Szymon Nehring, Timothy Ridout, David Zinman / Tonhalle Orchestra
Beethoven / Walton / Bernstein

Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2019-05-24

4-star rating

2019-05-28 — Original posting



Introduction

This was the year’s first “Young Soloists On Stage” concert in the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich. As usual in these events, the organizer, the Orpheum Foundation for the Advancement of Young Soloists, presented two promising, young talents: Szymon Nehring, piano, and—a rarity on the concert stage—Timothy Ridout, viola. I’ll introduce these artists in the sections about the respective parts of the concert.

Orchestra

The “Young Soloists On Stage” concerts give emerging artists the chance to perform a concerto with a world-class symphony orchestra and conductor. Earlier concerts in the Tonhalle Zurich involved orchestras such as the Bamberg Symphony, or the Radio Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. And, of course, as in this concert, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (see also Wikipedia). The orchestras were led by prominent conductors, such as Vladimir Fedoseyev, Christoph Eschenbach, Michael Sanderling, Howard Griffiths, Kristjan Järvi. And of course the Tonhalle Orchestra’s conductors, such as Lionel Bringuier.

Conductor

For this concert, David Zinman (*1936, see also Wikipedia) returned to the orchestra in which he was chief conductors for 19 years, up till 2014. Under his direction, the Tonhalle orchestra not only made a big leap forward in quality. This cooperation also resulted in a large number of (CD) recordings—more than with any conductor before.

David Zinman is well-known not only here in the Zurich area, but of course also internationally, so I’m not prolonging this text with an introduction, except for mentioning the concert performances that I attended (see there for additional information):

With this one, David Zinman has already conducted nine concerts for the Orpheum Foundation. His contract with the Tonhalle Orchestra ended in 2014, before I seriously started reviewing concerts. Therefore, the above two concerts were my only encounters with the artist so far.

Program

David Zinman complemented the two instrumental concertos for and with the young artists with a true highlight from Leonard Bernstein’s compositorial oeuvre:

The two concertos are well-known, but not really present in concert programs too frequently. Beethoven’s later concertos are more popular. Walton’s viola concerto rarely appears, simply because of the small number of viola soloists.

The concert started with a short address by the president of the Orpheum Foundation, Dr. Hans Heinrich Coninx. Thereafter, Eva Oertle (Swiss Radio SRF 2 Kultur) did the moderation, introducing the two soloists and the works they played.

Setting, etc.

My wife and I had stall seats 20 & 21 in row 13, close to the center of the hall. With the exception of the artist’s photos at the top, the Orpheum Foundation kindly supplied all press photos for this posting (© Thomas Entzeroth).


Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, op.15

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) completed his Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, op.15, in 1795, though, he revised and published it in 1800. Despite the “No.1” and the lower opus number, this is actually Beethoven’s second piano concerto (among the “official” ones). The Piano Concerto No.2 in B♭ major, op.19 is a composition from 1787 – 1789 (revised in 1798, published 1801). The concerto op.15 has three movements with the following annotations:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Largo
  3. Rondo: Allegro scherzando

Beethoven wrote three alternative cadenzas for the first movement (vastly different in length), and two short cadenzas for the last movement.

The Artist: Szymon Nehring (*1995, Poland)

Szymon Nehring (*1995, see also Wikipedia) was the first Polish pianist to win the first prize at the triennial Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, in 2017. Already before that, he won the audience prize at the 2015 XVII International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, where he made it into the final round.

Szymon Nehring received his initial piano education at music schools in Kraków, his home town. He then moved into the class of Stefan Wojtas (*1943) at the Academy of Music Feliks Nowowiejski in Bydgoszcz. Nehring is currently studying with Boris Berman (*1948) at the Yale School of Music.

Parallel to his studies, Szymon Nehring has successfully started a career as concert pianist, with appearances in Europe, the Americas, and China. He has given solo recitals in venues such as the Carnegie Hall in New York, Wigmore Hall in London, or in the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Szymon Nehring has also produced several CD recordings, with music by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) and Krzysztof Penderecki (*1933).

In this concert, Szymon Nehring played on the Tonhalle’s Steinway model D-274 concert grand.

Beethoven, Piano Concerto No.1 — The Performance

In comparison with typical, historically informed performances (HIP, i.e., what an orchestra at Beethoven’s time might have looked like), the Tonhalle Orchestra was present in a rather large formation. I estimated (from left to right) some 10 + 10 violins, probably around 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses. However, the instrument also wasn’t the same as Beethoven’s. For the sonority and the volume of a Steinway concert grand, a bigger orchestra is even a necessity.

In this concert, nobody expected a strict “period performance”. Plus, in his work with performing and recording Beethoven’s symphonies and concertos with the Tonhalle orchestra, David Zinman has adopted plenty of features from HIP performances. For example, he knows how to make the orchestra sound light and transparent. Also, Zinman uses the results of the latest musicological research. His tempi follow Beethoven’s annotated metronome numbers, where available (not here, unfortunately).

The Tonhalle Orchestra with Zinman Again!

It’s amazing: five years after Zinman’s departure from the position of chief conductor (and only rare returns to the orchestra ever since), it only takes a few rehearsals, and it’s “all there again”: the precision of the orchestra in coordination / timing and dynamics, the articulation, the transparency, etc.; I’ll have more on this statement in the comments on the Bernstein Suite below. Of course, Zinman commanded over a first-class staff selection. With Klaidi Sahatçi (first concertmaster since 2009) and Thomas Grossenbacher (solo cellist), two excellent musicians in pivotal functions were intimately familiar with the conductor’s intent and made the string players stay in line through agogics and transitions.

I. Allegro con brio

Zinman’s handwriting already in the introduction: care- and truthful dynamics (a true pp), the tempo a tad faster than in ordinary (“mainstream”) performances, accurate, light / short articulation (legato only where needed), lively, detailed dynamics, the timpani with the refreshingly hard & light stick heads: a homecoming of sorts!

Solo Part

First impressions about Szymon Nehring as soloist: here, and to some degree throughout the concerto, he had a slight tendency to pull ahead. He did not rush at all, but there was this nuance by which he often was ahead of the pace. One can attribute this to his youth, his temperament. It didn’t really hurt. The “tempo push” vanished in lyrical, relaxed segments, but seemed linked to the intensity of the emotion & excitement in the music.

Zinman certainly noticed, made the orchestra keep up with Szymon Nehring’s tempo., However, he didn’t really accelerate the pace. One could take this minute tempo divergence as an element of suspense in the performance. It certainly raised the alertness on the part of the listener., Only occasionally it reached the level of an ever so slight irritation. That said: the pianist’s playing seemed totally relaxed, Nehring was freely shaping his phrases, alert in the accents, careful and differentiated in agogics and particularly dynamics. The pianist used light, clear articulation, but switched to a very mellow, gentle touch in legato passages.

Certainly, Nehring did not “abuse” the movement as a showpiece. He selected the standard variant where Beethoven offered more splashy or fancy options (octavating, optional octave parallels), also playing out the glissando at the end of the development part. Not surprisingly, Szymon Nehring chose the second of Beethoven’s three alternative cadenzas. It’s the shortest, and initially most playful, most Mozartian of the three (the first one is incomplete, the last one rather excessive and highly virtuosic).
★★★★

II. Largo

In line with his performance in the first movement, Szymon Nehring certainly never dragged! Here, the “pull” was more subtle, mostly noticeable at the beginning of phrases, and/or when building up tension. In purely lyrical segments, the solo part used decent dynamics, was subtle. It was relatively calm, relaxing after climaxes, without ever losing tension. Wonderful, this gentle touch, the rallentando prior to the re-entry of the main theme in bar 53! And the careful, conscious shaping of Beethoven’s ornaments / arabesques! The movement ended in total calm, in a beautiful, serene and peaceful dialog with the clarinet.
★★★★

III. Rondo: Allegro scherzando

In youthful excitement, Szymon Nehring selected a very fast pace, a tempo at which even in the piano part some semiquaver figures started to sound superficial. This even was occasionally challenging for the orchestra, and it reached the limitations in agility of the mechanics in the modern concert grand. Moreover, Nehring sometimes got carried away, further pulling ahead: Beethoven writes leggiermente, which to me implies lightness, not this frequent pull. On the other hand, I really liked the very short, humorous ritenuto in bars 138/139, Beethoven’s subsequent, hesitating, joking bars. And as soon as the theme returns (bar 152), the original, fast tempo resumed. The same type of humor (with marked ritenuti) returned in bars 284ff.

After the short, impulsive cadenza, in the reminiscence of the theme that leads into the coda, Nehring was poignantly careful, building up tension towards the final Presto. The latter started without Beethoven’s second (short, but flashy, extroverted and virtuosic) cadenza. This fitted Szymon Nehring’s approach. He avoids spectacular, extroverted virtuosity and flashy brilliance. Rather, he showed superior, clean and sound technique, careful, considerate and detailed phrasing, dynamics and articulation.
★★★½

In accepting the applause, Szymon Nehring seemed shy, smiling, but almost slightly embarrassed. Unnecessarily, of course: a delightful performance that he can be proud of!

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Walton: Viola Concerto (1929)

It was the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879 – 1961) who proposed to William Walton (1902 – 1983) to write a concerto for the violist Lionel Tertis (1876 – 1975). Walton completed his Viola Concerto in 1929. Interestingly, Tertis rejected the manuscript. So, in the end it was the composer and violist Paul Hindemith (1895 – 1963) who premiered the concerto. The three movements carry the following annotations:

  1. Andante comodo
  2. Vivo, con moto preciso
  3. Allegro moderato

The annotation to the second movement is Vivo, con moto preciso (lively, with precise movement). One sometimes encounters a mis-spelling: Vivo, con molto preciso. That of course does not make sense at all.

The Artist: Timothy Ridout (*1995, England, U.K.)

Timothy Ridout (*1995, London) grew up in a musical family (his mother is cellist, his father Jazz pianist). He received his viola education from the Royal Academy of Music in London, graduating with the Queen’s Commendation for Excellence. Timothy Ridout is continuing his studies with Nobuko Imai (*1943) at the Kronberg Academy in Germany.

In 2014 (aged 19), Timothy Ridout won the inaugural Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Competition. He also received the Second Prize at the 2015 Windsor Festival International String Competition. Finally, in 2016, he won the First Prize at the British Viola Society‘s 12th triennial Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition. That last competition win opened the doors to concert halls to the young artist. He has made performed as soloist in his home country, in Vienna, but also in Japan, cooperating with prominent orchestras and conductors, and he has participated in (and has pending invitations to) numerous festivals in Europe, as well as in the United States.

Timothy Ridout performs on a precious, ancient viola from around 1565-75 (in William Shakespeare’s youth, as the moderator, Eva Oertle, pointed out!). The instrument maker was Peregerino di Zanetto (Brescia, 1520 – 1606/1609). More on the instrument below.

Appearance & Instrument

So, there were two key attractions in this second performance that evening. For one, of course, Timothy Ridout, the violist: friendly, a little introverted, but not timid, a personality resting in itself, not trumping up. The second attraction was what Timothy Ridout carefully held in front of his chest, while walking onto the stage: the viola he was playing. The presenter mentioned the age of the instrument, but to most people in the audience, this may not have meant much more than “very old, very precious / expensive”.

A “Delicate, Old Lady”

However, those familiar with the violin family of instruments (and close enough to see the details) must have noted how special this viola is. In the late 16th century, violins were still evolving from predecessor instruments. Around that time, it was the Amati family in Cremona, which “invented” the final shape of the violin (viola, cello) body, defining its proportions. They were of course not alone, and Peregerino di Zanetto was experimenting in the same field. Timothy Ridout’s press photo at the top gives an idea about the peculiarities of this (still “experimental”) viola:

There are not only the obvious signs of age in the wood, the proportions of the body are substantially different, as are those of the “f ” holes (size, positioning, size of the round holes at either end, size of the little “edges” in the middle), And yes, there are two sets of double-inlays along the edges, not just one. That’s essentially the original part of the instrument. This viola (as most period instruments) has since been modernized with a longer, steeper neck, a longer fingerboard, and of course different strings with a nylon or gut core, and wound with metal wire. Certainly, the sound of the instrument is bigger and quite different from the original state of the viola. But it’s the body which gives the instrument the ability to project, and which defines much of its sound qualities.

Walton, Viola Concerto — The Performance

A word ahead of my performance remarks. You will note a difference in focus relative to my comments above on the Beethoven concerto. Here, I don’t have a score. And I have much less listening experience with that work. So, my comments are shorter and more descriptive (focusing on my listening experience). And they are less “precise”, lacking the reference of a score.

I. Andante comodo

The orchestral introduction to this concerto is very short. But what a beautiful, dark & somber sound from the muted violins!

And then, the solo: intensely singing, radiant in the projection, a slightly (but not exceedingly) nasal tone, a tad “grainy”, full of character. Especially in the highly expressive parts, Timothy Ridout used a fairly poignant vibrato—not excessive, though, and perfectly fitting Walton’s music. Some violists call their instrument unwieldy, contumacious. It certainly isn’t the easiest of the string instruments. Already its size makes it harder to play than a violin. Here, one may have noted signs of the instrument’s “resistance” in very slight and occasional initial intonation perturbations. These may also have been signs of hidden nervousness. After 1 – 2 minutes, the issue went away, allowing for a plain, undisturbed view onto Walton’s beautiful concerto.

Walton’s music—and the character of the solo part—alternates between cantabile and energetic segments, building up to a virtuosic, lively climax, then relaxing again to calmer atmosphere. In the latter, Timothy Ridout exposed his admirably clean, clear and sonorous double-stop playing. Towards the second climax, the solo part started swaying, swinging, moved up to intense heights. It suddenly fell into a lively, jazzy segment, full of syncopes. The soloist really felt at home in the intricate rhythms. Playing Jazz with his father must have been very helpful here!

The violist kept close contact with David Zinman. The cooperation with the orchestra was flawless. We experienced a performance out of a single mold, through all the changes on tempo, mood / atmosphere. Particularly in the lively, jazzy segments, it was obvious how much also David Zinman felt at home in this music!
★★★★

II. Vivo, con moto preciso

Timothy Ridout’s solo: agile, virtuosic, enthusiastic and enthusing, joyful, engaging in the music. The playfulness in the solo must have been contagious. One could equally feel it by following the orchestra’s actions and watching David Zinman’s direction: an excellent orchestral performance! Even more than the lively segments in the initial Andante comodo, this movement is rhythmically intricate and challenging, highly virtuosic, agile—and utterly enthralling. It left the listener almost out of breath!
★★★★½

III. Allegro moderato

In the opening with its comfily swaying rhythm, one could observe how Timothy Ridout was following and listening into the orchestral accompaniment. Tempo changes, transitions, the mutual mirroring / imitation of melodic motifs all happened in perfect unity with the orchestra. The soloist was living in this music: a both effortless and masterful performance.

The movement also features elegiac, almost melancholic segments, where the viola was allowed to bloom in serene singing, from the characterful lower registers (warm and sonorous also in the p / pp), up to the intense heights. And when Walton makes the listener believe that the concerto is ending silently, the viola starts anew, with a marvelous, warm, emphatic postlude: beautiful!
★★★★½

Apart from the performance: a super concerto, for sure, and not played often enough. At least in continental Europe, we need more violists performing it!

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from the Musical “West Side Story”

Probably the most popular composition by Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) is the Musical / Broadway Show “West Side Story”, which premiered as a Broadway production in 1957.

1961, Leonard Bernstein prepared a suite of orchestral music from the musical. These Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” formed the last part of the Orpheum concert. There are nine movements, all performed attacca, i.e, without interruption:

  1. Prologue (Allegro moderato)
  2. “Somewhere” (Adagio)
  3. Scherzo (Vivace e leggiero)
  4. Mambo (Meno Presto)
  5. Cha-Cha (Andantino con grazia)
  6. Meeting Scene (Meno mosso)
  7. “Cool”, Fugue (Allegretto)
  8. Rumble (Molto allegro)
  9. Finale (Adagio)

The Performance

The hour (or rather: the minutes) of David Zinman! Sure, the past years have left their traces. As he entered the stage, he looked a tad frail in his movements. He carefully stepped up to the conductor’s podium, conducted standing, but leaned against the rail in his back. But then, he raised his baton. And from then on, Bernstein’s fascinating, multifaceted suite and the orchestra’s brillant, absolutely enthralling performance captured 100% of the listener’s attention!

Bernstein works with frequent, stark contrasts, a multitude of jazz rhythms, and a rich palette of colors (with plenty of percussion, of course), and “fun” effects, such as snipping with the fingers, or the orchestra shouting “Mambo!” (so everybody knew the movement). The jazzy rhythms dominate, e.g, in these moments reminding of a busy traffic scene, the music sounding like from a Jazz Band. We experienced an incredible performance for a big symphony orchestra. However, there is also a segment (II, “Somewhere”, Adagio) with a string quartet playing a serenade, serene, swaying and intense), or four violins with a sad, mourning song. And, of course, the Finale—from a world beyond. Sounds from the paradise—and still not overly sweet…

As if the five past years didn’t exist: David Zinman still has full control over the orchestra. He can still bring the orchestra to absolute top performance levels, he knows how to get the orchestra to follow his intentions. And the orchestra magically and enthusiastically, swinging, precisely, actively performs to his will. Coordination sound quality, agility, instant reaction, coherence, rhythmic precision, through switches in atmosphere and transitions. It was all there, even without the dancing and jumping composer on the podium: thanks, David!

Rating: ★★★★★

Orpheum-Concert, 2019-05-24: Timothy Ridout, David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (© Thomas Entzeroth)
Orpheum-Concert, 2019-05-24: Timothy Ridout, David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (© Thomas Entzeroth)

A short note to conclude: as this was primarily a concert for the two young soloists, the overall rating (★★★★) doesn’t quite follow the expected mathematical average, which would have been ★★★★½. I’m sure David Zinman wouldn’t oppose to this.



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