Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Thierry Fischer / Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Weinberg / Prokofiev / Beethoven

Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-05-09

5-star rating


2016-05-13 — Original posting
2016-10-12 — Brushed up for better readability, added update on EUYO

Introduction

The Orchestra

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE) was founded in 1981. The founders were musicians who graduated from the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO, Twitter: @EUYOtweets, also on Facebook). The EUYO is a European cultural institution that unites young musicians from all member states of the European Union. Founded 1976, it is now celebrating its 40th anniversary. Sadly, the EUYO just announced that on 2016-09-01 it will close down due to lack of funding. Let’s hope that this looming cultural disaster can still be averted!

Update, from a press release at the EUYO Web site (since removed from Web site):
21/09/16 – The EUYO is delighted to announce that following discussions with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture, the Orchestra has signed an agreement for co funding for the year 2016. This enables us to continue our role as Cultural Ambassador for the European Union, embodying the EU’s highest and most profound ideals at a time of undoubted challenge for Europe.

The COE was founded with the idea to allow former EUYO members to continue playing together at the highest possible level. New members are selected by the musicians of the orchestra themselves. Over the 35 years of its existence, the COE has evolved into one of the leading chamber orchestras in Europe, if not the world.

Concerts with guest orchestras are of special interest: they have the potential of offering fresh, possibly unexpected perspectives. With this, they are expanding the view beyond the scope of what the local orchestras and artists are offering.

The Conductor

This year’s tour, which takes the orchestra through various European countries, was planned with and by Vladimir Jurowski (*1972) as conductor. Unfortunately, Jurowski had to cancel his participation for health reasons. At very short notice, the Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer, born 1957 in (then) Rhodesia (Zambia), stepped in as conductor for this COE tour. He took over the program as is.

Thierry Fischer studied flute with Aurèle Nicolet. He was first flutist in the Zurich Opera and in Hamburg, later also with the COE. Contacts with Nikolaus Harnoncourt (in Zurich) and Claudio Abbado (with the COE) started his interest in conducting. Starting 1997, Fischer indeed pursued an international career as conductor. This led him to the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra (1997 – 2001), the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast (2001 – 2006), the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (2006 – 2012), the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra (starting 2008), and the Utah Symphony (starting 2009). More information is available also on Wikipedia.

The Soloist of the Evening

The soloist of the evening, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, is a familiar face in the Swiss concert scene (after all, she is living in Switzerland). She has even recorded the central work of the evening, Sergei Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, with the conductor scheduled for this tour, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (see my earlier blog post for a brief discussion of this recording).

With Thierry Fischer as conductor we now got the unexpected opportunity to experience more than a live performance of that recording with “just” a different orchestra, but also the temporary return of Thierry Fischer as conductor to the Swiss concert scene.

Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony No.10 in A minor, op.98, “Transcendence” (1968)

Mieczysław Weinberg (source: classical-scene.com)
Mieczysław Weinberg (source: classical-scene.com)

The Composer

Mieczysław Weinberg (1919 – 1996, also Moisey or Moishe Vainberg or Vaynberg; Russian: Моисей Самуилович Вайнберг; Polish: Mojsze [Mieczysław] Wajnberg) is a Polish composer who had to flee from his home country in 1939. Thereafter, he first lived in Minsk and Tashkent. In 1943 he moved to Moscow, where he spent the rest of his live. In 1953, he was arrested under the allegation of  planning the erection of a Jewish republic on the peninsula of Krimea. His mentor Dmitri Shostakovich stood in for his friend. However, ultimately, he was freed because and when Stalin died.

Weinberg produced a broad range of compositions (including music for films), but also appeared as pianist. As a composer, he remained largely unknown in Western countries. After the opening of the Iron Curtain, the output of more famous / prominent (and more radical) colleagues, such as Sofia Gubaidulina (*1931) and Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998), unfortunately overshadowed his oeuvre.

The Composition

Mieczysław Weinberg wrote 22 symphonies, 2 Sinfoniettas, and 4 chamber symphonies. The Symphony No.10 in A minor, op.98 was written in 1968. The concert handout called this a Chamber Symphony and mentions a surname / title “Transcendence”. However, that title is apparently not present in all sources. The op.98 was commissioned by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and premiered with this ensemble under the direction of Rudolf Barshai (1924 – 2010). It features 5 movements:

  1. Concerto grosso: Grave
  2. Pastorale: Lento
  3. Canzona: Andantino
  4. Burlesca: Allegro molto
  5. Inversion: L’istesso tempo

The Performance

In this symphony, Weinberg’s musical language may be close to that of his mentor Dmitri Shostakovich. Yet, it also is clearly and undeniably his personal style: polytonal, but less motoric, really catchy, vivid / lively, and by no means radical. The orchestra performed this in a small setting with 17 string players (4 + 4 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos, 2 double basses). That’s a size which allowed for a dense and homogeneous string sound and plenty of volume. Yet, it permitted light and flexible articulation, and maintaining excellent transparency.

In his objective-sporty demeanor, Thierry Fischer conducted this piece without baton. I had the impression that the members of the orchestra—excellent, very competent musicians throughout—were really familiar with the composition. Therefore, only a minimum in guidance was required during the concert performance of this piece. Certainly, this was also due to the very active role of the concert master, Lorenza Borrani, whose stupendous abilities stood out in the many, highly demanding solos in this symphony.

I. Concerto grosso: Grave

The symphony starts with a movement that resembles a baroque Overture, with a grandiose, slow introduction. Despite the modern tonality, I instantly felt at home, almost like in baroque music: I’m tempted to say that only a harpsichord was missing to make this impression complete! The movement continues with a fugato that also follows baroque pattern, such as switching between concertino and tutti parts. This explains the annotation “Concerto grosso“. Catchy melodies are spiced up with polytonality, but in such a way as not to create any indigestion with the listener—very interesting music, indeed! Before the music returns to the broad, “harmonically dissonant” introductory theme, the solo cellist, Richard Lester, could demonstrate his abilities in a very demanding solo, really tricky in intonation.

II. Pastorale: Lento

In the calm, solemn Pastorale, the orchestra demonstrated carefully controlled, finely tuned dynamics in playing with mutes (con sordino), creating a somber-cloudy atmosphere. However, the middle part offers a strong contrast, in highly virtuosic solos, full of fast double-stop passages: first in the violin, then in the cello, finally adding a viola to form a trio of soloists.

III. Canzona: Andantino

The following Canzona featured wonderful, calm cantilenas in viola and cello, exposing the beautiful sound spectrum of these instruments.

IV. Burlesca: Allegro molto

A strong contrast followed with the Burlesca, switching between chatty marcato solos in the cello (with an accompaniment of dissonant chords) and wonderful flautando melodies in the high strings.

V. Inversion: L’istesso tempo

This ultimately led into the final movement, Inversion, starting with a fugato of highly virtuosic solo parts. After a rocket-like, ascending glissando (the equivalent of the famous “Mannheim Rocket”?), calmer double-stop solos lead into a segment, where the tension appears to grow dramatically, through tremolo crescendos. But all of a sudden, the music returns to the initial motif of the opening movement, hereby closing the circle. Overall, a masterful interpretation of a very virtuosic and at the same time really catchy and entertaining composition. It was an excellent start of the concert!

Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, op.63

The Composition

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) composed his Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, op.63 in 1935, after the composer’s return into the Soviet Union. The composition is well-known. I have already written some comments on this in an earlier posting (2014-05-28) on 20th century violin concertos. Let me just list the three movements here:

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Andante assai
  3. Allegro ben marcato

The soloist in this concerto was Patricia Kopatchinskaja, born 1977 in the Republic of Moldova (more biographic information is found in her Wikipedia entry). This concerto is one of the core pieces in her repertoire. As mentioned, she has recorded this with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. That recording was briefly discussed in the previous posting just mentioned. Here I’ll just comment on the concert performance.

The Performance

Naturally, the center of this concert performance was entirely the soloist, Patricia KopatchinskajaIt was absolutely fascinating to watch how she lives in and with this composition, how she was mentally and emotionally immersing in the music.

I. Allegro moderato

That starts with the first notes. The soloist plays these into the silence, very softly, without vibrato. Soon thereafter, Patricia Kopatchinskaja amalgamates with the orchestra to form a single, performing organism: she remained in constant, intense interaction with the ensemble. She picks up impulses, returning them to the fellow musicians.

Even during orchestral segments without solo part, Kopatchinskaja was so engaged, so immersed in the piece that she never stopped moving with the music. She kept interacting with the orchestra through facial expression and body language. In all this, she didn’t appear to encounter any technical obstacles, playing the most challenging passages with apparent ease and naturalness. The first movement also features wonderful, lyrical melodies that Kopatchinskaja let shine in intense radiancy. However, towards the end of the movement, she also built up tension, suspense that could compete with that of criminal stories.

II. Andante assai

The second movement features an intimate, intense and touching melody in the solo. Kopatchinskaja performed this with absolutely flawless intonation. The melody later turns into a dialog with string voices, with staccato accompaniment in the woodwinds. Melodically and rhythmically, there are passages in this movement that strongly remind me of musical archetypes used by Sir Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934). What really amazed me were the pizzicati in the solo towards the end of the movement, where Patricia Kopatchinskaja had no problem making herself heard even against a rather big orchestra.

III. Allegro ben marcato

The final Allegro ben marcato turned into a wild, untamed and brilliant folk dance. Impulses and tempo changes / alterations appeared to originate entirely from the solo part. This was a truly congenial interpretation, in which the conductor (here with baton) could at best act as mediator between soloist and the orchestral voices.

To me, both Prokofiev’s composition and its interpretation that evening were absolutely fascinating.

Encore — Maurice Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Cello

Understandably, the applause was frenetic, even in this subscription audience. So, Patricia Kopatchinskaja decided to present an encore. She did not do that alone, but together with the COE’s solo cellist, Richard Lester. They played the second movement from the Sonata for Violin and Cello  by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937), who composed this 1920 – 1922. It’s a playful and virtuosic piece with amazing pizzicato dialogs, full of swinging, dancing gipsy melodies. Here, it seemed to have a Slavonic touch; it was a real pleasure to watch and hear, throughout!

Ludwig van BeethovenSymphony No.7 in A major, op.92

The Composition

The only and final piece after the intermission was the Symphony No.7 in A major, op.92 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). That’s a piece which I have discussed in an extensive comparison of 13 recordings. Here, I’ll therefore just list the movements:

  1. Poco sostenuto — Vivace
  2. Allegretto
  3. Presto — Assai meno presto — Presto
  4. Allegro con brio

Drop-Outs in the Audience

Strangely, there were now noticeably more empty seats (the concert was not sold out, but well-attended otherwise). Did people just come to the Tonhalle to watch and listen to Patricia Kopatchinskaja? Did they maybe think that the Beethoven symphony was merely a popular “filler piece” for a traditionally conservative subscription audience? Or did they perhaps think that after David Zinman‘s Beethoven series with the Tonhalle Orchestra, or after Sir Roger Norrington‘s historically informed performances with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO), the conceivable scope of interpretations with this symphony was exhausted already? The performance proved all of this wrong!

The Orchestral Setup

The COE offered a clearly historically informed performance (HIP), though with modern instruments (excepting the natural trumpets and the hard-headed drum sticks). However, Sir Roger Norrington has long proven that modern instruments don’t stand in the way of a performance following the composer’s intent.

The orchestra was larger than the ZKO (as conducted by Sir Roger Norrington). However, unlike the Tonhalle Orchestra in David Zinman’s performances, the arrangement on the podium was historically correct, with the two violin voices facing each other, the double basses and cellos behind the first violins on the left, violas behind the second violins on the right. This is definitely more demanding for the coordination, especially between the two violin voices. But at the same time, it definitely makes it easier for the audience to recognize and follow the frequent dialogs between the two violin voices. Plus, it offers better spatial acoustic balance.

The Performance

I. Poco sostenuto — Vivace

Thierry Fischer closely followed Beethoven’s metronome annotations. He performed with a fluent, slick tempo in all movements. But he never pushed or forced the pace. Fischer abstained from extras such as additional cadenzas or excessive ritardandi and fermatas.

II. Allegretto

Articulation and dynamics were vivid and light throughout, never ostentatious. This was a delight especially in the Allegretto: this traditionally tends to be a heavy monstrosity. Instead, we heard it with an impressive, long build-up.

III. Presto — Assai meno presto — Presto

In the Presto I enjoyed the orchestra’s virtuosity and disciplined playing. The Assai meno presto segments in the same movement weren’t solemn pilgrim’s chants. Rather, they felt like bucolic pastoral scenes with marvelous (but well-projecting) ppp passages.

IV. Allegro con brio

The final Allegro con brio was extremely alert, enthralling, again with excellent, outstanding playing overall.

Not everything may have been absolutely perfect in the last two movements. There were the unavoidable, little mishaps in the brass section; I noted a single premature start and slightly degrading precision towards the end. However, the evening was rather long, and all compositions were really demanding on the musicians. What really counts in a concert is the live experience, rather than the ultimate, polished perfection. Definitely, the performance of the COE (and the soloists, of course) in that concert made any rare, minor mishap absolutely insubstantial!

My conclusion from this concert: absolutely remarkable, both in the compositions (Weinberg, Prokofiev), as well as in the performance with the COE / Thierry Fischer and of course (no surprise here!) Patricia Kopatchinskaja!


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.



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