Matsuev, Thielemann / Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden
Weber / Liszt / Brahms
KKL, Lucerne, 2018-05-31
The Foundation “Migros Kulturprozent Classics” was the organizer of this concert. The foundation is part the constitutional obligation of the Migros retail chain to spend 1% of its annual budget on cultural ventures and institutions. For this concert in Lucerne’s KKL (Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre), the foundation invited one of Europe’s oldest orchestras, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden (Saxonian State Orchestra Dresden). This goes back to the year 1548. Over its lifetime, the orchestra has seen notable conductors such as the composers Heinrich Schütz (1585 – 1672), Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826), and Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883).
Here, the ensemble worked under the direction of its Chief Conductor, Christian Thielemann (*1959). One should keep in mind that the home venue of the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden is the Semperoper opera house in Dresden. In other words: one of the main tasks for the orchestra is in opera productions. This was my first live encounter with the orchestra, as well as with Christian Thielemann.
The soloist in this concert was the Russian pianist Denis Matsuev (Дени́с Леони́дович Мацу́ев, *1975, see also Wikipedia), one of today’s best pianists, and at the same time a key figure in the Russian music scene in general. Matsuev grew up in Irkutsk, in Siberia. I have witnessed his playing in an exciting solo recital in Zurich, on 2015-11-27. For additional information on the artist see also that earlier concert report.
The concert with Denis Matsuev, Christian Thielemann, and the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden in the White Hall of the KKL was sold out days prior to the concert. One hour prior to the actual concert, the Foundation “Migros Kulturprozent” offered a “pre-concert” under the motto “Our Artists of Tomorrow”. Here, this was a solo recital by the promising, young Swiss cellist Chiara Enderle, held in a smaller concert / theater venue in the same building (KKL). A short review for this is found near the bottom of this posting.
Concert Setup, Program
The orchestra, the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, was here in a rather big formation, filling the KKL’s podium from end to end. It was good to note the “antiphonal” setup, with the two violin voices on wither side of the podium, viola behind the second violins on the right, cellos in the center-left, and the 8 (!) double basses at the rear left. As it turned out, the full setup was only for the opening piece, for which Christian Thielemann selected an overture by one of his predecessors at the head of the orchestra, Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826). For both the second, more lyrical piano concerto in A major by Franz Liszt, as well as for Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No.4, Thielemann (very adequately) used smaller orchestral formations.
My wife and I were sitting in row 18 (out of 26) of the center block parquet seating, Nos. 5 and 6 (from the right), sight and acoustics were excellent, as usual in this venue.
Thielemann opened the program with the overture to the opera “Oberon”, or “The Elf King’s Oath”. Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826), then in bad health, suffering from tuberculosis, composed this 1825/1826, upon a commission by the director of London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden. Weber only ever heard the English, original version of the opera. He did not even start working on a translation before he died in London, in the year of the premiere. The overture is written for 2 flutes, 2 clarinets (in A), 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 4 horns (in D and A), 2 trumpets (in D), 3 trombones (alto, tenor, and bass), strings and timpani.
Although Carl Maria von Weber composed piano works, a fair number of concertos, 2 symphonies, 2 masses, and vocal works with orchestra, he now is mostly known for his operas.
As indicated above, Christian Thielemann’s primary music genre is the opera (see above). With that, he sure has an excellent sense for drama, for dramatic / scenic development, and he knows how to keep the action going in music and on stage. The overture to “Oberon” was a prime example for this. And it was an excellent opening for the concert, with its retained beginning, the initially very gradual build-up.
Very striking (to me) was already the opening horn solo with its vibrating, mellow sound, which remotely reminded me of Wagner tubas. This was followed by muted strings, again in covered, retained sound. With the large number of strings, homogeneity in sound is almost inherent. On the other hand, sound balance may be an issue. However, Thielemann never showed any weakness in keeping the sound balance in control. Never, the strings were too strong or dominant, and at all times, the woodwinds got their adequate share in the rich soundscape.
While the beginning of the overture was very subtle, seemingly evolving gradually, the continuation features stark contrasts. After a fff blast, the piece turns into a virtuosic showpiece. A lyrical segment with excellent clarinet solos follows, and subsequent, dramatic build-up waves gradually lead into an enthralling ending. I enjoyed Thielemann’s ability to maintain excellently dosed rubato. This looked like just another advantage of having an opera conductor perform this music.
Cooperation with the Orchestra
Christian Thielemann’s interaction with the orchestra was excellent, and the perfect functioning of the large apparatus was a good indication for the outstanding quality of the ensemble. Controlling an orchestra of that size isn’t trivial for a conductor. Yet, Thielemann appeared to know exactly how to manage this huge instrumental body. Hereby, the first violins seemed to function flawlessly, with the precision and reliability of a well-adjusted clockwork, even without requiring the concertmaster to exert much, if any visible, active lead work. He wasn’t in Thielemann’s primary field of view anyway.
The other string voices differed from the first violins insofar, as the first desks very actively helped and cooperated with the conductor. This was obvious and most visible with the first cellist. Even just watching his very active and vivid body language, the “conducting” with head, arms and body movements was pure joy!
In his time as a traveling virtuoso, Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) wrote drafts for two piano concertos. The concerto in A major emerged 1839/1840. However, Liszt only returned to the manuscript after a decade, and ultimately, the concerto only reached its final, current form in 1861. It is now known as Piano Concerto No.2 in A major, S.125. The concerto, which is said to be less virtuosic than the Concerto No.1 in E♭ major, S.124, features six sections, all of which are played attacca, forming one single movement:
- I: Adagio sostenuto assai —
- II: Allegro agitato assai —
- III: Allegro moderato —
- IV: Allegro deciso —
- V: Marziale un poco meno allegro —
- VI: Allegro animato
Note that, while in manuscript, Liszt called this work a “Concerto symphonique”.
With Thielemann’s sense for drama, one expected a curtain to open to a stage with operatic action, once the overture finished. However, this was a concert, and so, the lid of the concert grand (Steinway D-274) was opened, and Denis Matsuev sat down at the instrument. I was grateful to note that, as indicated, the orchestra now (and in the subsequent symphony by Brahms) played in a substantially smaller (albeit still not small, of course) formation.
The concerto started with two minor mishaps. In the chamber music-like opening in the woodwinds, the clarinets had intonation issues; these were corrected very soon, though. Then, at the beginning of the piano part, the notorious sound of a mobile phone distracted a part of the audience. Luckily, this only happened after the strings started accompanying the soloist. This remained the only noticeable issues in this near-perfect performance and excellent concert experience.
Adagio sostenuto assai —
Matsuev may not have the hardness of steel that we know from Svjatoslav Richter‘s recordings, nor does his playing have the clarity and lucid transparency of some other top virtuosos. However, he also does not try to demonstrate virtuosity (which of course is simply a requirement with this music).
Allegro agitato assai —
Denis Matsuev’s strength is in his musicality, the immense flexibility in his keyboard touch. And his virtually unlimited power reserves, his inherent technical and musical superiority. He uses these abilities for a truly singing legato. He can make this seamlessly grow into full-fingered, rhapsodic playing, up to eruptions of power. From the latter, he can instantly switch to a lyrical, almost dreamy atmosphere. He can pull sparkling, glittery scale garlands out of his sleeves, and equally almost frighteningly powerful octave cascades.
Allegro moderato —
Complex, parallel, but seemingly “incompatible” rhythmic pattern seem natural, are almost entirely inconspicuous in Matsuev’s playing. In all this, Thielemann and his orchestra always are reliable, extremely attentive partners. The conductor frequently watches back onto the pianists fingers while at the same time conducting, building a relay to the wind instruments. In this segment, the cellist’s placement a little bit behind the position of the keyboard proved to be ideal. Without relaying by the conductor, the cellist could easily and attentively coordinate with the soloist by watching the fingers on the keyboard.
Allegro deciso —
Matsuev’s powerful, sonorous playing was astounding. It was admirable as such, but also because it was devoid of unnecessary keyboard thundering (which Matsuev could do as well, and easily, as I know from videos and his earlier recital that I attended in 2015). I also noted Matsuev’s agility in placing the accents in his complex part.
Marziale un poco meno allegro —
The remarks to the previous movement also apply here. The orchestra may have been a bit too martial. During the concert I even noted “military”! Actually, the annotation calls for Marziale. In any case, there’s the next lyrical segment, which makes one forget about the strongly rhythmic section that preceded.
The final segment started fast, smooth, light, glittering / sparkling, then of course even accelerating where Liszt annotates Stretto (molto accelerando). In that last segment, the piano part again turned brilliant, the orchestra accompanying with brassy fanfares. Strong applause with shouting, etc. was pre-programmed with such an effective ending!
Solo Encore — Tchaikovsky: 18 Morceaux, op.72 – No.5, “Méditation“
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) completed his 18 Morceaux, op.72 in 1893. These Morceaux (pieces) are Tchaikovsky’s last music for piano solo, and the last piano music that was published during the composer’s lifetime.
In his solo recitals, Matsuev typically plays numerous (5 or more) encores. He thinks that these are part of the recital. Here, of course, that would have been inappropriate. But one encore was definitely in order. Matsuev’s choice was excellent! Tchaikovsky’s Méditation is a true highlight of Russian piano literature. It’s a 5-minute composition that includes lyrical, as well as expressive parts, with a broad build-up to an impressive, dramatic climax.
It’s a piece that suits Denis Matsuev very well. He not only has the necessary reserves for the climax after a virtuosic piano concerto, but he also plays it with excellent balance between the melodies in descant and the middle range and the accompaniment in the left hand. At the same time, he plays it with natural, using rubato to highlight the climax. There is no unnecessary pomp, it’s not overblown, yet full of emotion and expression, up to the bitter-sweet, somewhat resignative ending. Simply an excellent rendition of this music!
Brahms: Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98
The Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98 is the last symphony that Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote, 1884. The symphony has four movements:
- Allegro non troppo
- Andante moderato
- Allegro giocoso
- Allegro energico e passionato
A detailed analysis is available via Wikipedia. For now, just briefly: the first three movements are sonata movements (except that the Andante moderato has no development section), the last movement is an extensive set of (30) variations with a coda.
I. Allegro non troppo
The beginning stroke with notably mellow, gentle articulation in the strings. Equally remarkable: the careful and detailed dynamics, forming long, harmonious phrases, big arches. Thielemann’s interpretation linked the form segments in the movement to a single, comprehensible entity. And this is a symphony movement that usually is not easy on the listener. One “bracket” that held the movement together was the tension which Thielemann was able to keep up, also through lyrical segments, using an excellent dosage of agogics. In the dramatic sections, there was a distinct “pull”, and the entire movement was anything but the cool-distanced work of an aging composer, but full of internal fire, burning emotions, almost vehemently erupting in the coda.
II. Andante moderato
Most remarkable in this movement: the woodwinds, so careful in articulation and dynamics, the excellent sonority, particularly in the clarinets, even in pp. And the decent pizzicato in the main theme, which again is one single, big phrase. In the second theme, the violins stand out with their singing, sonorous cantilenas.
Obviously, conductor and orchestra are intimately familiar with each other’s intent. I noted that Thielemann made fairly big movements with his long baton, even when the music was pp. In other orchestras, this might have caused the playing to be too loud. Here, however, it led to an intensification of the sound. To me, this movement expressed a plenitude of warm emotions. It’s for a reason that at the climax, the movement breaks out into ff staccato. And also here: harmonious evolution, one single, dramatic arch, with a broad, dramatic-epic climax.
III. Allegro giocoso
This “hidden Scherzo” was a movement full of drive and momentum, high-spirited, at a challenging tempo. Thielemann conducted loosely, lightly, yet managed to “keep the music together”. Excellent sonority and dynamic control of horns and bassoons in the Poco meno mosso segment (filling the role of a short Trio). Brahms might have thought of this as a being “very big sound”. However, that was just one component which was impressive in its own way; the key was that movement and symphony formed a compelling dramatic entity.
IV. Allegro energico e passionato
…and another opportunity to witness a theater conductor in action! Thielemann knows how not to drop the tension! And there are moments in this movement that definitely felt like being part of an opera, illustrating some action on stage! Here, as well as throughout the symphony, the brass instruments and woodwinds fully deserved the special applause that they received.
An excellent, compelling performance, overall!
Encore — Weber: Overture to the Opera “Euryanthe”
Christian Thielemann could not resist offering an encore. And for this, he closed the circle to the opening overture, ending the evening with the Overture to the Opera “Euryanthe”, again by Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826). This opera premiered in 1823. It rarely appears on stages today, mainly because of the notoriously weak libretto by Helmina von Chézy (1783 – 1856). However, the overture to the opera survived to this day and is a prime example of the German Romantic style. At the same time, it’s a little orchestral showpiece, brilliant and virtuosic.
Here now, this overture turned into a last dance. Thielemann selected a demanding tempo, maybe somewhat “on the edge” in the dramatic, excited parts. The piece may have been a little too boisterous for an overture. However, here, this was not the opening of an opera, but the final encore, expressing the high-spirited feelings after a successful concert. Quite obviously these feelings were shared among both the musicians and the audience.
Undeniably, Christian Thielemann has a certain tendency towards showmanship, even self-presentation. However, who wants to deny him the pleasure, the joy about his own achievements with the orchestra, the latter’s excellent, flawless performance? Also, I found his interpretations to be absolutely compelling. I’m convinced that the obvious enjoyment about his own success was genuine and sincere, came from his heart.
Pre-Concert: Chiara Enderle
With many (most?) of their classical concerts, the Migros Kulturprozent Foundation adds a half-hour pre-concert, scheduled an hour prior to the main event. This runs under the title “Our Artists of Tomorrow” and is typically a solo recital, in which young, next-generation artists get a chance of making themselves heard in front of a bigger audience (the ticket for the main concert includes free access to the pre-concert). As mentioned above, that pre-concert was given held in a smaller concert / theater venue in the same building (KKL). It’s actually more of a theater hall, with the stage being at the lowest point, the audience (comfortable leather seats) sloping up from the stage, and very dry / muffled acoustics, as typical for theater venues.
Here, the young artist was the promising Swiss cellist Chiara Enderle (*1992), see my report on a very successful concert in Zurich on 2018-04-13 for information. There is one thing to add to the information in that concert report: as already indicated back then, Chiara Enderle has indeed now joined the renowned Carmina Quartet. The ensemble has just undergone a re-formation, after the tragic loss of the second violinist. The quartet now consists of Chiara’s parents, the founding members Matthias Enderle (first violin) and Wendy Champney (viola), plus now the violinist Agata Lazarczyk, and Chiara Enderle at the cello.
Mirko Vaiz of the Migros Kulturprozent Foundation briefly introduced Chiara Enderle, then the artist commented the pieces she was going to play. She explained that she selected pieces that demonstrate the full range of possibilities that the instrument offers.
The cellist started with a centerpiece of the cello repertoire,, the Cello Suite No.6 in D major, BWV 1012, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). This is the most tricky one of the suites, as it was originally written for a violoncello piccolo with 5 rather than just 4 strings. The artist played the Prélude, the Allemande, and the closing Gigue. All this is music that I know and like, ever since I had the 1938 recording by Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973).
I did not envy the artist here. Playing in this acoustically so muffled venue must have felt rather lonely, isolated. Still, Chiara seemed completely unaffected by the environment. She was neither shy nor nervous, and her explanations (through microphone) came over clear and understandable. The fact that her pronunciation was not devoid of Swiss German accent only made her personality more likable. Of course, the artist played from memory. Amazingly, she even appeared to make eye contact with the audience. This may have been sub-conscious, but it indicated the mastership in playing that she had attained in these pieces.
A lively performance, never a tad uniform or mechanical, let alone dull. It was differentiated in the articulation (a vivid mix of legato and light détaché playing, up to a soft staccato), fluent in the tempo, but subtle in agogics and dynamics, and firm in the intonation, up to the highest segments, up in the “eternal snow” (as cellists call it). It was definitely her own interpretation, not an imitation of an existing performance. Undoubtedly, this interpretation will mature over time, probably become more coherent in this most difficult movement—I just hope it will not lose the refreshing, youthful aspects!
A tricky, slow dance movement—with the particular challenge of showing the dance character, despite the slow, measured tempo. Chiara Enderle with a gentle swaying in the rhythm / agogics, playing with a free, naturally swaying vibrato, also exposing the very pleasing sonority of her instrument (despite the uphill battle with the acoustics!). The first part was repeated, the second one was not. That’s understandable with the time constraints in this short recital.
I liked the slightly percussive, but light articulation in this movement. It was an enthralling dance in an excellent, harmonious performance. I liked the “swing” that persisted throughout the movement—congrats!
Penderecki: Capriccio per Siegfried Palm (1968)
The program continued with a piece by Krzysztof Penderecki (*1933). The Capriccio per Siegfried Palm from 1968. Siegfried Palm (1927 – 2005) was a well-known German cellist, teacher, and opera director. This Capriccio is a real fun piece! For one, it covers the entire gamut of standard cello articulation, from pizzicato, staccato, tremolo, legato, col legno, flageolet, etc. to sul ponticello and sul tasto playing, even bowing, pizzicato and flageolet whistling behind the bridge, bowing on the string holder, and knocking / percussion on various parts of the instrument, alarm signals, tones reminding of synthetic / computer sounds. The music alternates between rhythmically structured and free segments, plays with accelerando, fermatas, listening, and letting the instrument resonate.
In addition, the piece leaves substantial freedom to the artist, in that it allows for improvisation, leaves it open how often to repeat certain segments. It is hard to think of options that Penderecki did not explore with this music!
I had not heard this music before (the program had not been announced beforehand, and of course I don’t have the sheet music), so I enjoyed this music without a reference. But it definitely was truly enjoyable, fun, entertaining. Thanks for that performance! I can fully understand why—as Chiara Enderle mentioned—the week before, while on tour in Chile, a primary school class (2nd and 3rd grade) unanimously declared that piece the most interesting / fun one within this recital program!
Cassadó: Suite for Cello Solo
Gaspar Cassadó (1897 – 1966) was a Spanish (sorry, Catalan) cellist and composer, born in Barcelona, a pupil of Pablo Casals. The Suite for Cello Solo is a work from 1926. Chiara Enderle played the last out of three movements, an Intermezzo e Danza Finale (actually a Jota). As Chiara Enderle explained, that Suite combines influences from Bach’s solo suites (which Casals once re-discovered and had brought back to popularity), as well as popular Spanish folk dance music.
The movement (and Chiara Enderle’s performance) indeed combined the typical harmonies, ornaments and melodies of Spanish, flamenco-like folk music, melodious cantilenas, intense instrumental singing, but also flageolet and pizzicato playing, and equally more baroque style segments with scales and fioriture, then again enthralling rhythms—a true excerpt / cross-section of what we perceive as Spanish in music! Occasionally, the artist appeared to impersonate an entire folk music band, both accompaniment and soloist: fascinating!
Undoubtedly, that short, half-hour recital was very much worth attending. It demonstrated the artist’s abilities, the breadth of her repertoire, and at the same time it also introduced music that most in the audience will not have known: thanks & congratulations!
A Personal Note in the Aftermath
To me, this concert started with a little mishap. Luckily, one with a solution that touched me enough to share it here.
I had applied for this event through Bachtrack.com, i.e., I asked to review the concert for Bachtrack’s online site (see below). This means that Bachtrack would organize one or two press tickets for me. Whether I get a ticket, and whether I get one or two tickets is up to the concert organizer (who will decide based upon the number of available seats). In this case, I had asked for two tickets, as my wife was interested in attending the concert, too. My fault was that I forgot to check whether indeed I was assigned two seats, or just one (it is rather rare that such requests are not filled, and when this happened in the past, I had been alerted that only one ticket would be available).
So, in the false expectation to receive two tickets, I traveled to Lucerne. I was early, as I also wanted to attend Chiara Enderle’s pre-concert. My wife was to follow about an hour later, for the main concert, as she was still teaching that afternoon.
At the Ticket Counter
I happily collected the envelope with my name from the ticket counter. However, when I opened it after a couple of minutes, to my bad surprise, I only saw one ticket. Thinking it was an error with the packing or the ticket allocation, I went back to the ticket counter, where research revealed that only one ticket had been assigned by the Migros Kulturprozent Foundation. And the concert was sold out, so no chance to purchase a second ticket.
I did some research on my part as well, looking through my e-mail archives (on my iPad), and I then—to my dismay—found that indeed only one ticket had been allocated, and this had been communicated to Bachtrack, but I obviously failed to see that information. Too bad!
In the Pre-Concert
So, I went up to the first floor, into a smaller theater-like concert hall, where Chiara Enderle’s recital was to start within around 20 – 25 minutes. I sat down in the center of the auditorium, which was slowly getting populated. Once seated, I called my wife, telling her the bad news that she would not have a ticket for Matsuev. She was already on the train to Lucerne, so there was no way she could return home (and the train ticket would have been non-refundable anyway). I was glad to realize that she was wearing it with composure, expecting to spend two hours at the lake of Lucerne.
Minutes before the solo recital was to start, the hall was reasonably well-filled; I was surrounded by people. Then, somebody from the row behind me tapped on my shoulder. It was Ms. Escana (?) from the Migros Kulturprozent Foundation. She asked whether I’m indeed Rolf Kyburz (how did she know I was in the pre-concert, and how on earth did she find me among all those people?? I must be standing out like a sore thumb!). She said she heard about the incident with the ticket, and that apparently only one ticket had been ordered. Nevertheless, she now had a second ticket for me! I was of course both totally surprised and delighted, but also speechless and really touched by this generous gesture. After all, I regard the mishap as entirely my personal fault!
Many, many thanks to the Foundation, indeed! This actually fits into my experience with these people. They are always extremely friendly and competent, and it has happened several times in their concerts that in the intermission their Music Project Leader, Mirko Vaiz, approached me in the auditorium, just to say hello, and to ask whether everything was OK. And that’s on top of a free press ticket! Sure, I put a lot of time and effort into careful concert reviews (and detailed ones, too, in my blog). However, I don’t just get the free ticket, but I also have the immense pleasure of hearing so much interesting music. That alone is plenty of compensation for my reviews! So: thanks again for this extremely pleasant surprise!
For this concert I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I created 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.