2017-04-26 — Original posting
Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-04-20
Jan Mráček, Mélodie Zhao, Vladimir Fedoseyev
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
I have also written a review for this concert on Bachtrack.com, in German. This text is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.
The Orpheum Foundation
For me, this was the third Concert organized by and for the Zurich-based Orpheum Foundation (“Orpheum — Young Soloists on Stage”). That foundation has helped initiating the careers of famous soloists such as Martin Grubinger (*1983), Yuja Wang (*1987), and Vilde Frang (*1986). See also my earlier blog posts for reports on the concerts on 2015-09-04 (Kyoungmin Park, Nikolaj Znaider, Philippe Jordan / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich) and on 2016-08-31 (Sophie Pacini, Marc Bouchkov, Lionel Bringuier / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich), both in the Tonhalle Zurich, as this one.
Orchestra & Conductor
In this case, the orchestra was not the local Tonhalle Orchestra, but the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra under its conductor, Vladimir Ivanovich Fedoseyev (*1932). Fedoseyev is also in the steering committee of the Orpheum Foundation (for additional information on Vladimir Fedoseyev see Wikipedia). At age 85, he has conducted this orchestra ever since 1973, for 44 years—a remarkable achievement!
The sheer view of the orchestra was unusual: given the large number of people in the audience, the podium had been left at minimum size, and for the introductory symphonic poem, the full formation of the of the ensemble (some 100 musicians total, among them 16 first violins, about the same number of second violins on the right hand side) was crammed into the narrow space: a large spectrum, from young musicians to white-haired, senior members.
In line with the name of the ensemble, the program of this concert featured works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) exclusively.
I have written about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphonic Poem “Francesca da Rimini” in the context of an earlier concert. I won’t repeat that text here, other than mentioning that this work was composed in Bayreuth, in the fall of 1876.
It was fascinating to observe the musicians in the orchestra at work! There obviously is a wealth of professional experience and familiarity with Tchaikovsky’s music in this ensemble. However, at no time in this concert did I ever see any sign of “mere routine” or “courant normal“: one could not see any musician playing passively or leaning back in his/her chair (well, OK, in this setting this would have meant a collision with the desk behind!). Everybody, from the concertmaster to the double bass players in the rear left corner of the podium, showed total engagement, permanent active presence. And the result reflected this, both in clarity and virtuosity.
Very adequately for this composition, the orchestra sound was dominated by the strings. I had the impression that the narrow seating on the podium even strengthened the association, the interconnection among the musicians on stage. The overall volume was astounding. The violin sound felt very dense—and yet, despite the large number of instruments, the articulation remained excellent, and also fast ornaments such as passages, turns, etc. were clear and well-synchronized. The wind section sounded like a single instrument amidst the large string body, entirely integrated into the orchestra.
Conductor / Interpretation
Vladimir Fedoseyev conducted without baton, with rather economic gestures (given his age, I didn’t expect him to jump around on the podium!). Yet, he achieved an enthralling, very impressive interpretation and performance. The whirling winds (which drag, carry the lovers into hell for all eternity) felt extremely emotional and dramatic. At the same time, there were these touching, sad, yet beautiful melodies, indicating memories of past moments in intense happiness. Towards the virtuosic ending, there were excellent dialogs between the two violin voices, sitting at opposite ends of the podium. Overall, I found this to be a consistent, convincing interpretation, excellent orchestral performance from beginning to end.
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, op.35
The Czech violinist Jan Mráček was born 1991 in Plzeň. Both his parents were violinists. He started playing the violin at age 5. From 2003 on, he studied at the Prague Conservatory under the guidance of Jiří Fišer, for 10 years. 2011, he became the youngest soloist with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. He hook master classes with several international soloists and won the second prize at the Prague Spring 2010. In 2014 , he won the first prize at the International Fritz Kreisler Competition in Vienna. He now (2016) studies at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, with the concertmaster of the Wiener Symphoniker, Jana Pospíchala.
Tchaikovsky wrote his Violin Concerto in D major, op.35, in 1878, in Clarens, a Swiss resort at Lake Geneva. This is both one of the best known, as well as one of the technically most difficult concertos for the violin. It features three movements—all following each other attacca, i.e., without a break.
- Allegro moderato (D major, 1/4 = 126) —
- Canzonetta: Andante (G minor, 1/4 = 84) —
- Finale: Allegro vivacissimo (D major)
I. Allegro moderato
The violin concerto started with a surprise: the tempo was clearly below Tchaikovsky’s metronome rate of 1/4 = 126; it was actually below 1/4 = 100, very slow for an Allegro moderato—rather an Andante. My first thought was: “but this can’t possibly be to accommodate a soloist’s technical limitations??”. Fortunately, it soon became clear that the reason was rather a conscious, deliberate choice. Indeed, the soloist’s technical abilities are excellent: Jan Mráček’s playing was superb, convincing from beginning to end. He took advantage of the slower pace, with careful, diligent playing, showing detailed articulation and phrasing. The Coda started even very slow, but then used extreme accelerando towards the spectacular last bars.
I was amazed by the warm, full sound of Mráček’s violin, particularly on the G and D strings. The soloist listened to the orchestra, obviously drawing from his experience as concert master. In return, Vladimir Fedoseyev devoted a major part of his attention to the soloist, with almost fatherly dedication and interaction. Mráček at times seemed to listen into himself, almost introverted—but then was seeking eye contact with the orchestra, then also (vaguely) with the audience. His playing was outstandingly firm in the intonation, lyrical, poetic, intense, but also intimate, down to the softest flageolet tones—and into the rests in the cadenza.
To summarize: it was not as “sporty” race for speed, but an artist who knows very well what he wants to achieve, who has a clear concept in mind. The one thing that one can criticize in this movement, though, is the lacking Allegro (moderato) character, the fact that the music was lacking flow, at times hardly seemed to progress.
II. Canzonetta: Andante
In the Canzonetta, Mráček again convinced with his diligent dynamics (supported of course by the composer’s careful instrumental disposition). He carefully articulated ornaments, again exposed firm and clear intonation. Also on the part of the orchestra, the build-up of tension towards the end of the movement was excellent, preparing for the Finale.
III. Finale: Allegro vivacissimo
Certainly, in the last movement, just annotated Allegro vivacissimo (without metronome mark), the tempo seemed right. Jan Mráček’s playing was virtuosic, virtually free of mishaps, full of emphasis and emotion in the intermezzi, sometimes with theatrical accelerations (as in the Coda in the first movement). I liked the well-disciplined pizzicato in the orchestra. Not all tempo transitions were quite smooth, though—there were occasional coordination issues between orchestra and soloist, possibly a consequence of very limited rehearsal time.
The Molto meno mosso and the subsequent poco a poco rallentando down to Quasi andante was maybe a bit too extreme. But overall, I found the soloist’s playing to be convincing, near-perfect in his interpretative choices—even through the rhythmically intricate Coda. There were a few “unusual notes”, i.e., deviations from the score. However, these “alternatives” were fitting well enough to make me doubt whether these were alternate readings / authorized score revisions, or perhaps just very cleverly concealed mishaps. This did not affect my overall impression at all. Congratulations to the young soloist, and best wishes for a successful international career!
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1 in B♭ minor, op.23
After the intermission, the program called for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 in B♭ minor, op.23—and here, the soloist was the Swiss-Chinese pianist Mélodie Zhao. Mélodie was born 1994in Bulle, Switzerland. At age 2 already, her parents moved to Beijing, and she started studying the piano. Initially, she studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, with Jiaquan Chen. 2004 saw her back in Switzerland, studying at the Geneva Conservatory. At age 14, she did her bachelor’s degree at the Geneva University of Music, with highest honors, and at age 16, she was awarded a Master Soloist Diploma with distinction. She then (!) became Guest Professor at the Music Faculty of the University of Shengli in China. More information is also found on Wikipedia.
She has since launched a concert and recording career: at age 13, she did her first recording of Frédéric Chopin’s Études op.10 & op.25, a second recording followed in 2013. In 2011, she recorded Franz Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendentale, and in 2014, she already completed a recording of all of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. 2015, she also recorded Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos No.1 & No.2. So, undoubtedly, Mélodie Zhao has the technical prowess to perform the concerto tonight.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) finished his Piano Concerto No.1 in B♭ minor, op.23 in February 1875, later revised it in 1879 and again in 1888. The work is so famous and well-known that I don’t need to mention details about its history, etc.; strangely, this was only the second time that I attended a live performance of this composition in concert. The work features three movements:
- Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito
- Andantino semplice — Prestissimo
- Allegro con fuoco
I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito
Here again, the movement started a bit too slow—but the pianist corrected that immediately, with the start of her solo. The pace remained slightly on the slow side, though—but not such that it seriously affected the performance, which remained convincing, overall. Still, there were sections that could be characterized as epic, appreciative. Then again it was dramatic, even theatrically broadening, rather than just aiming for speed or exhibiting smooth, polished virtuosity. Mélodie Zhao’s playing was rhythmically extremely firm, exhibiting clear articulation. She appeared to enjoy the full sonority of the Steinway D concert grand. There were very lyrical or epic, broad segments. On the other hand, there were also these amazing, extremely fast and smooth, ultra-virtuosic double-octave cascades.
Overall, I felt that the pianist exhibited a tendency towards exaggerated drama. Yet, there were sections where I wished for more “speaking”, free agogics. Also, accelerandi, or, in general (also in the cadenza), transitions to a faster tempo tended to be very (too) pushing, urging, and often not very differentiated.
II. Andantino semplice – Prestissimo
Here, I sometimes missed some extra agogic freedom. As in the first movement and its cadenza, the Prestissimo segment—albeit rhythmically extremely firm—was sometimes a bit too much storming, urging forward, and then lacking differentiation.
III. Allegro con fuoco
The above observation also applies to the last movement. As if she was suddenly off the leash, she seemed to push forward, regardless of what the orchestra was doing, enforcing her personal, fast pace, occasionally overshooting.
Generally speaking: Mélodie Zhao’s playing was technically absolutely flawless and convincing. However, to me, she also offered an interpretation (particularly in this last movement) that still has potential to mature, to grow, to undergo some purification and differentiation over the years to come. We wish her best of luck for this!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com; this posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. 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