Daniel Hope / Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO)
Mendelssohn / Bach / Weinberg / Beethoven
Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-09-27
This concert in the big hall of the Zurich Tonhalle opened the new season for the Zürcher Kammerorchester (Zurich Chamber Orchestra, ZKO). With this concert, the orchestra didn’t just present and start the program of the season: this evening was special, as it was the first evening where the orchestra is playing (in public) with its new Music Director, Daniel Hope.
A Succession in Leadership
This concert ended a one-year “interregnum”, in which guest conductors and the concert master, Willi Zimmermann, were leading the ensemble. Daniel hope succeeds Sir Roger Norrington (*1934) in the direction of the orchestra, which was founded 1945 by Edmond de Stoutz (1920 – 1997). Between the latter and Sir Roger Norrington (Chief Conductor 2011 – 2015), the orchestra had Howard Griffiths (*1950, Chief Conductor 1996 – 2006), and Muhai Tang (*1949, Chief Conductor 2006 – 2011) as Chief Conductors.
Daniel Hope isn’t just “the new boss”, continuing the role of his predecessors: for the first time, the orchestra is led by an instrumentalist rather than a conductor. Consequently, Hope doesn’t call himself Chief Conductor, but his position is that of the Music Director.
The fact that Daniel Hope will be leading the orchestra has been known for a while. Hope has indeed previously made appearances with this ensemble. However, in this concert, the audience certainly wanted to know “How is the new one leader acting?”. At the same time, people were interested in seeing how Hope intended to fill his leadership role.
Daniel Hope was born 1973 in Durban, South Africa, grew up in England. He described himself as “Catholic Irish with Jewish roots (his grandparents escaped from Berlin), married to a German, father of a son”. He now lives in Germany. When Hope was 6 months old, his parents moved to England, where Hope studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Stoke d’Abernon. His mother was an assistant to Sir Yehudi Menuhin, and Menuhin became a mentor for Daniel Hope. When Menuhin was in Gstaad, the young Daniel first experienced the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. Daniel Hope also studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, under the Russian violinist and violin pedagogue Zakhar Bron (*1947).
Between 2002 and 2008 (when the ensemble was disbanded), Hope was violinist for the Beaux Arts Trio. In 2011, the Royal Academy of Music appointed Daniel Hope Visiting Professor in Violin. Daniel Hope plays the “ex-Lipinski” violin from 1737 by Giuseppe Guarneri. For prizes and more details on Daniel Hope see Wikipedia.
It looks as if with Daniel Hope the baton will play a minor role (if any at all): Hope announced that he will direct from within the orchestra, and that he will also perform from desks other than the first one. Symptomatically, his interview in the program notes appeared under the title “The Orchestra is the Star”.
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Octet in E♭ major, op.20
At age of 16 (1825), Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) wrote his famous Octet in E♭ major, op.20 (1825). It’s the work of a genius, and it’s for good reason that this composition has become and remained one of Mendelssohn’s most popular compositions. In this composition, Mendelssohn exhibits his very typical, personal idiom: enthralling, with verve and momentum, dominated by motoric movement. Mendelssohn explicitly wanted the work to be played “in orchestral style” (rather than as a piece for eight individual players), with strong dynamic contrasts. The Octet features four movements:
- Allegro moderato ma con fuoco (4/4)
- Andante (6/8)
- Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo (2/4)
- Presto (2/2)
Already the first composition in this program acted as a statement by Daniel Hope. The work was performed as written, by four violins, two violas and to cellos. Daniel Hope was playing in the center, in fourth position. The concert master, Willi Zimmermann, carried the role of leader and coordinator throughout the performance: the first violin is the only instrument to have a special lead role in the octet.
Daniel Hope just discreetly indicated the beginning of a movement or occasional, entries of particular importance. Apart from that, he stood back, integrated into the ensemble, rarely standing out for short passages, even though one could certainly feel that he was fulfilling a central function in the ensemble. Primarily, he seemed to act in a very collegial way, observing, keeping visual contact—an integrative role, overall.
I. Allegro moderato ma con fuoco
The eight musicians of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra played with precision, full of momentum, with light articulation. The first violin had and kept its lead role, of course (excellent playing by Willi Zimmermann!). But other than that, individuals rarely stood out from the ensemble. This is completely in line with Mendelssohn’s explicit instruction to play this “in orchestral manner”. The musicians kept the tension at all times, including the retained, mysterious segment in the development section. Excellent teamwork, overall, which certainly deserved the spontaneous extra applause after this movement.
The beginning of the Andante sounded serene, in almost harmless atmosphere. However, soon, the movement changed into a stirring mood, even menacing in the underground, then transmuting into an almost transcendental fugato, alluding to baroque topoi. There is a second, stirring phase, but the movement ends in retained silence.
III. Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo
The Scherzo felt like very virtuosic chamber play: the coordination was truly excellent. Yet, the playing never felt extroverted, didn’t make the impression that the players tried to “show off”—almost performing with modest attitude. It was teamwork at its best, always maintaining tension and attention. Firmness in rhythm and coordination appeared natural and effortless, up to the ghastly disappearing last bars.
All this continued in the very demanding final movement, an enthralling fugue: the musicians played with concentration and focus, yet with joy and enthusiasm, again devoid of “show attitude”. The performance wasn’t polished to perfection, but very impressive in its constant build-up. All of the finale felt stirring. I liked those touching moments of intense, extreme longing in the contrasting unisono passages. Overall, this was a masterwork as a composition, in excellent performance & interpretation.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041
The speculations, when Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) has written his Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, range from 1717-24 (Cöthen) up to 1729 (Leipzig). The autograph for the work has not survived (just individual parts which Bach copied out from the score). It’s a popular concerto with three movements:
- Allegro (2/4)
- Andante (4/4)
- Allegro assai (9/8)
In this and the following work, Daniel Hope now appeared as soloist—not playing as primus inter pares, but as “proper soloist”, in the center of the chamber orchestra, which formed a semi-circle around him. To me, the performance was only very partially “historically informed”. Yes, the articulation was light, vibrato was almost banned—but the instruments were modern (particularly the bows), the playing very smooth, the orchestra relatively big (too big, maybe?), making more of this composition than Bach most likely intended or envisaged.
In general, I felt that Hope was focusing mostly on the big built-ups and arches, rather than on fine details in articulation and small-scale phrasing, or “Klangrede”.
I definitely liked the Andante, which Hope played almost without vibrato: I found it very touching, enchanting in the ppp, with very light, transparent articulation in the accompaniment. Hope appeared retained, modest in his attitude, yet formed big gestures in the phrasing.
The Allegro assai was very fluent in tempo and articulation. The solo remained well-integrated into the ensemble. The fast figurations in the solo part didn’t leave much room for detailed articulation and phrasing. But on the other hand, the performance convinced with its musical flow throughout the movement.
Mieczysław Weinberg: Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra, op.42
Mieczysław Weinberg (1919 – 1996) was a Polish composer who spent most of his life in Moscow, after he had to flee Poland in 1939. His first name is also spelled Moisey, Moishe, Moisey Samuilovich, or Mojsze, his last name also Vainberg, Vaynberg, or Wajnberg. Weinberg’s father grew up in Kishinev, his mother originally is from Odessa. Weinberg left behind a large body of compositions, covering a wide range of genres, including operas, 22 symphonies and 17 string quartets.
Weinberg wrote his Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra, op.42 in 1948. This was the first performance of this concertino in Switzerland, a “local premiere”, so to say. Weinberg’s compositions are inspired by and often set in relation to those of his fellow composers Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975). The concertino op.42 has the following three movements:
- Allegretto cantabile
- Cadenza: Lento — Adagio
- Allegro moderato poco rubato
I. Allegretto cantabile
The Allegretto cantabile started fluent, with light articulation, initially without big tone from the solo instrument. The phrasing appeared very parceled, dominated by short phrases—but that is not the interpretation, but a feature in Weinberg’s music. Even though the movement is only 6 minutes, it seems rather thin in terms of musical substance. These impressions may have been particularly obvious due to the strong contrast to Bach’s concerto. After the introduction, Daniel Hope’s playing is evolving into bigger tone—for my taste with rather strong vibrato.
II. Cadenza: Lento — Adagio
The slow movement is in two parts: a big, broad cadenza (Lento) with a big musical gesture, followed by an Adagio. In the cadenza, Hope again played with very (too?) strong vibrato, which does not make the interpretation any better. I also noted a slight tendency for marginal (slightly low) intonation (the vibrato did not help here!). Apart from that, I actually liked the interpretation, Hope’s warm, well-projecting tone, and soft articulation. And of course I liked the hollow, vanishing last tone on the empty G string—obviously flat and without any vibrato!
III. Allegro moderato poco rubato
Also in the last movement, I found Hope’s intonation in casual / secondary notes sometimes to be slightly superficial. As a composition, I liked that third movement best in this concerto., It starts with discreet virtuosity, swinging, scherzando, building up in expression and virtuosity towards the end, also for the orchestra, in the pizzicato accompaniment. I missed some brilliance in the solo part—but I again attribute this to Weinberg’s composition, not to the interpretation.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No.2 in D major, op.36
I was somewhat puzzled to see Daniel Hope taking a seat in the audience after the intermission. I honor his intent to leave the leadership to the concertmaster, Willi Zimmermann, for specific works / from time to time. One may also see this as modest attitude—but I wasn’t expecting this to happen in the first official concert in his new function as Music Director. However, I rapidly forgot about these concerns & thoughts, once the orchestra started playing Beethoven: to me, this turned out to be the highlight of the evening!
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote his Symphony No.2 in D major, op.36, in 1801 / 1802. With others of his “even” symphonies (4, 6, 8) it shares the bright, serene spirit. I don’t need to discuss the composition here—everybody knows Beethoven’s symphonies, they are a standard part of today’s concert repertoire. The Symphony op.36 features the following four movements:
- Adagio molto — Allegro con brio
- Scherzo: Allegro
- Allegro molto
I was delighted, even enthused to see that Sir Roger Norrington’s four years of direction with the orchestra appear to persist also after the one-year interregnum and (hopefully) under the new direction of Daniel Hope. This symphony sometimes felt to me as if Sir Roger was invisibly still present on the podium! The orchestra largely observed Beethoven’s metronome marks. The articulation was light, clear, transparent, playful, almost free of vibrato. The dynamics were lively and full of contrasts. The interpretation was gripping, had “bite”, and the orchestra observed all repeat signs.
Also in the virtuosic movements, the coordination was excellent, considering that the concert master, Willi Zimmermann, essentially only controlled his team by movements with his head. As only concession against Norrington’s “policy” and against historic arguments, the two violin voices were sitting next to each other (rather than on opposite sides of the podium). That deliberate choice was helpful for the coordination, maybe even required for the team to work without conductor. The downside is that I defeated some of the “dialog features” between the two violin voices.
I. Adagio molto — Allegro con brio
Norrington’s interpretation, “internalized”: bite, little or no vibrato, playful, especially the pp in the development part, and the exposition was repeated—excellent!
Here, I liked the excellent balance between strings and wind instruments, the soft sound of the clarinets, the tempo, which really felt like 3/8: not too slow, no celebrating, as ever so often in concert performances!
III. Scherzo: Allegro
Light, with very good coordination, again observing all repeat signs (excepting of course the second part in the da capo instance of the Scherzo). I particularly enjoyed the pizzicati (violas and cello/double bass) in the second half of the Trio!
IV. Allegro molto
The last movement was very fast, very virtuosic: excellent sound and volume!
Encore — Beethoven: Symphony No.1 in C major, op.21 — III. Menuetto
I was happy to see that the audience appreciated the “Norrington style” performance of the Beethoven symphony. In response to the lasting applause, Willi Zimmermann announced “another symphony by Beethoven” as encore—of course not an entire symphony, but the third movement, Menuetto, from Beethoven’s Symphony No.1 in C major, op.21. Needless to say: this movement was completely in line with the performance of the preceding symphony: more than just a “last dance”!
In the aftermath, when I looked through my concert notes, I noted that I had written down an unintentional (I swear!) pun “Ø Hope”, i.e., “No Hope” in reaction to the new director taking seat in the audience. But after that second half of the concert I must say that this pun must be wrong. What I heard after the intermission to me was an encouraging perspective, if not a promise for a bright future for this orchestra!
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.