Jan Lisiecki, Markus Poschner / Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana (OSI)
Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky

Stadtcasino Basel, 2022-02-14

0.5-star rating

2022-02-20 — Original posting



Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeStadtcasino Basel, 2022-02-14, 19:30h
Series / TitleTchaikovsky Revisited, and a «Scandalous» Prokofiev
OrganizerAllgemeine Musikgesellschaft Basel
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana (OSI)
PR Agency: Goldmann PR
Reviews from related eventsConcerts featuring Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2
Concert featuring Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6
Concerts in the Stadtcasino Basel

The Artists

Orchestra

The Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana (OSI) formed in 1935 (from a predecessor ensemble founded in 1933), originally as Orchestra della Radio Svizzera Italiana, i.e., as orchestra of & for the Italian Swiss Radio, in Lugano, later renamed to Orchestra della Radiotelevisione della Svizzera Italiana. It took the current name in 1995. For many decades, the orchestra has been one of the cornerstones among Swiss orchestras. Some of the orchestra’s principal conductors:

This was my first live encounter with the orchestra (if I ignore the concert on 1977-06-16 in Locarno and under the direction of Marc Andreae. It featured Beethoven’s 9th, and I participated as a chorister in the Zürcher Bach-Chor). There was a “fringe encounter” 3 years ago, though: on 2019-03-16, I attended a concert of the Quartetto Energie Nove in Lugano. That ensemble consists of leading members of the OSI. See my concert report on this event.

Conductor — Markus Poschner

The German conductor and pianist Markus Poschner (*1971, see also Wikipedia) grew up in Munich, where he also took his musical education, from the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich. Wikipedia mentions Sir Roger Norrington (*1934), Sir Colin Davis (1927 – 2013), as well as Jorma Juhani Panula (*1930) as his primary mentors and supporters.

Markus Poschner’s conducting career took him to the Georgisches Kammerorchester Ingolstadt (2000 – 2006), to the Bremer Philharmoniker (2007 – 2017), and finally to the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana (OSI, since 2015). For the fast four years, Markus Poschner has been chief conductor of the Bruckner Orchestra Linz (2017 – 2021). Within Switzerland, Lugano is not Poschner’s only center of activity: for several years, he has been a guest conductor at the Zurich Opera. He will be back there in May 2022, conducting “Arabella” by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949).

On top of that, he has also been conducting opera, e.g., at the Komische Oper Berlin, the Theater Bremen. Poschner is also known as Jazz pianist, and he holds a honorary professorship in musicology and music education at the University of Bremen.

Soloist: Jan Lisiecki, Piano

The pianist Jan Lisiecki (*1995, see also Wikipedia) has Polish ancestors, but is born in Calgary (Alberta), Canada. He started having piano lessons at the Mount Royal University Conservatory at the age of 5, and when he was 9, he already made his orchestral debut. At the Conservatory, he was allowed to skip four classes, doing the final exam in 2011 at Western Canada High School in Calgary. That same year, he was admitted to the Glenn Gould School in Toronto, where he finished his studies.

In 2008 and 2009, Jan Lisiecki was invited to the “Chopin and his Europe” festival in Warsaw to perform the two piano concertos by Frédéric Chopin, together with the Sinfonia Varsovia and Howard Shelley (*1950). The recording of these two concerts as CD debut through the Fryderyk Chopin Institute instantly caused international attention. With this, and with the long list of awards that he won between 2008 and 2020, Jan Lisiecki is now engaged in a highly successful international career, both as soloist, as well as chamber music and Lied partner. Meanwhile, the artist’s discography comprises 9 recordings on 12 CDs, most of them with Deutsche Grammophon (DG), where Jan Lisiecki has an exclusive contract.


Program

The official program featured “just” two major works: Prokofiev’s second piano concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, separated by an intermission. The artists complemented these works with two encores:


Setting, etc.

My seat was on the right-hand side of row 19, in the central block of parquet seating. These are in the acoustically best area in the hall: close enough for hearing the details, far enough for the acoustic balance. The one (minor) drawback was in the limited view “into” the orchestra.


Concert & Review

Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev (US Library of Congress, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, op.16

Composer & Work

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) wrote his Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, op.16 in 1912/1913. I have written about this composition in an earlier posting, where I compared two recordings of this composition. So, here, I’m just listing the four movements:

  1. Andantino – Allegretto
  2. Scherzo: Vivace
  3. Intermezzo: Allegro moderato
  4. Finale: Allegro tempestoso

This is one of the most difficult works in the entire piano concerto literature. The title of the concert refers to an anecdote from the composer’s premiere performance, back in 1913. According to the concert handout, in that premiere, a couple allegedly shouted “Such music can drive you crazy!”. The handout further states that the cadenza in the first movement “may be the technically most difficult one of all times”. I suspect that this statement holds true only for the concerto literature up to the early 20th century?

The Performance

The visual impression was that of a big orchestra that filled the podium to the rim. That said, the central space on the podium was of course occupied by the Steinway D-274 concert grand. And the musicians in the orchestra were not sharing their music stands. Rather, as a precautionary measure in the Covid-19 pandemic, the musicians were playing from individual stands, with more spacing between the seats.

Enter the pianist: tall, slender, almost fragile—some may have wondered how he would master the power-draining challenges of the concerto, which certainly are not for the faint-hearted! However, one should not judge people from their looks, but experience will tell!

I. Andantino –

After the muted pizzicato opening of the movement, the piano takes over with a lyrical theme. The annotation is narrante and refers to the octavated melody in the descant. These first bars felt gentle, almost light, and relatively fluent. Jan Lisiecki certainly did not exaggerate the agogics in the “narration”. At least, unlike other artists, he didn’t highlight the phrases with a little ritenuto, but rather shifted that to the end of the phrases.

However, this would not be Prokofiev if the introduction stayed as lyrical as it began. It gathers momentum, power and expression in waves, up to a first ff climax. And here, Jan Lisiecki needed to deploy his forces for a first time. He did so by rising from the chair, momentarily almost into an upright position! What counts, of course, is what he achieved not how (pianists with athletic stature may do it with the power and the weight of their arms, other may add in the weight of their body). Certainly, this was not a show effect, but a spontaneous gesture out of the need to generate the necessary “thrust”.

That introduction already demonstrated that Jan Lisiecki is mastering the technical challenges in this concerto, be it in the massive chords, the wide-spanning chord sequences, or of course the blurred, fast, swaying waves of scales near the transition to the Allegretto.

Allegretto

Interestingly, after the first four bars in the orchestra, Jan Lisiecki switched to a markedly faster pace. Does con eleganza really imply a tempo change? I don’t think so. Rather, this felt like a mishap—the transition wasn’t quite harmonious or logical. Actually, the pianist even accelerated over the following bars, reaching “his” pace at around [10], when the orchestra temporarily takes on a stronger role. Jan Lisiecki played with lots of body motion, especially of course in expressive and virtuosic “eruptions”. The Poco meno mosso formed a rather marked tempo contrast, with a sudden transition.

As at the beginning of the Allegretto, the transition to the Poco meno mosso was not just sudden, the contrast stronger than expected for a “poco meno“. This was probably done to allow for a smooth transition into the cadenza, which opens with the theme of the Andantino introduction (though, there is no tempo annotation here).

Cadenza

The cadenza starts lightly, almost filigree in the right-hand theme. However, it only takes a few bars to reach the first, towering complexities, in which the composer often writes three lines for the solo part—and the music indeed sounds as if there were three hands playing! Temporarily, the solo retracts into a distant pp. Even there, the piano score is an intricate interplay between semiquaver figures in the center and “asynchronous” outer voices.

And, of course, the next build-up follows, up to a fff precipitato. This further builds up to the monstrous fff colossale, with its keyboard-spanning, rapid semiquaver triplet waves / cascades, in which the pianist’s left hand plays two parts (on two systems) in one, crossing the fast-running right hand on and on. Needless to say that for someone who does not play the concert him/herself, it is impossible to detect missed keys in chords, even with a score. Still, Jan Lisiecki didn’t appear to face technical issues, despite the rather fluent tempo. I did feel that he was prioritizing virtuosity (and tempo) over clarity, and also (sometimes) dissonances over melody.

The ff that follows at Tempo I (Andantino) in the orchestra was very loud—too loud, indeed, given that the piano part is marked fff. The listener’s ears could recover in the final bars, which return to the initial, lyrical narrante theme.
★★★½

II. Scherzo: Vivace

In the Scherzo, the soloists hands are busy with relentless, continuous semiquaver figures in octave parallels. It’s the soloist who determines the pace, even though he starts with the orchestra. I felt that the pace was a tad too fast. For one, it took a few bars for the orchestra to coordinate with the solo part. Then, the solo part appeared too smooth, lacking clarity and contours in the semiquaver figures, which were often blurred. The accented notes in the central 3/4 segment did stand out, though. Sadly, the orchestra was again rather loud, the solo part occasionally in danger of drowning in the accompaniment.

I should mention, though, that the impression of “too loud” with the orchestra may have to do with the acoustics. Not all halls support the same “volume” from orchestras. A resident orchestra will adjust configuration, physical arrangement, and the volume to “their” hall. Orchestras on tour—such as the OSI in this concert—do not have the chance or the luxury to experiment with stage setup and volume. And in the few rehearsals in tour locations, the acoustics differ from that in concerts with the presence of an audience.
★★★½

III. Intermezzo: Allegro moderato

The first part of the intermezzo offered a first glimpse into the qualities of the orchestra’s excellent wind section: precise, clear, with excellent intonation. The piano part appears playful and light—it is nevertheless technically challenging, up to the lyrical, internalized segment at [61] (a tempo). That leads back to the initial theme, now imitating a clumsy march (or peasant’s dance?). At [72], for the secco (staccato, f), Jan Lisiecki switched to a distinctly faster pace. Why? The score doesn’t have indication to that effect. And at the ff climax at [82], the orchestra was again very loud, if not noisy, almost covering the solo part.
★★★½

IV. Finale: Allegro tempestoso

A stormy movement, indeed! I liked the powerful crescendo motifs in the cellos, in the Meno mosso segment. And especially the melodious, lyrical and expressive solo starting at [100]. Also, Jan Lisiecki was excellent at bringing out inner / secondary voices in his part. Once more, at least for this acoustic setting, the tempo was occasionally at the limit. One example for this was in the staccato sequences starting at [115], where the woodwinds offered much more clarity than the solo part.

At [117], an abrupt closure and fermata appear to end the movement. However, the solo resumes with a reflective “sound fantasy”, where chords resonate into each other over a drone deep in the bass, then they build up in a powerful crescendo. After another fermata, a mysterious p section follows, holds again, resumes Meno mosso, then gradually accelerates to the Tempo precedente— a grandiose ff sonoramente. At the end of that solo, the score marks mp subito. However, Jan Lisiecki had already “let his horses loose”: these majestic solo waves are simply too tempting!

The soloist did return to p in the playful section at [122]. For a while, at least: extreme virtuosity builds up again in the solo part. After a climax with immense technical challenges, the music (the composer? certainly not the soloist!) seems exhausted. It holds all motion in a long pp fermata with tremolo, until the brilliant, highly virtuosic Coda breaks in with force. That last part again felt a little too fast: the coordination in the orchestra was marginal at times. The very last ff sounded somewhat pale, almost like a mishap. Just because it is (almost) piano and strings only?
★★

Overall Rating: ★★★½


Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin, c. 1849, 3D Portrait (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Piano Encore — Chopin: Nocturne No.21 in C minor, op.posth., CT 128

The audience expected an encore, no doubt! After the highly virtuosic and power-draining piano concerto, it was obvious that Jan Lisiecki would not select another virtuosic challenge. With Chopin and Beethoven being focal points in Lisiecki’s recorded repertoire, my guess was with the former, and indeed…

Composer & Work

Among the 21 known Nocturnes that Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) wrote, Jan Lisiecki selected the rarely performed Nocturne No.21 in C minor, op.posth., CT 128, with the annotation Andante sostenuto. The “No.21” is deceptive: it’s the last in the order of publication (posthumous, only 1938, 101 years after its creation). However, Chopin composed this in the same year as the two Nocturnes op.37 (Nos.11 and 12).

The Performance

Through the applause, the listener’s excitation had relaxed, and after a few moments of silence, this short and simple, very pensive, almost meditating Nocturne proved an ideal complement to the excitement of the concerto. Jan Lisiecki’s interpretation was very touching in the forlorn atmosphere of the first part, and highly subtle in the build-up to the short climax, where hope seems to emerge—just to return to a calm, melancholic ending. Marvelous, beautiful—and too short, unfortunately!
★★★★★


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Émile Reutlinger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 in B minor, op.74, “Pathétique

Composer & Work

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) wrote his Symphony No.6 in B minor, op.74, “Pathétique between February and August 1893. It was his last symphony, and the last work that premiered during the composer’s lifetime. He conducted the first performance on 1893-10-28, nine days before his death. The composer’s name for the symphony was “Патетическая” (passionate, emotional)—the French adaptation Pathétique is not the exact equivalent (rather, a phonetic imitation). The work has four movements:

  1. Adagio – Allegro non troppo
  2. Allegro con grazia
  3. Allegro molto vivace
  4. Finale: Adagio lamentoso

The concert announcement called Markus Poschner’s approach to Tchaikovsky with the OSI “pathbreaking”, featuring an “exceptionally lean sound, without sacrificing the expressive bandwidth”, and “without the monumental orchestra sound of traditional performances”.

The Performance

I was curious to hear how the above played out in the Stadtcasino Basel. On this podium, the OSI still looked like a very respectable ensemble, also in the absence of the concert grand. A closer look, though, revealed that the orchestra was indeed substantially smaller than what one might expect for a traditional Tchaikovsky symphony performance. The loose setup (see above) was deceptive.

Poschner had the orchestra perform in “antiphonal” configuration, with the two violin voices at the front, on either side, double basses at the rear left, cellos behind the first violins, followed by the violas on the right. Markus Poschner conducted without a score—a clear indication his familiarity with the work.

I. Adagio –

In the concerto, I mentioned the excellent quality of the wind section, also in the intonation. Here, I felt that the bassoon intonation was maybe a tiny, tiny bit off—perhaps just momentarily. Luckily, after the Adagio introduction, that notion disappeared, never to return again, throughout the symphony. Actually, already the impressive, characterful sound of the violas in the last bars superseded that initial impression.
★★★

Allegro non troppo

Actually, already in the concerto, the orchestra had proven that it can fill the Stadtcasino Basel with its sound. It did so here, e.g., at the first ff after the Un poco animando. At the same time, I noted the excellent transparency of the sound, which of course in parts may also be due to the acoustics of the venue.

The long pause between the Adagio closure / fermata and the beginning of the second theme, Andante, seemed to indicate that “only here, the movement is really beginning”. That second theme was marvelous, warm, intense, expressive. And from the Moderato mosso onwards, all p, Poschner kept the violins at a very soft level, such that indeed the excellent wind soloists created an atmosphere of chamber music.

When after a Ritenuto and a long pause the second theme returned, it sounded much more intense, expressive, and longing than in the first instance. And the strings—particularly the violins—performed with exceptional homogeneity in the emotional outbreaks. A true highlight here was the ending of the exposition, with its exceptionally subtle clarinet solo, as it retracts into ppppp (!!).
★★★★

Development Part

No general rest for the transition this time: the turmoil of the development part (Allegro vivo) broke out immediately, with a ff “bang”. I can state without reservation: the orchestra performance was excellent, exceptional in precision and coordination, despite a very fluent tempo. It retained transparency and clarity also in the wildest, most virtuosic ff segments, as well as in the dense web of calls and responses. Needless to say that the timpani roll at the ffff (!) climax alone was highly impressive.

As if there was a need to recover from the violent eruption of that climax, Markus Poschner made the fermata pause remarkably long before taking up the recapitulation with the second theme. Tchaikovsky writes con dolcezza—and indeed, the melody now sounded with exceptional sweetness, mellow—nostalgia, longing, desire. Momentarily, the emotions break out again, just soon to relax again, like from exhaustion, leading into a tender pppp ending. And here again: these remarkable wind instruments: clarinets, flute, brass! I should add: nothing in this movement ever felt overblown. The performance was highly atmospheric. And there was never any notion of excess sweetness.
★★★★½

II. Allegro con grazia

Beautiful, with “folksy” agogic swaying! I was fascinating to watch how Markus Poschner was able to control the ensemble with minimal gestures. He essentially conducted just entire bars—yet, the orchestra retained coherence and coordination. This showed the high degree of preparation, and the familiarity of the orchestra with the conductor’s intent. An intense, but controlled and always measured, well-balanced performance, again devoid of exaggerations. And a highly committed, attentive ensemble.
★★★★½

III. Allegro molto vivace

Poschner did not save the ensemble from the composer’s demanding metronome mark (♩=152)—Allegro molto vivace, indeed! The orchestra mastered this well, but occasionally, one could feel that the coordination in the fast staccato quaver triplets was a challenge, especially across the width of the podium. And in unfamiliar acoustics, one should say. The conductor relentlessly drove the orchestra forward, resisting the temptation to leave time for broadening at climaxes. Too strict, maybe? Fascinating and virtuosic, for sure! One could easily tell this from the spontaneous applause that broke out!
★★★½

IV. Finale: Adagio lamentoso

Despite all the virtuosity in the third movement: I was more impressed with the melancholy, the intense, expressive playing in the Finale. In the intende eruptions, it felt as if one’s heart was torn apart. The first part ends in a dry, short fff explosion. Before taking up the Andante, Markus Poschner extended the general rest (two quarter notes), building up tension. The Andante then set in with renewed intensity—just to halt again, for more, extended general rests. “Pauses” would be the more appropriate term here, as there was no resting, but almost scary (if not ghastly!) voids that increased the tension.

The emotions rose to almost unbearable intensity, up to a point of exhaustion, when the intensity gradually relaxed. At [L], a solemn aequale in the trombones (and a tuba) set in—also that is just a retreat into ppppp. Tchaikovsky is asking for the impossible—but the brass performance here was truly remarkable.

The atmosphere is completely changed when the Andante giusto sets in: dark, somber, menacing, and at the same time melancholic, sad, earnest, stepping down and away, into an underworld. One could tell from the long silence that followed, how much the audience was captured by the tragedy of this ending.
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Franz Schubert, 1846, 3D Portrait
Franz Schubert, 1846, 3D Portrait (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Orchestral Encore — Schubert: Entr’acte No.3 in B♭ major from “Rosamunde“, D.797

In many ways, the piano encore made sense. The tragic, somber, if not devastating ending of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique“, however, made the choice of an encore much more tricky. Somehow, I felt that the better (if not only, really) choice would have been no orchestral encore at all. The composer’s desolation—clearly reflected in the final movement—left the listener in a reflective mood. Why break that contemplation? One might argue that the applause already has that effect. And luckily, Markus Poschner waited for several “curtain calls” before raising the baton again…

Composer & Work

The orchestra’s encore turned out to be conciliatory—music by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). Markus Poschner selected the well-known Entr’acte No.3 in B♭ major (Andantino), the fifth piece in the Incidental Music to the play “Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern (Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus), D.797, which premiered in 1823. The play is by Helmina von Chézy (1783 – 1856). The doubtful quality of the libretto must have been the main reason why to this day, the play and the incidental music are rarely performed as a whole. However, a few pieces kept their place in the concert repertoire: besides the overture, the Entr’acte No.3 is among the most popular of the pieces.

Schubert re-used the theme of the Entr’acte No.3 in two other compositions. One is the Impromptu No.3 in B♭ major from the 4 Impromptus op.posth.142, D.935—late compositions from 1827 (published only in 1839). The other one is the second movement (Andante) in the String Quartet No.13 in A minor, op.29, D.804, a.k.a. “Rosamunde Quartet”, from 1824.

The Performance

Despite all the beauty in Schubert’s melodic inventions, and despite the qualities in the performance of the woodwinds: the encore came nowhere near the intensity of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony. When it almost sounded slightly “foggy”, though, that must have been due to the exhaustion in the orchestra?


Conclusions

A very worthwhile and enriching encounter with an excellent conductor, and an orchestra that is underrated in the North of the Alps!


Acknowledgement

The author would like to express his gratitude to the organizing agency, Goldmann PR, for the invitation and press tickets to this concert.



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