore did not improve, let alone correct the overall impression at all. Was the conductor over-ambitious with the orchestra? Well, I hope that at the very least, this evening helped preparing the ensemble for the repeat of the program in Geneva (Victoria Hall) on the following day!
Also, for a moment, the thought crossed my mind that maybe Rimma Sushanskaya was trying to avoid or prevent any impression of a “soft, female” interpretation?
The works by themselves were challenging enough—on top of that, as mentioned, the audience in Zurich is demanding, the general performance standard in the Tonhalle very high. Maybe it’s advisable for touring orchestras and their conductors to set their goals (and the repertoire to be played in such locations & venues) wisely, particularly given the extra physical and emotional stress that is associated with tours. The limited time for rehearsals, the tiring journeys etc. may make even simpler pieces a challenge, especially if the orchestra is not one of the very top-class ensembles.
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.