Michael Zukernik / Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra
Orff: Carmina burana — Beethoven: Symphony No.9

Victoria Hall, Geneva, 2015-12-27

3-star rating


2016-01-04 — Original posting
2016-09-14 — Brushed up for better readability

Michael Zukernik (source: www.zukernik.com)
Michael Zukernik (source: www.zukernik.com)

Introduction

The Orchestra

The Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra is looking back to a long history of 204 years. It grew out of the unification of two predecessor ensembles, the Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra Pécs (founded 1811) and the Pécs Symphonietta. Pannonia was once a province in the ancient Roman Empire, as a geographical term it describes an area now covering Western Hungary and parts of surrounding countries such as Slovenia and Austria, the Pannonian Basin. When Hungarians now use the term “Pannon” (such as with the naming of this orchestra), they refer to the parts of Hungary West and South of the Danube.

The orchestra still has its base in Pécs (capital of Hungary’s southernmost province). It combines a symphony orchestra of 73 members and a symphonietta of 25 members. The orchestra’s Chief Conductor is Tibor Bogányi, the post of Permanent Conductor is held by András Vass. Up till to his death, the pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis (1952 – 2016) was holding the position of First Permanent Guest Conductor.

The Choir

In 2015, the Hungarian Festival Chorus emerged with the goal to complement the orchestra. It succeeded a predecessor chorus that was formed in 1988, from members of the Hungarian Radio Choir, the Budapesti Kórus, and the Choir of the Hungarian National Opera.

Together with the Hungarian Festival Chorus, the Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra spent the last week of 2015 on a tour through several cities of Switzerland (Basel, Bern, Geneva, Zurich). It offered a total of six concerts, directed by Michael Zukernik and Tibor Bogányi. The concert in Geneva was the second one with the Orff / Beethoven program and under the direction of Michael Zukernik.

Victoria Hall, Geneva

Building History

As this was my first visit to Victoria Hall in Geneva, I’ll spend a few lines describing the venue. Victoria Hall was designed by a Geneva architect, John Camoletti, and built 1891 – 1894 on behalf of the British Consul, Daniel Fitzgerald Packenham Barton (1850 – 1907). the consul dedicated it to Queen Victoria (hence the name). In 1904, he donated it to the city of Geneva. 1984, the hall was partly destroyed by a fire. The city of Geneva decided for a complete restoration of the original interior, using methods close to those used for the original. The only exception to this are the three painted medallions (by the painter Ernest Biéler) in the ceiling. These were irreparably damaged and are now replaced with contemporary paintings by Dominique Appia.

On the outside, the building is following the French “Beaux-Arts” style (inspired by classical and renaissance architecture), fitting into the surrounding architecture. Already from the outside one can see that the building is fit into a limited space between two blocks: for a concert hall, it is relatively narrow. The entrance on the East side leads into the foyer and a bar that occupy the entire floor. The foyer itself is not spectacular, stairs on either side lead up to the concert hall (odd-numbered seats on the South side, even-numbered ones on the North side).

The Concert Hall

At the end of the stairs, the visitor faces a huge contrast: even just visually, the hall is really spectacular, with almost bombastic ornamentation and dominating warm colors. The hall is relatively narrow (compared to halls such as the Tonhalle in Zurich), but really long and high, a single block of seats in the front part of the parquet, stalls on either side, a parquet balcony (9 rows) reaching far into the back, a deep dress circle (4 seat rows on either side, 5 rows in the back) with a rear balcony of 6 rows, and an upper circle (2 rows on either side, 3 rows in the back). Also the stage is very deep and rather narrow, with a magnificent organ at the far end. Overall, the hall is quite big, with its capacity of 1500 seats.

Design Flaws?

The strong structuring through the balconies / dress and upper circles (in my personal experience from this concert) leads to relatively dry acoustics. This actually was really helpful in this concert, particularly for the first part. The other peculiarity in this concert was that the choir was placed at the far end of the stage, under the organ (and acoustically somewhat “locked into the stage”). It was quite far from the orchestra which occupied the front of the stage, reaching out, sideways under the dress circle (particularly the violins on either side of the podium).

My seat was in the third stall on the left, definitely under the dress circle — the latter caused some undesired focus on / imbalance in favor of the first violins. I suspect that similar imbalance must have been observed from many other places in the auditorium (e.g., dampening of one violin voice on the seats above mine).

The Program for the Concert

The program featured two heavily contrasting sections: the first part was devoted to Carl Orff’s “Carmina burana”, and after the intermission, Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 in D minor, op.125 was played:

Orff: Carmina burana

The Carmina burana by Carl Orff (1895 – 1982) is a composition based upon medieval manuscripts found at the Monastery of Benediktbeuern (south of the Starnberger See in Bavaria). It is a collection of Latin and medieval German texts / poems of partly philosophical, partly rather worldly, even vulgar content. Overall, Orff structured the composition into 25 numbers, grouped into several parts on specific themes / topics:

Fortuna imperatrix mundi [Fortune, empress of the world]

    1. O Fortuna (choir)
    2. Fortune plango vulnera (choir)

I. Primo vere [First spring]

    1. Veris leta facies (small choir)
    2. Omnia Sol temperat (baritone solo)
    3. Ecce gratum (choir)

(I.) Uf em Anger [In the countryside]

    1. Tanz (dance / orchestra)
    2. Floret silva (choir)
    3. Chramer, gip die vaewe mir (sopranos / choir)
    4. Reie (dance/ orchestra)
      Swaz hie gat umbe (choir)
      Chume, chum geselle min (small choir)
      Swaz hie gat umbe (choir)
    5. Were diu werlt alle min (choir)

II. In taberna [In the tavern]

    1. Estuans interius (baritone solo)
    2. Olim lacus colueram (tenor solo, male choir)
    3. Ego sum abbas (baritone solo, male choir)
    4. In taberna quando sumus (male choir)

III. Cour d’amours [Court of love]

    1. Amor volat undique (soprano solo, soprano choir)
    2. Dies, nox et omnia (baritone solo)
    3. Stetit puella (soprano solo)
    4. Circa mea pectora (baritone solo, choir)
    5. Si puer cum puellula (male choir)
    6. Veni, veni, venias (double choir)
    7. In trutina (soprano solo)
    8. Tempus est iocundum (soprano & baritone solos, choir)
    9. Dulcissime (soprano solo)

Blanziflor et Helena

    1. Ave formosissima (choir)

Fortuna imperatrix mundi

    1. O Fortuna (choir)

Features, Challenges

The key features in this composition (which can also be performed on stage, with ballet / dancing) are in Orff’s strong focus on rhythm (with a strong percussion section in the orchestra) and on the text / the textual content. In other words: the spoken word, the language are very central to this work. This is particularly challenging for the choir. Also, the solo parts are extremely demanding on the voice.

But the biggest challenge in performing this (to me) seems to be on the fact that for many years during Carl Orff’s lifetime, the composer only authorized one single recording, directed (under his supervision) by Eugen Jochum, with choir and orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, with the Schöneberger Sängerknaben, and with the excellent and legendary singers Gundula Janowitz (soprano), Gerhard Stolze (tenor), and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) as soloists (see the reference at the bottom of this post). This recording is where I first encountered that piece, and to me, this still now sets the standard.

The Performance

On to the interpretation in this concert: the prime limitation in this performance was in the physical setup in this Victoria Hall. The Carmina burana suffered particularly from the large distance between the orchestra and the choir, and (particularly from my seating position in a left-side stall below / under the dress circle) from the orchestral arrangement with the violin desks reaching out far under the dress circle.

Choir Performance

In the powerful, loud and sonorous segments (particularly of course the two “O Fortuna” and the “Ave formosissima“,i.e., numbers 1, 24, and 25, but also number 7, “Floret silva“), the choir performance was quite impressive. However, in the declamatory, rhythm-dominated sections, the spatial distance caused small, almost inconspicuous temporal shifts. In my view, this greatly diminished the “stage presence” of the choir, which is so important in this word/text-dominated composition! It caused the choir to sound / feel almost like remote / back-stage. Overall, this also affected the rhythmic terseness and clarity. So, many of the text-rich segments were lacking contours.

Yet, I had the impression that the choir was well-trained on the pronunciation: within the given limitations, the texts were understandable, as were diction and intonation / vocal technique. Some coloraturas / short-note passages might have profited from more support from the diaphragm, making up for a more distinct staccato, additional rhythmic terseness, avoiding the impression of superficiality. Some highlights in the choir part for me were the beginning of “Ecce gratum” (5) and “Swaz hie gat umbe” (9) in the first part, and — besides the two “O Fortuna” (1 and 25) — particularly the “Blanziflor et Helena” (24, “Ave formosissima“), close to the end. Maybe, by that time my ear had adjusted to the acoustic limitations?

The Soloists

Overall, the three soloists are at least as important in this work as the choir. All of their parts are very, even extremely demanding on the voice. Here are my comments, in the order of their appearance:

Jonathan Sells

The British baritone Jonathan Sells received the first part of his education at Cambridge University (Music and Musicology) and the Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He then spent two years at the Zurich Opera Studio, finishing his education in 2012. He has since won several prizes and is gaining reputation both on stage, as well as in recitals and in oratorios.

In this concert, his performance convinced with excellent diction, intonation and presence. In most pieces, I had expected a little more volume. Maybe he was just saving his voice, for it to last through the evening? Or was Orff’s part not ideally suited for his voice? However, this impression changed completely with number 13, “Ego sum abbas“, where he is portraying a drunken abbot, holding his mass in the tavern, with his drunken fellows. Here, the singer suddenly seemed to have taken a different identity, showing off his excellent capabilities as an actor. This ability he obviously acquired at the Opera Studio in Zurich. Even his voice sounded substantially bigger, well-projecting: this role was entirely convincing and at the same time utterly hilarious (and one didn’t need to know Latin to understand his acting!).

Jan Jakub Monowid

Born in Poland, the tenor Jan Jakub Monowid also received parts of his education at the Opera Studio in Zurich, after studies in Warsaw. The program notes declared him a countertenor, though Orff’s score assigns his only number in the “Carmina burana” (No.12, “Olim lacus colueram“) to a tenor. Hereby, the part is almost entirely in areas that require using the falsetto voice.

That sounds (and is, indeed) rather demanding, if not painful — and it is entirely Carl Orff’s intent, of course. The role describes a swan deploring his fate, once floating on a lake, now sizzling in a furnace, and Orff meant this to sound like an extreme caricature (a “Kiste”, as the Germans would say). In terms of timbre and volume, the singer mastered this quite well. However, in my opinion, he spent far too much effort in carefully articulating Orff’s grotesque “ornaments” cleanly: this was exactly not the composer’s intent!

Katarzyna Jagiełło

The soprano Katarzyna Jagiełło was born in Poland. After some initial education on the violin, she switched to singing and completed her voice education in Łodz. She has since followed various master classes and won prizes. Jagiełło is now singing at various opera houses, predominantly in Poland and in Germany. Her role in the “Carmina” is not very big (four numbers in part III). Still, to me, she presented the most consistent, overall also most convincing performance, with a clear & clean, well-projecting voice, excellent intonation and voice control, up into very high notes.

Conclusions

In general, the orchestra performance was very good. However, I can’t really comment on the string sound, because the first violins sounded reinforced and more direct (maybe sometimes also rougher than in more distant seating positions) due to the reflection by the close ceiling formed by the dress circle. There were occasional, slight coordination issues, particularly in the wind section. It could well be that these were partly caused by the acoustics. The conductor, Michael Zukernik, worked without baton, with economical gestures, his appearance was firm and competent. He tended towards moderate tempo selections, presumably in order to facilitate the coordination, particularly between choir and orchestra. At times, this caused the performance to lose some of the momentum (e.g., in No.6, “Dance“, at the beginning of “Uf dem Anger“).

Despite my critical remarks: Orff’s composition did not fail to impress. The audience liked the performance of this piece, which is and remains a “hit” in the concert repertoire.

Beethoven: Symphony No.9 in D minor, op.125

The Composition

The second part of the concert, after the intermission, featured the Symphony No.9 in D minor, op.125 (first performed 1824) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). This was an opportunity for the audience to focus on the performance of the orchestra. The symphony has four movements. The metronome numbers (M.M.) below are those given in the score. The last movement (with soloists and choir) is far more detailed in the tempo annotations; only a partial outline is given here:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso2/4 (1/4=88)
  2. Molto vivace, 3/4 (M.M.: 3/4=116) — Presto, 2/2 (1/2=116)
  3. Adagio molto e cantabile, 4/4 (1/4=60) — Andante moderato, 3/4 (1/4=63)
  4. Presto, 3/4 (3/4=96) — Allegro assai, 4/4 (1/2=80) — Allegro assai vivace, Alla marcia, 6/8 (3/8=84) — Andante maestoso, 3/2 (1/2=72) — Adagio ma non troppo, ma divoto, 3/2 (1/2=60) — Allegro energico, sempre ben marcato, 6/4 (1/2=84) — Allegro ma non tanto, 2/2 (1/2=120) — Prestissimo, 2/2 (1/2=132)

A Better Orchestra Setup

As this asks for a much smaller percussion section and fewer wind instruments, the orchestra changed to an improved spatial arrangement. The violins were moved inwards (out from the “holes” under the dress circle), the double basses placed on a higher podium. This allowed for a more compact sound, possibly improving coordination within the orchestra, and hence helping the transparency.

Orchestra Performance

I. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso

Here, I liked the string sound: clear, well-balanced, but not dominant: the musicians in the orchestra were engaged, their playing vivid, well-disciplined and focused. The only minor flaw in the performance of the first movement were some coordination issues prior to the Coda.

II. Molto vivace — Presto

The Molto vivace in the second movement (a Scherzo, basically) featured at a vivid pace, approximately (my feeling / estimation) at the pace specified by the composer. Beethoven was quite demanding in that piece: after the initial beats, it took the strings a number of bars until they settled / found themselves, rhythmically. Also further into this movement, the coordination wasn’t always perfect. Given my limited exposure to this venue, I would not dare attributing this either to difficulties with the acoustics or to the orchestra.

On the other hand in the serene, almost joyful Trio section (Presto), I really enjoyed the excellent, well-sounding horn solos. The Presto part was performed with repeats, but in the Scherzo (Molto vivace), the repeats were omitted; this altered Beethoven’s proportions, but given the overall length of the concert (the event started at 5 p.m. and ended around 8 p.m. only), it is an understandable decision.

III. Adagio molto e cantabile — Andante moderato

Unfortunately, Michael Zukernik took the Adagio molto e cantabile at a very slow pace, far from Beethoven’s meticulously specified metronome numbers, The tempo was about as traditionally / commonly in use up to the 70’s of the last century, before historically informed playing took over. Zukernik just merely managed to keep up the tension, but the movement definitely had (unnecessary) lengths. Yet, the playing in the orchestra was quite excellent, with nice cantilenas, careful articulation, and with wonderful woodwind and horn parts. Zukernik appeared to form, model the sound with his bare hands: his role was much more than merely marking the beat.

IV. Finale “Freude, schöner Götterfunken”

The culmination and climax of the concert evening was of course the last movement of this symphony. This is built on the Ode “An die Freude” (“To Joy”) by Friedrich Schiller (1759 – 1805). This masterpiece appeared to raise the spirit with all musicians, to motivate everybody to give their best. The orchestra convinced with an excellent performance throughout, starting with the impressive “recitatives” in the double basses. These anticipate the bass solo; they successively “discarding” the excerpts / memories from all previous movements. Also the fugato segments were played transparently, with well-differentiated voices.

Additional Voices: Sascha Kramer and Kinga Dobay

Beethoven asks for a quartet of vocal soloists. Along with the soprano Katarzyna Jagiełło and the baritone Jonathan Sells, the Swiss tenor Sascha Kramer and the excellent German alto singer Kinga Dobay joined the team, forming an excellent solo quartet. Sascha Kramer was born in Zurich, his international career, mainly in opera, has just been taking off since 2013. Kinga Dobay was “discovered” in 2003, since then pursuing a very successful, international career in opera and oratorio.

Here now, Jonathan Sells had no need to utilize his talents as comedian & actor: he performed very convincingly already in the recitativo sections, his voice now well-projecting, with excellent sound and volume. I also found the tenor Sascha Kramer very compelling in the “turkish march”, with a nice timbre and good projection. In the quartet parts, the ensemble showed excellent balance, and it was amazing to hear how Kinga Dobay’s warm, well-sounding alto voice fitted to (and could withstand) Katarzyna Jagiełło’s soprano. I was an excellent quartet, overall, better than many that I have heard in recordings.

Choir

The most amazing part of this performance, however, was the choir, which seemed totally transformed. Suddenly, it had much more volume and a more compact, good sound. It was withstanding or matching up to the orchestra, even though the latter in my opinion also sounded better than in the “Carmina“. Only from occasionally missing glottalization (“Vokalansatz”) and sometimes lacking contours in the pronunciation one could guess that the choir consisted of non-German speaking members (only?).

Beethoven / Schiller’s heart-warming message was a very welcome one on this cold, muddy, dark & foggy late afternoon (major parts of the Swiss lowlands were in or under fog that day), and even though the two parts of the program could hardly be seen as a good fit at the onset, in the end it made up for an interesting, lively and lasting concert experience, despite its limitations.


Addendum 1:

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.


Addendum 2:

I have used Eulenburg scores for the two works featured in this concert:


Addendum 3:

The reference recording of Orff’s “Carmina burana” with Eugen Jochum (authorized by the composer) referred to above is available on CD:

Carl Orff: Carmina burana — Eugen Jochum (1968)

Orff: Carmina burana — Jochum, Janowitz, Fischer-Dieskau; CD coverCarl Orff: Carmina burana

Eugen Jochum, Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Schöneberger Sängerknaben
Gundula Janowitz, Gerhard Stolze, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

DG 447 437-2 (CD, stereo); ℗ 1968
Orff: Carmina burana — Jochum, Janowitz, Fischer-Dieskau; CD, UPC-A barcode
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


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