Claire Huangci, Howard Griffiths / Camerata Schweiz
MS Charity Concert — Beethoven / Haydn
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2018-12-02
Introduction: Context, Artists
MS – Schweizerische Multiple Sklerose-Gesellschaft is a charitable organization to support patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as people working / being involved with MS patients (family members / relatives, health professionals, other interested parties). 80% of the society’s funding comes from private donations. For the past years, this society has organized an annual charity concert with orchestra, typically in Zurich’s Tonhalle, now of course in the Tonhalle Maag.
It’s not the first time that the British conductor Howard Griffiths (*1950, see also Wikipedia) conducted the charity concert for the Swiss MS Society. And it’s not the first time that I witness him conducting. I have written about him in several posts (mostly about concerts, plus one CD recording), so I’ll refrain from repeating general descriptions. I’ll just mention that Griffiths has lived in Zurich since 1981, where he has conducted the Zürcher Kammerorchester (Zurich Chamber Orchestra, ZKO) in the years 1996 – 2006.
The soloist of the event was Claire Huangci (*1990, see also Wikipedia). Also here, I have written about this artist several times: one piano recital in Zurich, back on 2015-02-10, a second one on 2018-11-20, plus a concert with orchestra, also this fall, on 2018-10-20. So, again, I don’t need to introduce this artist, other than mentioning again that this year, Claire won the first prize at the Concours Géza Anda in Zurich. My reviews in all three concerts were favorable pretty much throughout—at least, Claire appeared to like them. In fact, it was Claire Huangci who offered me the ticket to this concert—thanks a lot!
Claire Huangci was playing on a Steinway model D-274 concert grand.
In this concert, Howard Griffiths conducted the Sinfonieorchester Camerata Schweiz. This orchestra emerged in 1999 from a predecessor orchestra, the Schweizer Jugend-Sinfonie-Orchester (Swiss Youth Symphony Orchestra). The ensemble describes itself as “one of Switzerland’s most important professional, project-oriented orchestras”. Between 2004 and 2009, the orchestra’s principal conductor was Graziella Contratto (*1966), who continues to work with the ensemble. Apart from her, the orchestra has worked with several notable conductors and instrumental soloists, in concerts throughout Switzerland, as well as in neighboring countries.
In 2010, the Sinfonieorchester Camerata Schweiz entered a close artistic partnership with Howard Griffiths, with whom it released its first two CD recordings. The orchestra appears in a variety of formations, from chamber music ensembles up to a symphony orchestra. Here, there were around two dozen string players (I counted 8 + 6 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, 2 double basses), plus wind instruments and timpani. The configuration was perfectly adequate for the music in the program.
Charity concerts typically don’t challenge the audience with difficult, let alone contemporary compositions. This event was no exception, featuring one of Beethoven’s most popular works (albeit in an unusual version), as well as Haydn’s last symphony:
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Piano Concerto in D major, op.61a, after the Violin Concerto in D major, op.61
- Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809): Symphony No.104 in D major, Hob.I/104 (“London” / “Salomon”)
Already in the concert on 2018-11-20, Claire Huangci had been performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 in E♭ major, op.73 (“Emperor”), and the day after that, she performed the Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, op.58 , by the same composer. Already on 2018-11-20, this concert had been pre-announced as featuring Claire Huangci performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto “No.6″—see below for details.
The venue was fairly full for this charity concert. My seat was in row 19, at the right-hand side edge of the rear block in the parquet seating.
1806, Ludwig van Beethoven(1770 – 1827), then at the height of his career, composed his Violin Concerto in D major, op.61. The premiere was unsuccessful. This wasn’t Beethoven’s fault, except that allegedly, the composer was so late with the work that the violinist had to sight-read his part. It may have been some sort of revenge that the violinist, Franz Clement (1780 – 1842) inserted some artistic performance with a composition of his own, played on one string, the violin held upside down.
As Howard Griffiths explained in his humorous introduction, at the request of composer and pianist Muzio Clementi (1752 – 1832), Beethoven transcribed the concerto for piano and orchestra. This is now known as Piano Concerto in D major, op.61a. Some people call it the “Piano Concerto No.6”. This is wrong at least insofar as the Piano Concerto No.5 in E♭ major, op.73 (“Emperor”) was composed 1809/1810 only.
Beethoven left the orchestra part of the violin concerto untouched, but reworked the solo part, such that (to him) it made sense as a piano concerto.
The piano version features the same three movements / annotations as the original for violin:
- Allegro ma non troppo
- Rondo: Allegro
In contrast to the violin version, Beethoven did, however, add cadenzas for the piano. The one for the first movement is very extensive (the Wikipedia article calls it “bombastic”). It even asks for the participation of the timpanist.
The violin version lacks cadenzas. Some violinists didn’t want to create their own or resort to one of the many existing cadenzas by notable violinists and composers. Instead, they reworked Beethoven’s piano cadenzas for the violin. You find more information on this in my extensive comparison posting on Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, op.61 (the piano version is not included in this comparison).
Howard Griffiths kept the first part of the extended orchestral introduction in a serene atmosphere. The orchestra sound was transparent, subtle, the articulation light, not excessively dry in the main theme. The second theme appeared very legato in the violins, focusing on the cantilena. The “in-between” size orchestral configuration allowed Griffiths to make the soft parts sound almost like chamber music, and yet had sufficient reserves for a decent, but never overpowering ff, while retaining a light soundscape. Just what one would like for the music in this concert.
I. Allegro ma non troppo
From the first bars of her solo part, I noted Claire Huangci’s light, clear and careful articulation, complemented with lively, rich agogics. This made that music live in every bar, using the right balance of momentum and subtlety. I liked how Claire made the instrument sing in the descant, how she brought out the (violin) cantilenas. The pianist kept the calm, the serene atmosphere throughout the movement. Maybe she even slowed down a tad when a medical emergency unfolded, causing some unrest & disruption in the audience during the second half of the Allegro ma non troppo.
I noted that Claire treated the score with some liberty. She kept the melody line essentially as is (i.e., identical to the violin version), but where Beethoven left the left hand unoccupied, there was sometimes a subtle, extra octave doubling (e.g., already in the first two bars of the solo), a very discreet third or sixth parallel (e.g., bars 116/117), or simply a slightly enriched (compared to Beethoven’s score) left hand accompaniment / complement (e.g., bar 100).
With some of the octave doublings in the bass (e.g., in the f bar 138) she also exploited more of the concert grand’s bass sonority than Beethoven’s slim piano part would allow. However, as stated, Claire Huangci left the melody line alone, also secondary voices that Beethoven added in the left hand. Her “expansions” were essentially just in passagework (where they also served to expand the dynamics), or in segments where the orchestra had the melody.
Some may criticize Claire Huangci’s liberal approach to Beethoven’s piano transcription—I definitely don’t. For one, already at Beethoven’s time, artists were fairly liberal at reading a composer’s score. That text wasn’t nearly as “sacrosanct” as some might like it to be today. If authenticity is taken too far, the result will be—dead.
One could say that it’s “just a transcription” (even though one by the composer himself). Already Beethoven made it clear (through the transcription) that the “key substance” is in the violin part. One indication for this is that he often left that violin voice alone, “naked”, while the left hand remained “under-occupied”. Claire Huangci did not touch that violin voice, except for sparingly added extra ornaments.
Then, it is important to keep in mind that this is a bigger orchestra and a bigger venue than what Beethoven had available. Plus, the solo instrument is vastly bigger and heavier in sound than a fortepiano at Beethoven’s time. From that perspective, Claire Huangci’s alterations were more than welcome, especially as they were never obtrusive. They always remained inconspicuous, perfectly “in style”. Those not familiar with the piano transcription will not have noticed anything at all.
And I must say: the performances that I listened to in the past, they alway made me think “well, it’s just a piano transcription of the violin concerto”. They felt more light-weight than the “real” piano concertos—and somehow inferior. Here, for the first time (to me), Claire Huangci brought the transcription to life, made it a “proper, full” piano concerto. This now can stand a comparison to the “official” ones. And it must have been what Beethoven had in mind, given the care that he devoted to writing a full—even “special”—cadenza:
Claire Huangci’s cadenza was Beethoven’s own for the piano transcription. She left the original text untouched, especially the central Marcia and the final part, both with participation of the timpani.
Where the pianist was alone, however, and particularly when Beethoven reduces the use of thematic material to motifs among rapid scales and passagework, Claire Huangci increased the tempo. Claire made the cadenza appear more virtuosic than the already seriously challenging ones for the Piano Concerto in G major (op.58). And she didn’t shy away from using the sustain pedal to create a dramatic crescendo among truly brilliant, stunning fireworks. Some of this piano artistry even reminded me of Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). Fascinating!
And when the cadenza was over, the music relaxed, and the orchestra re-entered with subtle pizzicato chords, the return of the main theme in the solo, with that beautifully singing accompaniment in the left hand. To me, this was a true, touching miracle moment!
The tempo in the Larghetto was absolutely calm, but still fluent, never static, faster than in a typical violin performance. Another difference was that here, the solo wasn’t just joining the orchestra’s calm, solemn tune, but rather formed a contrast. Definitely, there was more than mere peace and calm in the solo. Despite the beautifully serene accompaniment by the solo clarinet! Claire Huangci consistently built up tension, up to the ascending ff scale, before the tutti resumes.
And also the next solo was gradually picking up momentum, went through a brief climax, after which it retained some tension and kept moving forward. Claire Huangci played with extremely careful articulation, highly differentiated in the dynamics, and very expressively, occasionally using octave shifts, occasional octave doublings in the descant in order to make specific parts of a melody or a phrase stand out, shine even more. And she kept the pace, the narrative flowing, along with the expression.
Beethoven’s dramatic cadenza was certainly a surprise to those who only know the original violin concerto: short, but powerful and virtuosic (especially in Claire Huangci’s performance!). Still, it ends in a masterful transition to the joyful theme of the Rondo: brilliant!
III. Rondo: Allegro
Claire Huangci presented the Rondo theme playfully, accompanied by lively gestures, especially with her arms. Throughout the concerto, her hands, arms, actually her body seemed relaxed, tension-free, even in virtuosic passages. At all times, she maintained her careful, detailed articulation.
Howard Griffiths and the orchestra formed a reliable, careful accompaniment. In details, however, the ensemble didn’t quite reach Claire’s level. While the articulation in general was light, some notes under a slur (e.g., crotched + quaver) stood out as being relatively broad, and occasionally, a staccato leaned towards portato.
Where Claire Huangci tended to accelerate, to move forward (without ever feeling pushy, though!), one occasionally got the feeling that the orchestra would have preferred a slightly slower pace (and there, the orchestra occasionally sounded a little coarse). However, the audience was focusing on the solo. There was so much life through her vivid dynamics and agogics, agile highlights, sudden accents in the piano part, for example, that dramatic crescendo in the left hand in bar 61, or later again in bar 236.
Both cadenzas—the short one after the second solo (bar 92), as well as the bigger one in bar 279 (truly virtuosic, brilliant!)—were exactly Beethoven’s. With some extra dynamics, life and drama, of course!
Thank you, Claire, for making Piano Concerto No.6 a valid naming: a fascinating and enriching performance. The frenetic applause was more than justified!
Encore — Gulda: Exercise No.6, Toccata, from “Play Piano Play”
The famous Austrian pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda (1930 – 2000) was equally “at home” in the classical, romantic, and late-romantic repertoire, as in Jazz. Already in her recital at ETH Zurich, on 2018-11-20, Claire Huangci had selected Exercise No.6 from Gulda’s “Play Piano Play“, a set of Jazz exercises, as second encore. She played the same in this concert. This Exercise No.6 has the title Toccata, and the annotation Presto possibile.
See my earlier review for a description of Claire’s recital performance of this piece. Albeit very short, it starts with a highly virtuosic beginning, then turns strongly jazzy in the second part. And it is enthralling from the first to the last note!
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) created a total of 106 complete (“official”) symphonies. Haydn composed the last 12 of these for or during his two trips to London (1791/1792 and 1794/1795).
The very last one, known as Symphony No.104 in D major, Hob.I/104, has the somewhat misleading nickname “London” (a name which it should share with the 11 others). Some people instead call it “Salomon”, after the German violinist, composer, conductor, and impresario Johann Peter Salomon (1745 – 1815). This man had arranged for Haydn’s tours to London. Also that second nickname is wrong, as this is one of three “London symphonies” that did not premiere in concerts organized by Salomon.
The Symphony No.104 features the usual four movements:
- Adagio – Allegro
- Menuetto & Trio: Allegro
- Finale: Spiritoso
The instrumentation here is identical to Beethoven’s, except for an additional flute: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings.
I. Adagio – Allegro
The Adagio part begins earnest, grumpy—or is it rebelling? There’s no time to contemplate, as already in bar 3, the music changes to melancholic—with earnest interjections, also a gradually more urging undertone and growing tension. Haydn’s last symphony is a masterpiece already in those initial 16 bars!
In the joyful Allegro, Howard Griffiths chose a fresh tempo, almost challenging the orchestra’s ability to maintain proper coordination, to keep the articulation light, the sound transparent. But his conducting and the orchestra’s performance remained alert, clear, and lively. The tempo didn’t feel pushed, the music never lost tension, and secondary voices received their proper attention.
A true fun moment happened at the end of the development part, where Haydn inserted a general rest with fermata prior to the recapitulation. After the repeat exposition, Howard Griffith seemed to hold that silent fermata for a little eternity, almost making one’s heartbeat stop for a moment! But it didn’t stop there! After recapitulation, Haydn inserts a two-bar general rest, and the coda starts in the finest pp.
Here, Howard Griffiths focus was on the musical gestures, the warmth of expression, the phrasing arches—not on a strict, let alone “military” performance. Both repeat signs in the first part were observed.
Throughout the movement, I liked the alert, often surprising sforzati, the excellent balance within the orchestra, especially between the wind instruments and the strings.
But even in the Andante, Haydn could not resist adding some surprises, such as the sudden ff in the following bars, and then, there is yet another surprising general rest. A bit later, the second violin has a lengthy semiquaver triplet passage—this was very carefully performed, with clear articulation and a characterful tone. This leads—of course—into a sudden fermata, and Howard Griffith extended that with another general rest: the music is hesitating—a mystery point! Both Haydn and the conductor deserve their share of recognition for successfully instilling life into this music!
III. Menuetto & Trio: Allegro
Here, Howard Griffiths offered a fresh performance, full of momentum. I’m sure orchestra and conductor enjoyed the unexpected sforzati, the syncopes and rhythmic shifts. It’s a really witty Menuetto, full of jokes, such as another surprise general rest: the music is suspended for a moment, as if the composer had run out of ideas—real fun! Needless to say that Griffiths’ interpretation was anything but academic or dry!
Albeit not much slower than the Menuetto, the Trio offered a distinct contrast, was warm-hearted, if not a little sentimental.
IV. Finale: Spiritoso
No, not a quiet musette, as one might guess from the drone in basses and horns: rather a fast movement, virtuosic, challenging in the coordination, especially for the violins. Howard Griffiths may have gone to the very limits of the orchestra. However, he knows exactly how much the orchestra manages without losing quality—the key is that the music lived, and with it Haydn’s never-ending jokes & surprises, the richness in his inventions: a classic symphonic masterpiece, no doubt!
This being a charity concert, and so close to Christmas, the concert could not end with the symphony. With the help of a soloist (Axel Marena), and motivated by Howard Griffiths’ very entertaining introduction, everybody, orchestra, singer and the audience sang the Christmas carol “Silent Night“.
And this was followed by the closing song, the popular “Hallelujah, hallelujah“ by Leonard Cohen (1934 – 2016), for which even Claire Huangci re-joined the stage at the piano (now on the far left of the stage). So, in the end, there was something in this concert for everybody!