Radu Lupu, David Zinman / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Mozart / Bruckner

Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-06-01

4-star rating

2016-06-04 — Original posting
2016-10-14 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


Introduction

Conductor and Orchestra

For the first time in almost two years, David Zinman (*1936) has returned to the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. This time, he was here as honorary conductor. David Zinman has successfully led this orchestra as principal conductor for almost 20 years (1995 – 2014). In this period, he has made it an orchestra with excellent reputation far beyond the local scope. At the same time, he revived the orchestra’s recording career.

A Look at the Program

For this concert, he has selected a program with strong contrasts. That’s not a novel idea, but rather common in concert life. Often, music from the classic period is combined with modern compositions (mostly rather one modern composition). A motive could be to fill the venue despite the modern piece(s). Alternatively, a modern composition could serve to “pep up” an otherwise purely classic repertoire, and hence (possibly) avoid the impression of routine (or boredom / lack of ideas).

This evening, though, the contrasts were of different nature. Up to the intermission, Mozart’s maybe most retained, most internalized piano concerto was played (particularly in the interpretation that we were about to hear!). Thereafter the program called for the large Symphony No.5 by Anton Bruckner. The latter was a composer whose religiously devote mind the musical inspiration breaks out with elemental violence, filling immense musical forms.

The venue was sold out for this concert, the program was repeated on the following two days. The final instance was also the opening concert for the Zurich Festival.

The Soloist

The soloist in the first part of the evening was the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu, born 1945, who began studying piano at age 6. He made hist public debut in 1957 (presenting his own compositions!). 1961, after studies at the Bucharest Conservatory, he received a scholarship at the Moscow State Conservatory “P.I. Tchaikovsky”, graduating in 1969.

Since 1971, he is pursuing an international concert career. However, he retained the image of a somewhat exotic, secluded artist. His primary focus is on composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. Lupu has won several competitions, such as the George Enescu International Piano Competition, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, and others. For more information see Wikipedia.


Mozart: Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K.491

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed his Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K.491 in the winter of 1785 – 1786. This was a period of high productivity, and a time when he was most successful as an artist. Among his 27 piano concertos, this is the second of only two in A minor tonality (the other one being Concerto No.20 in D minor, K.466). The concerto K.491 features the following three movements:

  1. Allegro (3/4, 523 bars)
  2. Larghetto (2/2, 89 bars)
  3. Allegretto (2/2 -> 6/8, 287 bars)

The Performance

I. Allegro

The Allegro is a mostly serious, stirring movement. However, already the orchestral introduction gave a clear indication that the rebelling, fighting aspects would be secondary in this interpretation. The reduced orchestral setting kept the tone restrained, mostly in dark colors, initially so soft and muted that I was tempted to believe that the smooth and mellow sound was due to the strings playing con sordino (which of course they weren’t).

Completely in accordance with the score, the movement mostly remained p, never exceed f. Of course, this was in agreement with the soloist’s intents: Radu Lupu is well-known for his lyrical, poetic playing: in his hands, also the piano (Steinway D) sounded restrained, mostly mellow, almost fragile, brittle, sometimes almost suggesting that the pianist was playing una corda.

I liked his careful articulation and phrasing, the gentle agogics, the long arches. Never ever his playing was dominating or obtrusive, but rather often completely forlorn in thoughts, almost casual; the lines in the two hands were flowing into each other. This retained attitude made the prominent arabesques in the solo part blossom out, but Radu Lupu maintained an intimate partnership with the orchestra, keeping close contact with the woodwind soloists.

Mozart did not write down a cadenza. I assume Radu Lupu played his own: not overly long, but entirely giving the impression of being improvised (maybe it even was?), pensive, somewhat airy-fairy, like with harmonic trials and tribulations—just like momentary inventions, then seemingly being lost in the course of a long trill, then suddenly ending with three f beats, returning control to the orchestra. After a short uprising, the movements ends almost casually.

II. Larghetto

In the Larghetto, Radu Lupu made his part sound as simple as a folk song, often like improvised: re-productive in the best sense of the word, i.e., creating the music anew, re-inventing it on the spot. I really enjoyed his dialog with the wind instruments, in particular bassoons and clarinets, whereby the latter sounded really gentle and mellow, almost like basset horns. The solo part remained totally introverted, pensive, forlorn at times, very legato; only rarely a passage was slightly blurred / veiled through the sustain pedal. The orchestra offered support, but remained unobtrusive in the accompaniment, while the soloist and the conductor jointly kept the musical flow going; only towards the very end, Radu Lupu gave in to a gentle ritardando.

III. Allegretto

The Allegretto is mostly serious, sometimes moody in its character. Here, Radu Lupu appeared to focus on the dominant melody lines; never he allowed himself to be loud, avoids unwanted / incidental accents, but rather risks “losing” one or the other note; polished perfection is certainly not his goal. He softens potential roughness through careful, selective use of the sustain pedal, plays with the al fresco effect (blurring through sustain pedal), particularly in the short cadenza.


Encore — Schubert: Impromptu in A♭ major, op.142/2

Radu Lupu indirectly softened the stirring, almost moody ending through a contrasting encore, the Impromptu No.2 in A♭ major (Allegretto, sempre ligato — Trio — Tempo I) from the 4 Impromptus, op.142 (D.935) by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828): a melancholic, pensive, but also serene piece, played with soft articulation, arpeggiated around the gently emphatic climax, never forced at all. In the middle part (Trio), Lupu carefully highlighted the melody line that is hidden in the accented peak notes in the quaver triplets. A peaceful interpretation, moderate also in the final ritardando: this appeased the minds after Mozart’s stirring C minor finale—at least for the duration of the intermission!


Bruckner: Symphony No.5 in B♭ major, WAB 105

The single composition that filled the remainder of the evening asked for the full orchestral setting, switching to an entirely different soundscape: a stronger contrast is hardly imaginable: Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896) wrote his Symphony No.5 in B♭ major (WAB 105) in 1875/76. He never heard it performed by an orchestra. It was apparently performed once only in his lifetime, in an unauthorized version with altered instrumentation. However, Bruckner was sick and not able to attend the performance.

A Tragic Symphony?

It is sometimes referred to as the “Tragic Symphony”, but luckily, it is one of the few Bruckner symphonies with limited conflict between versions, endless, diverging revisions, etc. (which is such a headache with some of his other symphonies!). I can’t see how this work acquired its attribute “Tragic”: this can’t be Bruckner’s idea. I don’t see its character as really tragic. At least, I don’t see it as being more tragic than others.

It may be true that Bruckner felt unhappy when composing this symphony, though. However, I don’t think this has found its way into this composition. Bruckner was very religious, devout, a pretty helpless, maybe weird character. Composing for him wasn’t so much the result of a willful, intellectual act, but music rather poured out of his mind with the power and the primordial forces of a natural catastrophe. This is primarily what I see in the monumentality of his Fifth Symphony (and his other symphonies as well).

This composition comes in four movements (I’m listing only the initial / principal tempo indications):

  1. Introduction: Adagio — Allegro
  2. Sehr langsam [very slowly]
  3. Scherzo: Molto vivace (Schnell [fast]) — Trio: Im gleichen Tempo [in the same tempo]
  4. Finale: Adagio — Allegro moderato

The Performance

I. Introduction: Adagio — Allegro

The symphony starts softly, with almost whispered pizzicati in the bass. However, it doesn’t take long for the natural forces in Bruckner’s inspiration to break through. In a dense ff, he is presenting a solemn chorale theme in the brass section. The music then returns to pp again, appears to die off. But invariably, it finds a new start, builds up to those huge dynamic waves, so typical of Bruckner’s symphonies.

The Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich could excel with its homogeneous, warm string tone. I love the sound of the violins playing on the G-string! I also enjoyed the excellent wind section. Within this, the brass sound stayed mellow, well-integrated (particularly the horns) at all volumes. The obvious exception was of course in those fanfares and the sections with the chorale theme. Here, the rich brass section built up amazing brilliance and volume—without ever sounding vulgar, though.

II. Sehr langsam

I think that the most demanding part of the symphony is the slow movement, even though it does not appear to be very complex in its texture. One characteristic element here are the sections with a base of pizzicato triplets, over which the wind instruments appreciatively play solemn, calm melodies in even rhythms: Bruckner superimposes 2 vs. 3 vs. 4 beats. Then, there are sections with beautifully singing melodies in the strings, and again with the warm sonority of the G- and D-strings.

The real challenge is in careful dynamic control over such a slow tempo, and even more, in keeping the pace throughout the movement. It is crucial to avoid unwanted acceleration (run-away tempo). On the other hand, an excess in holding back the pace, i.e., even small amounts of unwanted ritardando may cause a loss in tension. Overall, it is a challenge in tempo and dynamic control. In general, I found the interpretation to be good, even excellent, except in the aspect of tempo control, where indeed I felt periods of a slight loss in tension. Also, in the last part (in 4/4 time), the tuning in the brass section seemed less than perfect.

III. Scherzo: Molto vivace (Schnell) — Trio: Im gleichen Tempo

Also in the Scherzo, the tuning in the brass section wasn’t always entirely clean / homogeneous. The movement is definitely virtuosic, demanding for the musicians in the orchestra. In the slow movement, the challenge was more on the part of the conductor. In contrast, here, the woodwind and brass sections alternate in presenting a fast melody where the quaver figures require excellent coordination and articulation. This is accompanied by marcato crotchets. Such fast sections alternate with slower ones (Bedeutend langsamer [substantially slower]), featuring a melody that feels like a folk, if not peasant dance. I liked the interpretation, but especially in the second instance of the Scherzo part I felt that the conciseness / rhythmic coordination wasn’t always quite what it should (and could) have been.

IV. Finale: Adagio — Allegro moderato

The very long, final movement begins with a formal quote from the Symphony No.9 in D minor, op.125, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Just like his predecessor, Bruckner starts with quoting each of the preceding movements in sequence. In the case of Beethoven, this is rather theatrical: all these quotes are presented as proposals for a continuation and then denied / rejected by the recitativo double basses, until the “real” theme is presented, and of course accepted. Bruckner doesn’t follow that model exactly, but merely uses it as unifying bracket. It’s a necessary one, given the length of the symphony!

After this introduction, all, dams appear to break, the music is unleashed, is pouring out of Bruckner’s compositorial mind, particularly in the formidable, final build-up; this, and the grandiose chorale-like sections in the powerful brass section can’t fail in having a profound effect on the audience. David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra offered an absolutely compelling interpretation of this finale, despite the enormous dimension of the movement, of the entire symphony, its exhausting demands.


Conclusion

Overall, with only very minor reservations, I once more found the Tonhalle Orchestra to be really excellent. The audience gave a well-deserved, long, standing ovation. However, this was likely also (or even primarily?) a sign of recognition for David Zinman, a sign of gratitude for the orchestra’s achievements over the almost 20 years of his direction, and gratitude for this re-encounter with the conductor, after almost two years.


Addendum

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.



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