2015-02-05 — Original posting
2016-08-02 — Brushed up for better readability
Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-02-03
Kraus: Incidental music for “Olympie”, VB 33 — Overtura
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, op.61
Beethoven: Symphony No.4 in B♭ major, op.60
I have written a review for this concert on Bachtrack.com, in German. This review is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. The German review is condensed from a larger set of notes that I collected from this concert. I wanted my non-German speaking readers to be able to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.
Orchestra and Conductor
For this concert, the Zürcher Kammerorchester (ZKO, Zurich Chamber Orchestra) has invited a young Swedish conductor: for Daniel Blendulf (*1981), this concert in the Tonhalle-Saal was the first appearance in Zurich and the first interaction with this orchestra. Originally a cellist, he has worked with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. In 2010 he completed his education as conductor. He has since been working with several Scandinavian orchestras, in concerts and as opera conductor. In this season now he is traveling the world as guest conductor with orchestras from New Zealand and Australia to Tenerife, and to Switzerland.
The orchestra played in a string configuration 6 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 2, with the two violin voices grouped on either side of the podium. The violas were placed in the rear, behind the second violins, the cellos in the middle, and the two basses on the left, behind the first violins. The opposing violin groups were the standard configuration in the classic era and for the 19th century. It’s what composers expected, and what they wrote their music for.
The star of this evening — for me at least — was the German violinist Isabelle Faust (*1972). She plays on a Stradivarius from 1704, named “La Belle au bois dormant” (German: Dornröschen).
The program notes included an interview with Reinmar Wagner. This has appeared in “Musik und Theater”. There, she explains the name for this violin: it had no association with a famous violinist in the past. Moreover, it appeared to be lost for 150 years, hence the name. It later used to be owned by the family of Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager, one of the people around Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg who attempted to kill Hitler on 1944-06-20. Boeselager was procuring the explosives. Boeselager managed to keep his participation in the plot secret. He survived the prosecution by the Nazis and died only recently. At that time, the violin had already been transferred to Switzerland. For the past 20 years now, Isabelle Faust has had the pleasure of working with this precious violin.
Joseph Martin Kraus (1756 – 1792): “Overtura” from the Incidental Music to the play “Olympie“, VB 33
The concert appropriately opened with an overture: the “Overtura” from the Incidental Music to the play “Olympie“, VB 33, by the German composer Joseph Martin Kraus (1756 – 1792). Kraus was an almost exact contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was born in Miltenberg in the Odenwald, Franconia. Kraus was often called the “Odenwälder Mozart”, even though he spent most of his productive life at the Royal Court in Sweden. He wrote this music in 1791, the year of Mozart’s death.
“Olympie” is a drama around a little known daughter of Alexander the Great. The overture depicts a tragic fate already in the first, pounding Adagio chords, in a dark, menacing mood. A tumultuous Allegro anticipates a tragic evolution, but also shows longing, pain, suffering. In the overture, this evolution ends abruptly, just to return to the initial, hesitant chords, then dying away in darkness and silence. It’s a short, but interesting composition: certainly comparable in its expressive strength with works by Mozart, by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, or by composers from the Mannheim School. Daniel Blendulf delivered an enthralling interpretation, as one could clearly tell from the long silence before the audience started to applaud.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Violin Concerto in D major, op.61
Contrary to the drama that the overture anticipates, the rest of the evening was filled with works by Ludwig van Beethoven that are filled with intimate serenity. The Violin Concerto in D major, op.61 started off with maybe the only, small mishap of the evening, in that the tempo in the Allegro ma non troppo was a bit on the slow side initially. Daniel Bendulf was able to correct that easily during the lyrical orchestral introduction, which was (appropriately) played with rather soft articulation. With the start of the solo part, the music received additional dynamic impulses.
Isabelle Faust instantly captured the audience. For one, there was her clear playing, using minimal (if any) vibrato. The orchestra supported this by also keeping the vibrato at an absolute minimum. Equally impressive was the projection of her instrument, and the lucidity of its sound. Some of this is not just due to the manufacturer of the instrument, but equally to the qualities of Beethoven’s prudent orchestral setting. In any case, it was fascinating to observe how the violin remained audible, kept a clear presence even through minimal, light movements of the bow.
One should keep in mind that playing without vibrato is not easier, even though it appears to involve less physical effort. Quite to the contrary: it is demanding, in that it prevents hiding even the smallest insecurities in intonation. On top of that, the clarity of the tone sharpens the listener’s ear. It enables the audience to hear and enjoy the lucidity of pure tonal intervals (vibrato easily obscures that purity). Isabelle Faust is a master of pure intonation.
Occasionally (very rarely) there may have been a note that wasn’t exactly perfect. But there, one should keep in mind what even a very famous violin teacher (I believe it was Carl Flesch) once stated: there is no such thing as violin playing with perfect intonation. There’s merely the option to correct instantly!
Beethoven did not provide violin cadenzas for this composition, but he gave in to the request of providing a piano transcription of the concerto (now known as op.61a) . There, he wrote a set of cadenzas: a very long one for the first movement, a shorter one at the end of the second movement, and two cadenzas for the last movement. These cadenzas are very pianistic and full of lengthy passagework, especially the one for the first movement. Nevertheless, the violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan (1915 – 2002) ventured transcribing as much as possible of these cadenzas for the violin. In the first movement he also includes the new material in the march-like central part. Schneiderhan also retained including the unusual timpani accompaniment from Beethoven’s piano cadenza.
Isabelle Faust opted for (almost) “pure Beethoven” by playing Schneiderhan’s cadenzas. But she decided to streamline the transcriptions by shortening Beethoven’s excessive scales etc.; the result was very convincing. To me, an incredibly touching moment in this serene first movement was the end of the cadenza and the return of the main theme with pizzicato accompaniment.
In the subsequent Larghetto, the soloist enchanted the audience with the most intimate, whispering tones, played almost sul ponticello, with minute, discreet movements of the bow, merely a hint, but always present, down to the softest ppp and below. One could almost sense the audience holding its breath: it felt as if this playing totally captured everybody. A cadenza leads over to the next movement. Most of the popular (violin) cadenzas are very short. But Beethoven adds a longer segment, initially taking up the dramatic, final chords of the Larghetto0. Here, Isabelle Faust only plays the first bars in Schneiderhan’s transcription, and she complements it with the second part of a cadenza from the second set by Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907). That was the only “non-Beethoven” part in her interpretation.
The final movement, a Rondo, felt dance-like, almost like with a smile. However, it is not devoid of gripping forte sections. In each ritornello, the main theme is repeated two octaves above the first instance, marked delicatamente by the composer. Faust played this as an echo (of sorts), very softly and modestly. She doesn’t need to push this in order to prove her abilities. The second intermezzo was a moody country dance with bassoon. The artists resisted exaggerating the “hurdy-gurdy effect” through the humming bass notes. Throughout the concerto, it was refreshing to see how the soloist lived and moved with the music also in orchestral parts, and she and the conductor “played into each other’s hands” in close musical partnership. I thoroughly enjoyed this enriching and moving concert experience!
Encore — Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Sarabande from the Partita for Solo Violin No.2, BWV 1004
The applause was almost frenetic, and most deserved, of course. Isabelle Faust rewarded the audience with the Sarabanda from the Partita for Solo Violin No.2 by J.S. Bach (BWV 1004). That’s a captivating, pensive piece, concentrated down the absolute minimum in musical means, delicate, timeless, almost modern-sounding: a gem that deserved being awarded with silence rather than more of the noisy, enthusiastic clapping.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Symphony No.4 in B♭ major, op.60
Adagio — Allegro vivace
Beethoven’s Symphony No.4 in B♭ major, op.60 starts with an Adagio introduction. This may have felt relatively “fast”, but it’s exactly what the composer intended. Beethovcen used alla breve (2/2) notation, meaning that one should not count crotchets, but two beats per bar. On top of that, he also specified a metronome number (1/4 = 66).
Daniel Blendulf convincingly showed that this pace does not stop the introduction from building up tension, urging expectations towards the refreshing, joyful Allegro vivace that follows. Also here (as in the remaining movements), Blendulf selected a tempo that was at least very close to Beethoven’s metronome marks. Almost throughout, these tempo selections appeared natural, easy, rarely (if ever) pushed. Blendulf is listening into the music in all its refinement, he cares for details and knows the score very well. If a listener initially felt that it was fast compared to common expectations: it is rewarding to be open for this approach!
The Adagio repeated the impression from the beginning of the symphony: it’s another alla breve with “unexpectedly fast” metronome annotation (84). It’s substantially faster than traditional, romantic interpretations. However, at least for me, the feeling of “fast” settled very quickly. Once that pace was accepted, the pulsating rhythm felt like a (youthfully) calm heartbeat, above which the wonderfully touching, melody was allowed to dominate the movement in blissful serenity. The conductor Bruno Walter (1876 – 1962) called this movement one of the most difficult in all of the Beethoven symphonies. Indeed, it is full of rhythmic intricacies, mastered almost effortlessly by the orchestra.
Menuetto & Allegro ma non troppo
The technical demands on the orchestra’s ability to coordinate grew in the Menuetto (more of a Scherzo, actually). Even more so in the last movement, an Allegro ma non troppo. The composer must have thought of a joke when writing “ma non troppo“! At the specified metronome rate (1/2 = 80), this movement with its extended, very rapid semiquaver passages can easily serve as a virtuosic showpiece. The woodwinds operate at the limits of what is technically and humanly feasible. But even in the most virtuosic passages one never had the impression of cold, polished perfection, or of “pure, high-speed racing sports”. It rather felt like harmonious, playful ensemble playing which was a joy to watch and listen to.
The orchestra deserves recognition for this excellent, refreshing performance. And Daniel Bendulf is a name worth remembering: I hope we’ll have many more occasions to see him perform here in Zurich!
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.
For the works in this concert I have written separate CD reviews with more in-depth coverage of the composition:
- Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D, op.61 (this includes Isabelle Faust’s recording with Claudio Abbado, in a comparison with more than 20 recordings)
- Beethoven: Symphony No.4 in B♭, op.60 (a comparison of more than 10 recordings)