Steven Isserlis, Mario Venzago / Bern Symphony Orchestra
Strauss / Schumann / Brahms
Kultur-Casino Bern, 2017-05-18
This was my second concert in Bern, and the first one in its main concert venue, the Kultur Casino (yes, there is indeed a Casino in the same building, and restaurants, etc.). And it will probably be the only concert for a while, as—just as in Basel and Zurich—the venue will be closed for (two) years, for the purpose of renovations. The main (big) hall is a very nice, bright/friendly concert hall with good acoustics and around 1276 seats (576 seats in the parquet, 700 seats—almost all with excellent view —on the four galleries). Interestingly, just as in the big hall in the Bern Conservatory, the organ hides behind a grid at the far end of the hall, behind the stage and the stage gallery. See below for pictures.
Bern Symphony Orchestra
The Bern Symphony Orchestra was founded 1877. It also serves as orchestra for the Bern opera house, the Stadtthater Bern. In its 140 years of history, the orchestra has not only served numerous, famous guest conductors, but has also had well-known artists as principal conductor, e.g.:
- 1962 – 1967: Paul Kletzki (1900 – 1973)
- 1967 – 1977: Charles Dutoit (*1936)
- 1979 – 1984: Gustav Kuhn (*1945)
- 1984 – 1990: Peter Maag (1919 – 2001)
- 1990 – 2004: Dmitri Kitajenko (*1940)
- 2005 – 2011: Andrey Boreyko (*1957)
- 2011 – today: Mario Venzago (*1948)
See Wikipedia for additional information.
Mario Venzago is Swiss by nationality—he has German and Italian ancestors. In his career, he das held the position of principal conductor or musical director in Winterthur, Heidelberg, Frankfurt, Graz, Basel, Gothenburg, and with the Basque Euskadi National Orchestra. As shown in the table above, he is holding the position of principal conductor with the Bern Symphony Orchestra since 2011. For additional information see Wikipedia.
I don’t need to introduce the British cellist Steven Isserlis (*1958): I have written about this artist on the occasion of two concerts (Zurich, 2016-02-02, and Zurich, 2016-12-14), as well as in CD reviews.
This was the season’s 13th symphonic subscription concert of the orchestra—it ran under the title Eine Art «Best of» (A kind of «Best of»). The program notes gave no explanation on that motto, so I can only guess: it could have meant the soloist (certainly a “best of”!). Perhaps it was referring to the compositions in the program? Each of the works in the concert is a masterwork in its genre, but they are a “best of” is debatable.
The concert opened with “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche” (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks), op.28 by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949). Strauss completed this fourth of his “tone poems” (Tondichtungen) in 1895. It is one of Strauss’ most popular compositions. I have written about this in a review on an earlier concert at the Tonhalle Zurich, on 2016-08-31.
With Richard Strauss’ composition “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche“, Venzago selected a work that to me is a burlesque. The question is: did the performance match the burlesque-like character of the piece? Did it match the composer’s intent? In the form presented, was this a “best of”? To me, this piece is more than mere fun / jokes / pranks, but somehow, it includes irony, and a “lightness of the absurd”.
Here, already the starting pace was somewhat broad, and I did not find much lightness in the interpretation. In general, I found the musical flow not structured enough. In my opinion , it lacked dynamic contrasts—and the courage to play pianissimo. There should have been more play with agogics and rubato, be it only some short ritenuti ahead of peak notes in phrases. Changes in tempo often were a bit sluggish and tended to degrade the coordination. It’s hard to tell whether that was caused by lack of clarity in the conductor’s gestures, or rather by limitations within the orchestra. Sure, the orchestra is not a highly polished and tuned racing machine, and Mario Venzago did not take this composition as an orchestral showpiece: he focused on shaping the music, the phrases, rather than on virtuosity and drive. I suspect that his view on the composition is more sentimental than mine.
I should state, though, that Strauss’ composition is very demanding on the orchestra, particularly for the wind instruments: horns and clarinet (but also other in the wind section) are extremely exposed, and they all managed fairly well. Also the violin solo is extremely challenging in the intonation, especially where it reaches out into the highest positions. Overall, I found the interpretation to be somewhat (too) heavy-weighted, maybe also “loud” at times. Still, it was good entertainment, and many things worked out really well, such as the fast gallop at  (2/4 time), which the composer annotated “leichtfertig” (light-minded).
Schumann: Cello concerto in A minor, op.129
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote his Cello Concerto in A minor, op.129 in 1850, but sadly he never heard it performed on the cello. However, he also created a version for violin, which I heard performed in a concert in Zurich on 2017-03-26. the review for that concert contains additional information about the composition. I have also written a short blog post with a comparison of three CD recordings of the version for cello and orchestra.
The three movements of the concerto are as follows:
- Nicht zu schnell (not too fast)
- Langsam (slowly)
- Sehr lebhaft (very lively)
Performance-wise, the core piece of the evening was definitely Schumann’s cello concerto, because of the soloist, Steven Isserlis—definitely a “best of” on his instrument.
I. Nicht zu schnell
Naturally, Steven Isserlis’ solo attracted most of the attention. The solo part started in bar #5 already—and captured the listener’s mind with its intensely singing tone. The cello was projecting very well, even though the articulation was mellow, the tone not pushed at all. Over large stretches, the orchestra was limited to its role as accompaniment. Very often, if not mostly, the impulses seemed to come from the soloist. Isserlis did of course listen to the orchestra, periodically seeking eye contact with the concertmaster. Occasionally, he did adjust his tempo to the orchestra—however, whenever he wanted to create additional momentum, he could not resist “conducting” through vehement movements with his head. At the other end: in terms of subtlety, the orchestra’s playing was a far cry from that of the soloist.
The second movement (Langsam, i.e., slow) is music of supernatural, heavenly beauty—a window into another world. That’s mostly in the solo part. Sadly, the accompaniment was often somewhat too loud, at times almost coarse, lacking detail and refinement. If pp and ppp fail, maybe the strings should have been reduced in number for this movement?
III. Sehr lebhaft
In the last movement (“very lively”), the soloist’s playing—full of momentum, almost dancing, with very little vibrato—compensated for any lack of subtlety in the orchestra. There are, however, also emotional passages, in which Isserlis broke out into vehement, impulsive eruptions. On the other hand, the score includes a short cadenza, which Isserlis turned into a resting pole. From there, the orchestra picked up momentum again—so much that in the end it was almost storming through the final bars (too much, maybe?), while the soloist was parading up into the area of “eternal snow” on his fingerboard and beyond.
In reward for the lasting applause, Isserlis not only let his Stradivarius take a bow, too, but he offered an encore. He chose a solo version of “El cant dels ocells“ (“The Song of the Birds”) by Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973), who apparently played this piece at the beginning of each recital after he moved into exile in 1939. It’s a traditional Catalan Christmas song and lullaby. The contrast to the final bars of the preceding concerto could not have been any bigger: that encore is such a marvelous, silent, meditative melody—a call from eternity, a bird call from far away… wonderful!
Brahms: Symphony No.1 in C minor, op.68
It took Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) a full 15 years between 1862 and 1877—from the first sketches, via score fragments for piano, up to the last revisions—to complete his first symphony. The link above (Wikipedia) gives all necessary information. The symphony now features four movements with the following annotations:
- Un poco sostenuto – Allegro – Meno allegro
- Andante sostenuto
- Un poco allegretto e grazioso
- Adagio – Più andante – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio – Più allegro
With this piece after the intermission, the focus returned onto the conductor and his orchestra:
I. Un poco sostenuto – Allegro – Meno allegro
Mario Venzago launched the Un poco sostenuto (a little restrained) at the beginning of the symphony at a fluent pace, without excessive pathos or pomp. And he started building up tension, an inner unrest, up to the fortissimo. After that first climax, he again released the tension up to the Allegro section. In that fast part, the string section got a chance to show their qualities: they are much more prominent here than in the Strauss piece. Sure, they are not as homogeneous and don’t have the silky tone of international top-class orchestras. However, I found the coordination and articulation to be very good. Unfortunately, the exposition was not repeated.
Mario Venzago did also resort to a moderate rubato, but in general, he shapes the big gestures, the arches, rather than details in agogics and articulation. Occasionally, the orchestra was louder than given by the score; some additional dynamic differentiation would have been beneficial, overall.
II. Andante sostenuto
Here, the conductor was more detailed in the agogics, allowing the solos in the wind section to bloom. Yet, also here, I wished for additional subtlety, for some intimacy. There were pp annotations that sounded rather like mf, and later in the movement, the music felt rather metric—e.g., in the accompaniment to the violin solo.
III. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
This started at a good, but demanding pace. Yet again, I wished for additional differentiation, more structuring. The middle part was repeated. Its final bars (all ff) feature three syncopes, which I found to be too superficial: I think these should be allowed to be slightly crude, given the Scherzo-like nature of the movement. Venzago ended this movement with a fermata (not found in the score), then, without interruption, he went on to the slow introduction to the Finale:
IV. Adagio – Più andante – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio – Più allegro
The first part of the last movement went rather well, the coordination was excellent through the accelerating (stringendo) pizzicato segments. Also, the famous horn theme / call pleased everybody with its warm, full and smooth sound. That originates from Brahms’ birthday greeting to his friend Clara Schumann, to which he originally used the words “Hoch auf’m Berg, tief im Tal grüß ich dich viel tausend mal!” (High up on the mountain, deep in the valley I’m greeting you many thousand times!).
Venzago tackled the Allegro part with lots of momentum, relentlessly pushed forward, and when Brahms wrote Accelerando, the acceleration as instant and resolute. Some segments towards the end featured almost military articulation—though, when the horn theme reappeared, the conductor did not resist indulging in the melody. Overall, however, I felt that the movement was too much seeking the effect, trying to be spectacular: I missed some of the inherent profundity (if not melancholy) that people typically associate with Northern Germans.
After several rounds of applause, Venzago announced an encore, which turned out to be by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) as well: from the orchestral version of the Hungarian Dances, WoO 1, the Dance No.1 in G minor, Allegro molto. This felt like a typical “last dance”, played with some exaggeration. But one should not be too critical with encores: take them as bedtime treats…
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review