Anastasia Kobekina, Sebastian Manz, Gábor Takács-Nagy / CHAARTS
Dvořák / Gulda
Alte Kirche, Boswil, 2018-07-03
2018-07-12 — Original posting
The Künstlerhaus (Artists’ House) and the Alte Kirche (old Church) Boswil look back to a long history. In medieval times, the place was the location of a Fluchtburg (refuge fortress). At some point, a roman church was added. From 1483 on, the place belonged to the Abbey of Muri. 1664, the abbey added a baroque church, presumably using parts of the predecessor building. The church retains roman style elements. 1757 saw the addition of the parsonage. By 1890, a bigger church was available in the village of Boswil. The old church now served as workshop for a glass painter.
1953 saw the creation of a foundation (with the support of very notable musicians, writers and actors) with the goal to preserve the church and the parsonage. From then on, church and parsonage—now “Künstlerheim” (home for artists)—served as a pension for artists in need, and for old artists. At the same time, concerts, courses and master classes were held in the church. These concerts in the Alte Kirche (for audiences up to around 300) were a kind of secret tip in the Swiss music community.
1991, the last of the pensioners in the Künstlerheim died, the foundation now had new goals, a new purpose: the parsonage and the foundation were renamed “Künstlerhaus” and now turned into a cultural center, initially for all types of arts (classical music, Jazz, literature, sculpting / painting, dance, theater). Since 2006, the focus is on music exclusively, with concerts, master classes, festivals, such as the Boswiler Sommer.
Boswiler Sommer 2018
I have lived in Switzerland for most of my life—but as far as I can remember, in all these years, I only attended two concerts so far: one about 35 years ago, with the late Frans Brüggen (1934 – 2014), one in 2009, with Khatia Buniatishvili (*1987) and Walter Delahunt (*1956). Every time I visited this venue, it looked different. 35 years ago, the church was a relatively simple concert venue, not very stylish / polished. In 2009, renovations had obviously taken place, turning the church into a decent concert venue. Now, I saw that a generous foyer had been added on one side of the church, with buffet, tables, etc.
This year’s Boswiler Sommer ran under the title Sans Souci (referring to the famous castle of Sanssouci in Potsdam, but also the meaning of the name, “without worries”). The title was given the subtitle “Erwachen heiterer Gefühle bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande”, referring to Beethoven’s symphony No.6, where the first movement bears the annotation “Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande” (Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside). The festival ran between June 30th and July 8th and included 12 concerts (the last one with Beethoven’s 6th).
Each of the concerts in the Boswiler Sommer 2018 was given its own title / theme / motto. The concert on July 3rd ran under the title “Wolkenlos” (cloudless, i.e., blue sky), featuring two key works: Dvořák’s Serenade for Wind Instruments, Cello and Double Bass in D minor, op.44, and Friedrich Gulda’s Concerto for Cello and Wind Instruments. the program further announced an “Auftakt für Blasorchester, alpenländisch inspiriert” (“prelude” for wind orchestra, inspired by Alpine music). So, with the exception of a cello, two double basses, and percussion, the program only involved wind instruments. The “Prélude” ended up split between a short, real prelude (concert opening) and an intermezzo, the prelude to the second half of the event, after the intermission.
Inspired by what Claudio Abbado (1933 – 2014) created with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, 2010, former members of the Mahler-Chamber Orchestra founded CHAARTS (Chamber Artists), an ensemble of high-profile musicians, either members of prominent chamber music formations (quartets, etc.) of top class orchestras. The ensemble resides in Switzerland, but has a very active international concert schedule with prominent soloists. For the prelude and the intermezzo, CHAARTS was led by one of its members, the first clarinetist, Sebastian Manz (*1986, see also Wikipedia).
For Dvořák’s serenade and Gulda’s cello concerto, the ensemble worked with a conductor: Gábor Takács-Nagy (*1956, see also Wikipedia). Takács-Nagy is one of the most prominent Hungarian musicians, founder of the famous Takács Quartet, in which he played the first violin between 1975 and 1993. In 2002, Gábor Takács-Nagy turned to conducting and has since pursued an active and successful international career as conductor and music director.
Soloist: Anastasia Kobekina
It was the cellist Anastasia Kobekina (*1994, Ekaterinburg) who pointed me to her participation in this concert. My first encounter with Anastasia was in a concert in Uster, on 2018-05-17. In follow-up contacts after that concert (“in the province”, where I live), Anastasia told me about her concert in Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag, on 2018-07-02, as well as the concert in Boswil, on the following day. I have included a very short excerpt from Anastasia’s biography in my Uster concert report and won’t repeat this here. Her impressive achievements in these two concerts speak for themselves—I was very curious to hear her play Friedrich Gulda’s cello concerto!
The pieces in the prelude, as well as those in the intermezzo were all freely arranged by Sebastian Manz for the CHAARTS wind orchestra formation in this concert. One of the titles (prelude) deviated from the printed program and was announced only after the piece. The intermezzo then featured three out of four compositions listed in the program leaflet. In this review, I will not discuss those pieces (nor specifics of their arrangement) in detail, other than mentioning the title and the original composer, as available.
All photos without copyright (©) note are my own (© Rolf Kyburz), all rights reserved.
The program started without conductor—and very obviously not with Antonin Dvořák’s wind serenade. Rather, it was the first movement from the “Petit Quatuor pour saxophones” (little quartet for saxophones) by the French neoclassicist composer Jean Françaix (1912 – 1997)—a composition from 1935. Sebastian Manz had arranged this for a wind ensemble of flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone, three horns, tuba, and drums.
It’s a short, fascinating piece, full of parody, wit, alluding to folk music, with joking, sudden accents—a real fun piece, and—needless to say—in an excellent, enthralling performance: the perfect opening for such a concert!
Antonin Dvořák (1841 – 1904) wrote his Serenade for Wind Instruments, Cello and Double Bass in D minor, op.44, B.77, in 1878. It’s truly Slavonic music, written for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons (contrabassoon ad lib.), three horns, cello and double bass. the composition features the following movements:
- Moderato, quasi marcia
- Tempo di minuetto
- Andante con moto
- Finale: Allegro molto
Even though so far, I have never heard this music in concert, I’m familiar with it for over 45 years. One of the first LPs in my collection features Dvořák’s two serenades, this Serenade in D minor, and the String Serenade in E major, op.22.
Here, the two flautists, the tubist, and the percussionist were pausing. In their place, two additional instruments, cello and double bass, were joining the group: next to the CHAARTS double bassist sat Anastasia Kobekina on a little podium (all other musicians played standing, throughout the concert). And in the center of the semi-circle, Gábor Takács-Nagy conducted the ensemble with his bare hands: a radiant, vivid and open personality—fascinating, a joy to watch!
I. Moderato, quasi marcia
With this, the audience could not only enjoy the excellent, flawless performance of all the musicians, but also now the full sound, supported and carried by the low string instruments—and at the same time the excellent acoustics that provided the balance, supported all instruments equally, over the entire range. I was amazed to hear how well a single double bass and a cello could counter-balance a body of wind instruments that is typically identical to what large symphony orchestras are offering!
But it wasn’t just the fun of the music—very obviously, joy and fun were also driving all the musicians. A lively tempo, a performance with vivid dynamics—excellent!
II. Tempo di minuetto
The Minuetto lived from the flourishing cantilenas in the oboes and the clarinets. It was fascinating to see how Takács-Nagy left room for individual interpretations in the solos, while ensuring that the tempo, the tension never dropped. And I liked the gently swaying agogics. It was very much a living performance, not one that was polished to perfection.
The Presto middle part, a Trio was very fluent and virtuosic—enthralling throughout. The playfulness, the joy in the ensemble were obvious. Prior to returning to the Tempo di minuetto, Takács-Nagy inserted a rest of a few seconds: it seemed that everybody’s mind needed to cool down first, before reestablishing the swaying rhythm of the minuet.
III. Andante con moto
What a wonderful Notturno, with its beautiful, serene melodies above the calm, placid bass foundation and the syncopated horn accompaniment. The latter seemed to keep the rhythm afloat, providing constant inner tension throughout the movement. I noted the careful, very differentiated articulation, the detailed, diligent dynamics, and the harmonious transitions. Towards the end, also the cello gets a nice melody line—and again it was astounding, how well Anastasia Kobekina effortlessly managed to make her beautifully singing instrument heard among all the wind instruments. One of Dvořák’s most beautiful pieces ever. The few, momentary articulation issues in the horns could not affect the strong, warm impression that this movement made!
IV. Finale: Allegro molto
A very virtuosic movement, relentless, full of drive, forward-leaning, as if it was played while sitting on the very edge of a chair (wrong picture, I know!). However, the drive was inside the music in the fast segments—it never felt pushed. At the same time, the piece is not just fast: the composer inserted very nice and almost peaceful, folk music-like segment, Meno mosso, then even slowing down (in tempo molto tranquillo). A short recap of the first movement (Moderato, quasi tempo di marcia) leads back to the Allegro molto—a brilliant ending for a masterpiece! My notes state “Ultra-fun!”—what more is there to say?
The concert was not sold out—but all the more, the applause was frenetic!
Intermezzo — “Alpenländisch”
For the Intermezzo after the intermission, the flutes and the tuba returned into the semi-circle—actually a double-semi-circle, with the woodwinds (flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two clarinets) on the inside (the leader and arranger, Sebastian Manz, on the right end), the brass instruments—two trumpets, trombone, tuba, 3 French horns (no cello or double bass)—in the outer (semi-)circle. And the percussionist at the far right.
The music in the intermezzo consisted of three pieces, all arranged by Sebastian Manz:
Bechet: “Petite Fleur”
“Petite Fleur” is an international hit, written 1952 by Sidney Bechet (1897 – 1959). Here, the solo was alternating between clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and even the tuba, with cadenzas on clarinet and trumpets. A very atmospheric piece! Very, very far from Dvořák’s serenade, but at least there was the intermission between the two. And: the transition to Gulda’s music is a giant step anyway!
The traditional Polka “Klarinettenmuckl” is an all-too famous / popular piece of Alpine (Austrian / German) folk music, with clapping in the audience, etc. (with drums, but without flute, oboes, bassoons). That’s not my pair of shoes usually—however, it was played really well (no surprise, with these artists). Plus, Gulda’s cello concerto definitely has excursions into such music as well, besides Jazz and Pop/Rock elements. So, this served as a legitimate transition / link to the concerto that was to follow. The musicians played with all the fun that goes along with this music, such as (besides the clapping) extended glissando, excessive ritardando, even intermittent yodeling… and caricature, gross exaggerations, going hog-wild…
The last piece in the intermezzo was—not “Boswil, Boswil”, but really “New York, New York”, composed by John Harold Kander (*1927) for Martin Scorsese’s film “New York, New York” from 1977. It’s one of the most famous tunes in American Cinema history. Upon arranging it, Sebastian Manz changed the name, in order to make it fit the “Alpine theme” of the evening. He even added a short allusion to “Jingle bells”… The sheer volume of this music almost seemed to lift the roof off the church…
Rating: ★★★ (for the fun of it!)
Gulda: Concerto for Cello and Wind Instruments
Finally, we returned to “serious music”—or not so serious? The pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda (1930 – 2000) wrote his Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra in 1980. Gulda’s biography on Wikipedia quotes a 2011 article from the Seattle Times: “as moving as it is lighthearted“, in five movements “involving jazz, a minuet, rock, a smidgen of polka, a march and a cadenza with two spots where a star cellist must improvise.” The five movements are as follows:
- Finale alla marcia
There is a video recording of a live performance with Heinrich Schiff at the cello, and with Friedrich Gulda conducting—see the bottom of this posting.
A Personal Note
Let me add a personal note here. Genuinely both a classical, as well as a Jazz musician, Gulda very often wandered between the genres. However, he also wanted to break out of the traditional, classical concert scheme. So, he deliberated—even indulged—provoking the audience. He did that by arbitrarily (if not systematically) sabotaging traditional concert schemes through unusual programming (mixing Jazz and classical music). And he often also changed his mind about the pieces he would play, even during a concert.
I have witnessed a concert that he gave in Rapperswil with his partner, singer Ursula Anders (*1938). This was around 1980, the time when he wrote this concerto. He did not even care announcing a program. With the exception of a short excerpt from a Beethoven sonata, the evening was essentially an improvisation. In this moody concert, he reflected about love, about his life, and life in general. And he didn’t shy away from performing an orgasm on the piano. Not for real, of course, but it was very clear what was meant. Provocation…
For this concerto, the full staff was required in the orchestra, including a second double bass, the percussionist, and an acoustic guitar. As a composition, the concerto does have its issues: the volume of the wind orchestra makes it to keep track of the sound of the cello—and the guitar. So, guitar and cello were amplified through microphones and speakers.
Also here, this caused problems: in the overture, the volume for the cello amplification was too low (either the knob had been accidentally mis-adjusted, or the presence of the audience changed the balance relative to what it was during the rehearsals). So, initially, the cello was sometimes hard to hear. It took the guitarist a while to realize that he needed to turn up the volume for the cello.
The Overture is a Pop/Rock segment (typical for Gulda to start with a shock effect for audiences expecting a “classical” concerto!). The theme is somewhat trivial (not very exciting, at best) and when it returns a second, third, fourth time (there are three Pop segments with two instances each), it already sounds too known. Upon the last two recurrences, it definitely turns into an earworm. At least, that’s just the head of the theme, the rest is more rhythmic than melodic.
Interspersed between these three Pop-segments, there are two lyrical, where the scenery suddenly changes to a (overly) lovely alpine idyl: one can picture blue sky, kettle grazing, the herdsmen yodeling—a little too striking, as a contrast, maybe. One can guess it: this movement is not my favorite piece of music…
However, the performance! Right from the first note, Anastasia Kobekina put all her energy, her musicality, her youthful drive into her solo! After all, she is from a generation that lives with such music. In my concert notes, I wrote that to me, this had more credibility than Schiff/Gulda’s reference recording. It reconciled me with the trivialities in this movement. Certainly, Gábor Takács-Nagy’s conducting lacked Gulda’s sarcasm and mockery (of which I can easily / rapidly get enough!).
The only snag here was in the initial balance issues, which the guitarist corrected in the course of the movement.
At least in the beginning, this is an idyl that is entirely different from the two segments in the preceding movement: a solemn, harmonious (actually beautiful) brass band tune! Anastasia Kobekina joins in with a wonderful cantilena. And she plays with all her heart, with intensely singing tone and emotion. Yes, the melody borders on triviality—but not too much, in my opinion.
A joyful, but still complacent country dance follows (somewhat monotonous in the harmonies), where oboe and clarinet play the folksy melody. The music gains depth, as soon as the cello joins in: again, not mockery (let alone sarcasm), but joyful playing.
I can keep my comments short: excellent playing, Anastasia, congrats! The (mostly composed) cadenza covers a large variety of techniques, standard ones, such as double-stop playing, pizzicato, sul tasto and sul ponticello playing, percussive segments, extensive flageolet and glissandi, trills, rapid spiccato, dissonances, etc.—and of course some jazzy segments. As indicated above, the cadenza also includes free / improvised segments—I wasn’t the only one who started smiling when Anastasia included the Swiss national anthem in sweet, soft flageolet tones…
The minuet follows attacca. It’s a piece full of quotes: classicism in pure form! I did not try “decoding” the originals, but the music invoked memories of pieces by Pergolesi, Rameau, particularly Boccherini’s Ritirata di Madrid (with the guitar, of course), possibly also others. No mockery (by the composer) for once: well-written—and well-performed, needless to say!
V. Finale: Alla Marcia
The last movement is a true “last dance”—and typical Gulda again! It seemed to bring us back to the “Klarinettenmuckl“—but now with a highly virtuosic cello solo added in! Anastasia Kobekina offered an excellent, virtuosic, but still play- and joyful performance, with beautifully singing, folksy segments, as well as a highly virtuosic return to rock music, imitating a steam train (life in the fast lane!)—and more “Klarinettenmuckl”: fun fair music at its best!
This performance saw Friedrich Gulda taken seriously! I don’t imply that the artists turned the concerto into earnest, serious music—but frankly: I can much better appreciate that music without the composer’s open sarcasm and mockery on stage. Thanks for showing this concerto in a new and better light!
Rating: ★★★★ (for the performance, not the music)
The applause was frenetic—and fully justified! Gábor Takács-Nagy and Anastasia Kobekina agreed on repeating Gulda’s last movement as encore—and now definitely as a last dance!
Finally: Anastasia Kobekina presented herself as a full-blooded musician with excellent career perspectives—and the “heart in the right place”: I wish her all the best for her future as a musician, and I’m looking forward to hearing her again over the coming years!
The Gulda Concerto on YouTube
I don’t usually complement concert reviews with YouTube recordings by other artists. But let me make an exception here: a live recording from a concert in 1988, in Munich, with Friedrich Gulda conducting the Munich Philharmonics, and with the late Heinrich Schiff (1951 – 2016) at the cello (drenching his cello and ruining his bow, I should say). I’m adding the video link for two reasons:
- The concerto is not known, or at least not performed very often on concert stages
- The composer conducting makes it a reference recording, certainly giving an authoritative view on the composition. I don’t imply that this is the only possible way to play Gulda’s concerto. Almost 40 years have gone by since the creation—today, this is far less of a shock than in 1980. Actually, I feel that the concerto is gradually starting to “collect dust”!
I don’t mean to compare Schiff/Gulda’s performance with Anastasia Kobekina’s—however, I (strangely?) do feel that a young artist such as Anastasia (and Gábor Takács-Nagy conducting) gives this work more credibility. I certainly can’t criticize Heinrich Schiff’s performance—but to me, Gulda’s “conducting” looks a bit dated… Zeitgeist?