Julia Fischer & Oliver Schnyder
Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields

Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-04-21

4-star rating

2015-05-10 — Original posting
2015-07-05 — Added information on music scores
2016-08-04 — Brushed up for better readability

Table of Contents


This concert featured my first live encounter with the Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields. The ensemble was founded by Sir Neville Marriner (1924 – 2016) in 1959. This orchestra is frequently featured in my LP collection: on 42 (out of around 2000) LPs, to be accurate, with music between baroque and classics, with a few romantic excursions. Almost all of these are under the direction of Sir Neville Marriner. For me and many others, back in the LP days, this ensemble (along with I Musici di Roma) fulfilled much of the role now occupied by historically informed (HIP) formations, especially in performing baroque music.

Historically Informed?

To my knowledge neither of these two formations ever ventured playing on period instruments (using baroque bows, etc.). That field was pioneered by people such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his Concentus musicus Wien. Harnoncourt founded the Concentus in 1953, though they started recording in 1962 only. I guess I wasn’t the only one who took a while to get used to the sound of true period performances at that time. These performances initially sounded rather academic and dry to the ear trained in the romantic performance tradition.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields never “progressed into true HIP practice”. The same could be said about I Musici di Roma. They continued to serve a market once dominated by “full-fledged romantic performers” such as Jochum, von Karajan, Klemperer, and numerous others. There was a respectable audience that turned away from such “performance monsters”, starting to enjoy the lighter, more flexible sound of smaller (chamber) orchestras. But that audience wasn’t ready (yet) for true historically informed playing.

On the other hand, this reservation towards the “strict / fanatic HIP camp” allowed the Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields to expand their repertoire towards music of the 20th century. Last month’s concert was a perfect example for this, featuring both classical and late romantic compositions. In this combination, overall, classical or older period instruments would have been an inappropriate choice anyway.

The Concert

The three pieces in the program of this concert can all be called youthful, under various aspects: Haydn’s violin concerto is light-hearted and delightful, Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s double concerto is impetuous (as many other works of that period), while Arnold Schönberg’s composition is lyrical, infatuated and dreamy.

Haydn: Violin Concerto in G major

Julia Fischer (© Decca / Felix Broede)
Julia Fischer (© Decca / Felix Broede)

Joseph Haydn (1732 — 1809) probably wrote his Violin Concerto in G major between 1760 and 1769, merely a few years after Bach’s and Handel’s death. Consequently, the composition still breathes the spirit of the baroque musical and formal language. The Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields, a well-balanced body of just below 20 string instruments, supported by a harpsichord, was a very appropriate orchestra for this concerto (for once ignoring the question of historical vs. modern instruments).

The Performance

Haydn’s concerto also features woodwind voices. But these are mostly colla parte with the strings, and the subsequent compositions are for strings only, hence the omission of the woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon) was certainly acceptable. I found the orchestra convincing, with its well-equilibrated, warm string sound; the articulation was soft, avoiding any roughness.

Julia Fischer (*1983) was an excellent fit to this orchestra. Her playing also featured soft articulation, was definitely more lyrical than what one might expect from historically informed late baroque / early classical playing. The closest association I had was (not inappropriately) with Rococo music. The full, balanced sound of Julia Fischer’s instrument (a Guadagnini from 1742) effortlessly projected above the orchestral accompaniment. There never appeared to be any need for the soloist to enforce the tone, use extra bow, etc.: untroubled playing, and a really enjoyable experience for the listener.

My only reservation in the first movement (Allegro) is about the sudden tempo alterations in the solo part, in bars 28ff. and 92ff. (and to a lesser degree also in bars 61ff.). These appeared unmotivated, and I don’t see any justification for them in the score. The slow movement — an Adagio — was wonderfully delicate, subtle, enriched by the silvery tone of the harpsichord. I felt reminded of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice“. The last movement (Allegro molto) is an utterly joyful, very virtuosic finale. It was played very fast, at the limits of what is technically feasible. But it retained clean, agile articulation, even though the tempo hardly allowed for differentiation in phrasing and articulation. At least, such differentiation was hardly perceptible in the audience.

My personal preference would have been a more baroque interpretation. But I still really enjoyed this performance, which I think proved a viable alternative to historically informed interpretations.

Mendelssohn: Double Concerto in D minor for piano, violin, and strings, MWV O4

Oliver Schnyder (source: oliverschnyder.com; © Fotostudio Wolf)
Oliver Schnyder (source: oliverschnyder.com; © Fotostudio Wolf)

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 — 1847) wrote his Double Concerto in D minor for piano, violin, and strings (MWV O4) when he was 14 years old, very much in the style of his early string symphonies. As a composition it is fairly simple in melodic content and structure, but almost boiling over from playfulness and virtuosity, full of witty inventions. Just think of the operatic recitativo inserts in the first movement! Here, Julia Fischer was joined by the Swiss pianist Oliver Schnyder (*1973) on a modern Steinway, which unfortunately blocked the view to a fair part of the orchestra. However, this turned out to be a negligible issue: the focus in this composition is entirely on the two soloists. After all, the composer write the piano part “into his own hands”, the orchestra is really merely accompaniment.

One might argue that a historical piano, such as an early grand piano by Erard, would have been more appropriate for this composition. It would have made it much easier to maintain the acoustic balance between the piano, the solo violin and the orchestra. On the other hand, one should keep in mind that the concerto was written for a much, much smaller venue, and likely also a smaller orchestra. I’m thinking of the private concert hall in Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s last apartment in Leipzig (now a museum open to visitors). The Tonhalle has around 1500 seats. A modern Steinway provides the volume that allows all listeners in such a hall to enjoy the composition. Provided the pianist does not abuse the opportunity of the big instrument to turn the composition into a late romantic monster. Luckily, this did not happen in that concert!

Mendelssohn Bartholdy, 1821, by Carl Joseph Begas
Mendelssohn Bartholdy, 1821, by Carl Joseph Begas

The Performance

It was pure joy to watch the two soloists play their parts loaded with (typical Mendelssohnian) rapid figurations. One could observe and hear how soloists and orchestra played in perfect coordination. I was particularly fascinated by Oliver Schnyder’s light, agile touch, which rarely ever was in danger of covering the violin or the orchestra, despite the fully open lid. The rare exception may have been in the closing octave passages in the rapid movements. The piano remained transparent and light at all times. Also this concerto was not free of tempo alterations. Several times, when the piano entered with virtuosic semiquaver passagework, Oliver Schnyder was dashing forward with youthful verve, engagement and enthusiasm. In this case, this happened at a scale that I would still call natural. Just as one would have accepted it with a forgiving smile (and definitely without any discomfort) from the composer.

The slow movement (Adagio) is an intimate, wonderfully lyrical, serene, vocal dialog. The young Mendelssohn could of course not resist adding rapid passagework in the piano part for this movement, too. But overall, the movement remains a kind of a song without words, with lots of tenderness. Melodically, it is the clear culmination of this composition. The firework of virtuosity was sparkling again all over the final movement. It appeared to start at the limits of what is technically feasible. Yet, the soloists sometimes pushed the tempo even further. Only the lyrical passages in this movement allowed the listener to re-gain some breath.

Encore — Saint-Saëns: Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor

The overall impression remained one of an extremely virtuosic interpretation. It exposed the value of this rarely heard (and probably underrated) work by the young Mendelssohn. Luckily, it did not try to transform the concerto into a heavy-weight composition. The applause was frenetic and fully justified. The soloists awarded it with the final movement from the Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921). That’s an excellent fit to Mendelssohn’s double concerto both in tonality, as well as in its virtuosic, light and playful character. A true delight also this!

Schönberg: String Sextet “Verklärte Nacht”, op.4

At a first glance, the one composition after the intermission appeared to be a huge jump forward. We heard the orchestral version of the String Sextet “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), op.4, which Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951) composed in 1899, at the age of 24. But of course, the time jump isn’t much bigger than between the preceding two concerti that evening. Also the jump in style wasn’t dramatic. In fact, the sextet is an entirely tonal and highly (late) romantic composition, a very poetical and atmospheric closure of the evening.

A Scandalous Piece?

It is hard to imagine now how this composition could possibly have been the cause for such a major scandal in 1902, on the occasion of its world premiere. For the most part, though, this was not due to the music, but caused by the underlying “program”: for one, the fact that there was a “program” to this music in first place. On top of that, the somewhat turgid, prosy poem that formed this program. One may attribute this poem to the Zeitgeist. In any case, this composition in a single movement isn’t “program music” in the traditional, 19th century sense. It is possible for today’s audiences to enjoy this music also without that “program”, as a sequence of mood pictures. A masterful interpretation such as the one in this concert even enhanced this listening enjoyment.

As a listener, one could totally immerse in this music, indulge in the (likely not intended) allusions to Wagner, Mahler, Sibelius and other late romantic composers. Nothing in this moody, harmonious interpretation let the listener suspect how accurate and detailed, meticulous the composer was in writing down this work. He numbered every bar, barely leaving any single bar without dynamic or articulatory annotation. A “control freak” in the true sense of the word! The interpretation to me was heartfelt, moody, expressive, truly romantic, but never really overblown or turgid.

For this composition, Julia Fischer placed herself at the first desk, directing the orchestra discretely, but concisely. In the program, she was listed as soloist as well as conductor. In the two concertos she appeared to leave the control largely in the hands of the concert master. That’s an impression that is likely deceptive, as the evening was a clear evidence of thorough, painstaking preparation throughout.

Addendum 1

For the Haydn and Mendelssohn concerti, I have used scores from IMSLP.org; in the case of Schönberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” I’m using a score from Universal Edition (6.7″ x 9.5″ / 17 x 24 cm, 36 pp.) —Find score on amazon.com (#ad) —

Addendum 2

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create 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.

Addendum 3

In case you don’t know the works featured in this concert, I have watched around in YouTube and located samples of these compositions. These are not to be compared with the performances in the above concert, but rather alternative views:

First, Haydn’s Violin Concerto in G major, in a more historically informed interpretation, by Stefano Montanari, accompanied by the Accademia Bizantina under the direction of Ottavio Dantone:

For Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy‘s Double Concerto for Violin and Piano in D minor, YouTube featured a performance by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich (with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra) that was well worth listening — sadly, these videos are no longer available.

Finally, you will find a fair number of interpretations of Arnold Schönberg‘s String Sextet “Verklärte Nacht”, op.4 — including orchestral versions directed by Herbert von Karajan, Pierre Boulez, Simon Rattle and others. I’m not a fan of recordings with big orchestra, but at the other end of the spectrum, you will also find true sextet versions, such as the one with the Artemis Quartet, complemented by Thomas Kakuska & Valentin Erben from Alban Berg Quartet: these offer more transparency and clarity than orchestral versions:

Interpretations with chamber orchestra (such as the one in this concert) may be slightly inferior in clarity, detail and transparency, but on the other hand, I find them richer and more expressive. Here’s one version by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (played entirely by heart!), which I quite like:

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