Martin Fröst, Sakari Oramo / Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Liebermann / Mozart / Mahler

KKL, Lucerne, 2019-03-22

4.5-star rating

2019-03-26 — Original posting



Introduction

And here we are again at the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL), for another concert organized by Migros Kulturprozent Classics—the third one in 2019. As last time (2019-01-27), this was the final one of three concerts, with the preceding ones in Zurich and Geneva.

As with most concerts that Migros Kulturprozent Classics organize in Zurich and Lucerne, there was also a pre-concert, one hour prior to the start of main concert.

Program

Artists

At the center of the concert stood the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (see also Wikipedia) under its Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor Sakari Markus Oramo (*1965).

The soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was Martin Fröst (*1970, see also Wikipedia). Fröst is one of the world’s foremost clarinet soloists. In fact, he is so well-known (member of only a handful of top clarinet players) that I don’t need to introduce him here. I didn’t just know about him—I have actually reviewed one of his recordings in a small comparison post on the clarinet concertos by Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775 – 1838).

Setting, etc.

The White Hall of the KKL in Lucerne was fairly full in this concert. My wife and I had seats in the center of row 22 (seats 13 & 14).


KKL, White Hall, 2019-03-22 (© Rolf Kyburz)
KKL, White Hall, 2019-03-22 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Liebermann: “Furioso” for big orchestra (1945)

“Furioso” for big orchestra from 1945 (the work premiered in Dortmund in 1947) is the first work that made Rolf Liebermann (1910 – 1999) known as a composer. The short piece (ca. 8 minutes total) consists of three movements / segments:

  1. Allegro vivace, furioso
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro vivace, Tempo I

The Composer

Rolf Liebermann grew up in Switzerland, born into a Family with German origin. He went through high school, then studied law at the University of Zurich (1929 – 1933). After these studies, he started composing chansons and participated in cabaret performances. 1936, he attended a conducting course with Hermann Scherchen (1891 – 1966) in Budapest. The following year, he became Scherchen’s assistant in Vienna. After his military service, he seriously began studying composition, taking lessons with Wladimir Vogel (1896 – 1984).

Composing was just one of Liebermann’s activities. He is mostly remembered as director of the Hamburg Staatsoper, first 1959 – 1973, then again 1985 – 1988. In the years 1973 – 1980 he was director of the Paris Opera.

The Performance

With this introductory piece—it seems to be written for exactly that purpose—Sakari Oramo presented his orchestra in a large formation, with plenty of brass and even more percussion. The ensemble used a modern (American?) arrangement, with the two violins on the left, followed by viola and cellos, the double basses on the far right. Sakari Oramo conducted with clear, fast and precise gestures: he was in control at all times, didn’t need much (visible) support from the first desks. Orchestra and conductor obviously have grown together, forming a strong, coherent team.

Liebermann’s Furioso is a virtuosic orchestral showpiece, very effective, if not spectacular, especially with its strong, brass- and percussion-driven beginning, and with the ascending, fast passages in the violins. Musically, though, the first movement is structurally simple, mostly based on short motifs / thematic fragments—and short enough not to turn into an “ear worm”.

The central Andante takes one into an impressionist atmosphere, reminding of orchestral music by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918): sound “planes”, colors, atmosphere, more melodic than the opening movement, harmonically open, not reaching a tonal “goal”. Still, it constantly builds up into the final movement. The latter resumes on the material from the opening segment, with poignant, “brassy” exclamations / fanfares—and a sudden, unexpected ending. Homage to Switzerland as host country for this little tour? A splashy opening, not much more—very well-played, though, and certainly a nice way to present the orchestra!

Rating: ★★★★


Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A major, K.622

In October 1791, in the last months of his life, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed his Clarinet Concerto in A major, K.622, for the then famous clarinetist Anton Stadler (1753 – 1812). The manuscript did not survive history, but there is little doubt that the concerto was intended for the basset clarinet in C, if not for the basset horn. The former goes a third further down than the standard clarinet, the basset horn reaches even lower. Most often, though, the clarinet concerto K.622 is performed on a standard clarinet in A. The artists then transpose the few segments that are out of reach by an octave. There are three movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio
  3. Rondo: Allegro

The Performance

The Mozart concerto used a much smaller orchestra—not only because the brass and percussion weren’t needed, but also because Sakari Oramo relied upon a substantially smaller number of string players. That turned out to be an excellent move—not just in view of “historical correctness”, but also, because Martin Fröst was performing on a basset clarinet. That instrument has softer, more mellow, less poignant sound characteristics than the standard clarinet. Moreover, Martin Fröst’s specific interpretation actually mandated a small orchestra, a more intimate accompaniment. But let’s see how that performance went:

I. Allegro

The contrast to the opening piece could hardly have been any bigger! Mellow, soft string sound, gentle contours—both were actually disguising the fairly fluent tempo. Still, the articulation as light, the dynamics lively and differentiated—it felt like a refined, often intimate rococo soundscape!

The explanation for the orchestral playing in the introduction came with the solo. I had been aware of Martin Fröst’s highly refined, differentiated playing from recordings. However, this (first) live encounter was absolutely mind-boggling. Even considering the specific characteristics of the basset clarinet, Fröst’s interpretation opened up new dimensions. The smoothness in his articulation, his legato playing, how he could start a phrase at the finest of pp, gently shape phrases without ever reaching into the typical “clarinet register”—that’s all unheard of! Only in the broken staccato chords over two octaves—also these so subtle, almost inconspicuous—one could sense a remote “taste of clarinet”. Often enough, Fröst’s subtle articulation made the instrument sound like a flute more than a reed instrument.

Fröst skipped the colla parte playing that the score suggests, restricting his part to the segments marked Solo. That was a wise decision, which rendered these segments even more precious. Beginning with the very short cadenza in bar 127, the soloist started adding occasional ornaments, small arabesques—very harmonious, and so subtle also these! The “main” cadenza (bar 315) was short, not a showpiece at all—except for the extreme decrescendo into the most subtle ppp. With his extremely diligent accompaniment, Oramo made sure that Martin Fröst’s solo part retained its central place in the concerto, at all times, even in the smooth semiquaver passagework, where the soloist takes the function of accompanist to the orchestra.

II. Adagio

The soloist set the tone already in the first bars: so incredibly gentle, so serene—and so calm throughout the movement! Mozart made no dynamic annotations in the “solo” segments. Martin Fröst kept his part mostly in the p – pp range, carefully shaped the dynamics in every motif, every phrase. Oramo supported this by rarely raising the volume above mf (even when Mozart marks f in pure orchestral segments).

The crowning of the evening was in the cadenza, where Fröst lowered the volume to the finest pppp. It was so soft and subtle that one could have heard a pin drop in the hall. And after the cadenza, he continued ppp, again harmoniously accompanied by the most discreet playing in the orchestra. Only in the last bars, where the solo moves towards the upper end of its range, Martin Fröst gave us a “slight scent” of clarinet sound—albeit still far from the ordinary.

III. Rondo: Allegro

Here, Fröst chose a very vivid tempo, making the solo part sound extremely fluent, smooth, light, easy, “flying”. There was no show element (ever in this concerto)—just pure delight, joy, serenity, playfulness. And this last movement also made the listener realize the extreme versatility of the (basset) clarinet, probably exceeding that of any other wind instrument (certainly in Martin Fröst’s hands!), reaching from flute-like tones up to (almost & rarely) the sound of a saxophone.

Only in the coda, in the solo starting in bar 301, Fröst’s playing turned a little more agitated, gave the music more of a dancing character, maybe a taste of virtuosity. Sure, the latter was at the highest possible level from the first to the last bar throughout the concerto. However, Martin Fröst’s playing is way beyond technicalities and virtuosity, and far, far from any show element. And the accompaniment by Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra could not have been more supportive—simply congenial!

Rating: ★★★★★

A truly stellar performance that truly deserved the standing ovation!


Encore — Fröst: Solo Improvisation and Klezmer

Clearly, the audience expected an encore. Martin Fröst started with some ascending and descending scales, all ppp—then stopped, announcing that he “changed his mind”. He explained that he always wanted to improvise, but never really gave it a try. He explained that the best place to try something new (be it a new language, or improvising) is on stage. And so, he would do that now, and “if that was successful”, it might lead into a Klezmer tune…

For this, Fröst had changed to the standard clarinet (in B♭, presumably). He started off with isolated tones between which he started filling in scales, broken chords, rhythmic noise, fluttering tones, extreme dynamic contrasts, ending at the softest ppppp, where the sound of the instrument seemed to disappear into infinity. Then, all of a sudden (prepared, of course), we found ourselves immersed in an enthralling Klezmer tune, with orchestral accompaniment. Here, Martin Fröst even vastly expanded the scope of his playing into extreme virtuosity, also moving into the upper dynamic range, where in the end he mixed voice and playing, ending with croaky sounds… ah, more of this, please! The applause was frenetic, understandably!


Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra @ KKL, 2019-03-22 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra @ KKL, 2019-03-22 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Mahler: Symphony No.1 in D major, “Titan”

Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) composed his Symphony No.1 in D major, “Titan” in 1887 / 1888. The symphony has four movements as follows:

  1. Langsam, schleppend, Wie ein Naturlaut — Sehr gemächlich
    (Slowly, dragging. Like a sound from nature — Very restrained)
  2. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell — Trio: Recht gemächlich
    (Moving strongly, but not too quickly — Trio: Rather restrained)
  3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen — Sehr einfach und schlicht wie eine Volksweise — Wieder etwas bewegter, wie im Anfang
    (Solemn and measured, without dragging — Very simple, like a folk-tune — Once again somewhat more agitated, as at the start)
  4. Stürmisch bewegt – Energisch
    (Stormily agitated – Energetic)

I have heard the symphony in concert twice in the past (2016-06-16 in Zurich, and in Lucerne, 2018-09-14)—see there for additional information on the composition.

The Performance

I. Langsam, schleppend, Wie ein Naturlaut — Sehr gemächlich

The ppp beginning in the strings was unnoticeable, started out of nothing. In fact, the string playing was so subtle that the falling pp fourths in the woodwinds unexpectedly felt a tad superficial, “too substantial”. But maybe that was merely a matter of adapting to the dynamics? The subsequent triplets in the clarinets (starting in bar 9) were creating the right, mysterious atmosphere.

Oramo carefully controlled the dynamics, explored the soft end of the scale in particular. At the same time, he seemed to aim for clarity in the sound, and he was very careful in phrasing and dynamics. During the exposition, the accelerando (“very gradual”, according to the score) felt a bit pushed. Oramo did (sadly) not repeat the exposition. However, with this amount of build-up in the pace, the return to the initial, mysterious atmosphere and doing the build-up again might have been a bit of a challenge.

After the exposition, tempo changes, as well as the interpretation in general seemed to aim for clarity, avoided “nebulous” sound as well as emotional exaggerations, or excessive rubato. Clearly, Oramo’s personal approach to the symphony: in a way the contrary of exuberant approaches such as by Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990). Still, also Oramo’s final bars were boisterous, for sure.

A more anecdotal note: wax it just my impression that Martin Fröst’s extremely differentiated playing prior to the intermission dramatically exacerbated the caricature aspect of the clarinet interjections, where Mahler explicitly asks for the instruments to be held up towards the audience? I could not resist smiling! — ★★★½

II. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell — Trio: Recht gemächlich

The Scherzo (with repeat) felt lively, fresh, devoid of clumsiness, rather retained momentum throughout, and Oramo sure exploited the folkloric fun aspects, even ventured into caricature (around [6] in the score). The performance was careful in dynamics, very colorful, and exceptionally clear.

The Trio was playful, humorous, yet natural. The tempo followed Mahler’s meticulous, but often somewhat nebulous annotations (e.g.: “quite comfortable, but somewhat slower than… “, etc.). It was a pleasure to note that Oramo left all freedom in agogics to the woodwinds, where Mahler annotates Zeit lassen (“Take your time”).

The return to Tempo I was instantaneous, immediate, and the performance developed a real pull towards the ending splash. — ★★★★

III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen — Sehr einfach und schlicht wie eine Volksweise

Oramo kept the muted double bass solo with its children’s song totally in the dark, very restrained. Only when the woodwinds joined in, the melody gained presence and clarity. The atmosphere remained mysterious, stayed in semidarkness, until Mahler specifies “With parody”. Here, orchestra and conductor followed the composer’s extreme rubato instructions down to the finest detail: parody, indeed, between funfair dancing and cozy Viennese Schrammelmusik atmosphere.

Throughout the movement, Oramo’s tempo concept appeared conclusive, compelling: the conductor lived in this music! And also here, in the last segment, when the children’s song returns, the memory of Martin Fröst’s basset clarinet playing made the very prominent clarinet interjections (keck, i.e., “cheeky”) sound like extreme caricatures! It felt as if combining Fröst’s Mozart with the Mahler symphony was planned in order to enhance these contrasts? — ★★★★

IV. Stürmisch bewegt – Energisch

The splashy beginning of the final movement seemed deliberately loud, even noisy, and immediately, the listener felt like in an exuberant, boisterous funfair scenery. In that entire first part, up to the first fff climax, the orchestral performance was brilliant, the coordination excellent, Oramo’s concept conclusive, compelling.

The middle part (molto ritenuto) demonstrated the ability of the high strings to produce an intense, expressive cantabile, with mellow, silken sound quality. What first sounds like a climax instantly returns to mysterious semidarkness, initially very controlled, until the stormy beginning returns.

In all details, Sakari Oramo’s interpretation seemed conclusive, offered an excellent and detailed view of Mahler’s score. However, it was that long final movement which perhaps exposed a subtle weakness in Oramo’s performance: I experienced a loss of tension in the last part of the movement. Momentarily, this made me long for a more impulsive, more spontaneous (less controlled?) performance: I was longing for a pinch of Leonard Bernstein, or of Georg Solti (1912 – 1997), maybe? Sure, Oramo is (and he better be!) neither Bernstein nor Solti: a personal view is always more valuable than any imitation. And a personal view it definitely was! — ★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Encore — Alfvén: Festspel for Grand Orchestra, op.25 / Rudén 59 (1907)

Sakari Oramo did not release the audience without a little gift from the orchestra’s home country: he announced the Festspiel (Festspel för stor orkester), op.25 (Rudén 59), a work from 1907 by the Swedish composer, conductor, violinist, and painter Hugo Alfvén (1872 – 1960). At his time, Alfvén was known as one of Sweden’s best-known composers. The bulk of his oeuvre as composer consists of orchestral works, among them five symphonies.

I can understand why Alfvén’s music is so popular in Sweden: a joyful, if not boisterous, triumph march of sorts, with catchy motifs. It is full of momentum, with a contrasting, lyrical middle part—unpretentious music, and excellent last dance, and fun for both all musicians, as well as the audience!


Pre-Concert: Marie Lys, Soprano

Marie Lys (© Clive Barda)
Marie Lys (© Clive Barda)

The pre-concert (see the introduction above) featured a promising soprano, Marie Lys (born in Lausanne, Switzerland), a young artist who receives support by the Foundation “Migros Kulturprozent Classics”. Marie Lys took her musical education from the Haute École de Musique (HÉMU) de Lausanne (Bachelor, prize for the best recital), later from the Royal College of Music in London (graduation with First Class Honors in 2014, following up with the International Opera School, graduation in 2016). Marie Lys now studies with Rachel Bersier. At the same time, she is also launching a career as opera singer. In recent years, Marie Lys has already won prizes at several competitions, and she has appeared at festivals in Switzerland, Germany, U.K., and France.

Céline Latour Monnier, Piano

For this recital, Marie Lys relied upon the accompaniment by Céline Latour Monnier at the Steinway B-211 grand piano. Céline Latour Monnier holds a teaching position in score reading, transposition, and sight reading for singers, at the HEM (Haute école de musique Genève-Neuchâtel).

Venue, Setting

Pre-concerts that the Foundation “Migros Kulturprozent Classics” organizes are held in a venue called “Auditorium”—a cinema-like venue with a small stage and ascending audience seating (comfortable leather seats). The audience was filled to the last seat—that’s the first time that I saw this happen in a pre-concert. My wife and I had seats around row 8, about half-way up, at the left-hand edge (so I could take photos without irritating others). With the exception of Marie Lys’ press photo above, all pre-concert photos are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).

As typical for a Lied performance, the lid of the grand piano was fully open.

The Recital Program

For this recital, Marie Lys selected the following Lieder:

Performance

Appearance

I liked Marie Lys’ self-assured, open appearance, as she entered the stage, took the microphone and introduced herself and the pianist, Céline Latour Monnier. She also verbally announced the program, mentioning Grieg’s op.48, 3 Lieder by Mozart, and “Stille Tränen” bei Schumann, see above. She did that in clear German, excellent pronunciation (and of course a slight, nice French accent). Marie Lys didn’t show obvious signs of nervousness—certainly, her stage training and experience helped her in that first confrontation.

While singing, Marie Lys used (adequate) facial mimics, retained a calm, firm posture (in line with the requirements for proper voice support and the need to project); rarely she supported the singing through gestures with arms and hands. I liked all this: in Lied presentations, too much “theater” and action can easily irritate, even with dramatic songs such as ballades. Here, however, all Lieder were of lyrical nature.

Acoustics, Balance, etc.

I did not envy the singer. The acoustics in this venue are completely dry, devoid of reverberation and support. I can easily imagine that this feels like a shock to a singer. However, if this had been the case here, Marie Lys was excellent at hiding it. And again, her stage experience very likely helped her getting across such psychological barriers.

I suspect that when selecting and preparing the repertoire for this presentation, the two musicians were not aware or could not anticipate the acoustic characteristics of the venue. A “stronger”, more dramatic Lied (or a ballad?) might have made the beginning of the recital easier for both musicians. I felt that the subtle, somewhat scarce accompaniment with the Grieg Lieder not only made it unnecessarily hard for the musicians, but it also made it more difficult for the audience to connect with the singer.

Voice

Marie Lys’ soprano voice features a warm timbre, very evenly balanced across her vocal range, without major ruptures between the registers. Near the top end (an area which she only reached towards the end of the recital), the voice started to feel somewhat narrow, slightly strained. The projection is good, given the warmth of her timbre. Sure, in terms of volume, the singer still has development potential, especially towards the bottom end. However, Marie Lys showed excellent command & control over her voice and surely deserved the applause that she received.

Vibrato

Marie Lys’ vibrato is fairly strong, but still harmonious, not too nervous. In the Lieder by Grieg, it felt appropriate and suited the character of the music well (though, I think that a more lyrical voice would fit this music just as much). The vibrato went along with the necessary flexibility for ornaments. My only quibble: some of the occasional trills were hard to discern within neighboring notes “with only vibrato“. In the three Lieder by Mozart, however, I personally found the vibrato to be too strong, too dramatic, obscuring the serene, lyrical nature of these pieces.

Pronunciation / Diction

Marie Lys sang all Lieder in German. That is definitely adequate even for the songs by Edvard Grieg, as these Lieder were on German poems. The singer’s diction was very good (especially considering that German is not her primary language), though not over-accentuating the “German specialties” such as aspired “t”, ending “d”, or the glottalization of vowels (Vokalansatz). The text of the Lieder was understandable: Marie Lys adopted the German language flow very well.

It was mostly in details, such as the coloring of some vowels, that gave an indication that the singer’s mother tongue is French. One other indication for this was the hesitation to apply proper pronunciation of dich (which French people tend to make sound like “dish”), as well as doch (or Dach, Buch). The latter was too soft: it should have more of a grinding quality, towards “kh”. But overall, these were negligible details (and not unexpected for French-speaking singers).

Repertoire

Grieg’s op.48 (the composer’s last song cycle) is a gem in the repertoire: a harmonious ensemble, building up from a restrained beginning towards the intense, more expressive last song. After Grieg, Mozart’s Lieder felt rather light-weight, easy-going. Would it have been better to start with these?

Schumann’s Stille Tränen, however, is in a class of its own and deserves a placement at the end of the recital, crowning the presentation, in a way. For the voice, the Song ends with an expressive climax. Thereafter, the piano calms down in a short coda, ending in an Adagio fermata. In the recital, this felt like a little question mark (the last C major chord has E as the top note), left the listener with the feeling of “something unfinished”. This can be explained by the Lied that follows (Wer machte dich so krank?), with the annotation Langsam, leise (slow, silent). If Stille Tränen is to end the recital, then maybe that last chord should have sounded a little more affirmative?

Accompaniment

The dry acoustics also affected both the singer, as well as the accompaniment. On top of that, the piano accompaniment (at least initially) sounded rather dry, thin. Céline Latour Monnier played very carefully, aiming for clarity, and apparently very cautious about not drowning the singer in the sound of the piano. However, my impression was that this was vastly overdone—Marie Lys’ voice has enough volume and projection to cope with stronger, denser accompaniment.

So, even though the lid of the instrument was open, the pianist should probably have adjusted the volume and the pedaling, in order to counter-act the dry acoustics, and to offer additional support to the singer: the restrained piano accompaniment (certainly in the first Lieder by Grieg) further exposed the singer’s voice, aggravated the acoustic challenges in this venue.

I apologize for somewhat marginalizing Céline Latour Monnier’s contribution: focus and attention in this recital were on the singer.



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