Sophie Pacini, Marc Bouchkov, Lionel Bringuier / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
L. v. Beethoven / J. Sibelius / R. Strauss

Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-08-31

4-star rating


2016-09-11 — Original posting

Introduction

This concert was organized by the Orpheum Foundation, based in Zurich, which supports young artists. For an earlier concert in their series (and additional information on the foundation) see my blog post on the concert on 2015-09-04, in the Tonhalle Zurich, under the direction of Philippe Jordan. Numerous young artists have received essential support by the foundation, often the essential “kick” for the start of a career. That evening, two artists (both recipients of support by the foundation) were presented. Both were aged 25, and both played with the accompaniment of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, under the direction of Lionel Bringuier.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, op.58

The evening opened with the German-Italian pianist Sophie Pacini, born 1991 in Munich. Pacini started her piano education at age 10 at the Mozarteum Salzburg. Her first teacher was Karl-Heinz Kämmerling. From 2007 on she studied in the master class of Pavel Gililov. The pianist finished her education in 2011, but followed up with master classes with Dmitri Bashkirov and Fou Ts’ong. She has since started a concert career, primarily in the German-speaking part of Europe. Sophie Pacini also managed to get into contact with Martha Argerich, who is supporting her since.

Pacini played the Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, op.58 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). This features the following three movements:

  1. Allegro moderato (4/4)
  2. Andante con moto (2/4)
  3. Rondo: Vivace (2/4)

The piano was a Steinway D.

I. Allegro moderato

The opening movement starts with a short, 5-bar piano solo. Sophie Pacini played this solo very cautiously, temperate, hesitating, guardedly. Lionel Bringuier continued with the orchestral introduction, at a faster pace, later even picking up pace. That wasn’t a mishap,  but obviously a fitting, consciously designed dramatic concept.

As for the piano part: throughout this movement, I felt that I was in essence experiencing two controversial sides to Sophie Pacini’s playing. In thematic entrances, such as the first “real” solo with its tritone steps (a revolutionary feature at Beethoven’s time!), she was playing as carefully in articulation, phrasing and dynamics as in the opening bars. On the other hand, in those numerous runs and fast figurations, I primarily experienced her playing as fluent, full of momentum. But she seemed to be focusing primarily on smooth, virtuosic playing, on momentum and big arches, rather than on small-scale, “local” details. Also the second theme certainly included nice details that were shining up in her playing—but also some tempo changes that I regarded somewhat arbitrary.

Often, runs (to me) felt somewhat superficial, summarily, occasionally with a tendency towards an excess of sustain pedal. I think that on a modern concert grand (as opposed to a historic fortepiano) one should rather play with less sustain pedal than what the composer prescribed in the score. To me, that impression was confirmed in the cadenza: Pacini played the first (bigger) one of the two cadenzas that Beethoven has written down.

II. Andante con moto

The second movement revolves around the contrast between the harsh interjections by the orchestra and the begging, longing segments in the solo part. Sophie Pacini even increased that contrast by applying consciously “youthful” agogics: in some motives she rather accelerated momentarily, rather than building up tension, expectation by gradually retaining the flow. I found this to be an unusual, original approach, with subtle dynamics.

III. Rondo: Vivace

The Rondo confirmed my impressions on the soloist from the first movement. I again noted the somewhat (too?) generous use of the sustain pedal, the often somewhat summary playing in fast figurations and in the cadenza. Also, I noted a tendency to accelerate within phrases, just to slow down again, briefly prior to the next phrase. Sophie Pacinis technical abilities are very respectable: the concerto is known to be difficult—the most difficult one among Beethoven’s and most other concertos from that time. The many runs in this composition may be tempting for showing off polished virtuosity and “fast fingers”. However, I think this approach is giving away content and details that can also be found in Beethoven’s score. But Sophie Pacini is just at the start of her career—she has plenty of “headroom” for further development, for discovering additional aspects in this music.

Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47

The intermission brought a switch from the concert grand to the violin—and at the same time a change in music from the Vienna classic time to the type of late romantic music as originating cooler Nordic countries. The Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47 by Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) was played by the Russian-Belgian violinist Marc Bouchkov, born 1991 in Montpellier, into a family of musicians. Bouchkov started learning the violin at age 5, with his grandfather as teacher. 2001 he entered the conservatory in Lyon, and from 2007 on he studied at the Conservatoire national supérieur musique et danse in Paris, with Boris Garlitsky, who became his main teacher, mentor and promoter. The violinist has since started a successful career as soloist.

Jean Sibelius’ only violin concerto is one of the most famous and prominent ones in the violin repertoire; it features three movements:

  1. Allegro moderato (2/2, 6/4, 4/4)
  2. Adagio di molto (4/4)
  3. Allegro, ma non tanto (3/4)

Marc Bouchkov played on a violin by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume from 1865. He not only convinced by his self-assured appearance and his musicality, but also, even primarily through the sound that he was able to produce with this instrument. Right from the first notes in his solo part, I found the playing amazing, particularly his silky, mellow tone and articulation, devoid of all pungency—but even more so by the full, astounding volume in the lower register. Of course, Sibelius—being a string player himself—has been very prudent and cautious with the instrumentation, making sure that the orchestra does not cover or overshadow the solo instrument. Still, the warmth and the volume in Bouchkov’s violin tone were breathtaking.

I. Allegro moderato

Marc Bouchkov played with mellow articulation, but very expressive in dynamics and agogics. Also his vibrato was expressive—fairly strong, but harmonic, not nervous. The artist knows how unravel hidden secondary voices (e.g., in arpeggiando passages). He never played just for himself, but lived and played in harmony and unity with the orchestra. this was particularly evident in duet / dialog passages with the solo viola and cello parts. His focus was not on elegance or technical brilliance, but in expression and musicality. He entered playing reflectively, consciously—there was nothing superficial in his performance. My only criticism concerns his sometimes slightly marginal (“short”) intonation, especially in the highest positions. I noted this primarily in the first movement—this was not an issue in the second and the third movement.

The accompaniment by Lionel Bringuier and the Tonhalle Orchestra was sensitive, prudent—excellent. In contrast to the Beethoven concerto, here they were able to play out the full sound of the ensemble. That did not oppress the solo instrument—though that’s also to be credited to the instrument and the art of the soloist, and even more so to the composer’s prudent texture and instrumentation.

II. Adagio di molto

These qualities persisted through the second movement. I also noted the careful dynamics, the sound disposition in the orchestra. However, the most striking feature in this movement was Bouchkov’s well-rounded, harmonious tone, the excellent phrasing, his ability to form big arches: to me, this clearly was the true highlight of the evening—which of course is also a merit of the almost supernatural beauty of this music.

III. Allegro, ma non tanto

The closing Allegro, ma non tanto is one of the rhythmically most intricate movements in the entire concerto repertoire for the violin. The orchestral accompaniment is mostly dominated by a uniform, dactylic ostinato. At the same time, the solo part consists of runs and figures that are uniform at a small-scale, but metrically changing almost from bar to bar, and seemingly completely independent of the accompanying ostinato. I have heard unsatisfactory performances even from real great, famous violinists.

The soloist is operating on a knife’s edge. A little excess in agogics and expression can easily cause a loss of rhythmic control and coordination. On the other hand, stubbornly counting / sticking to the meter is anything but ideal. Marc Bouchkov mastered this amazingly well: in the case of the slightest doubt, he prevented potential insecurities by briefly, temporarily accelerating (rather be a little early than losing the “connection” by being late!). To me, the only “hair in the soup” was that initially, the ostinato in the drums was too strong, covering the spiccato in the string sections.

Encore — YsaÿeSonata for Violin solo in G major, op.27/5

The applause for the Sibelius concerto performance was almost frenetic. Marc Bouchkov thanked by playing the Danse rustique, the second movement from the Sonata for Violin solo in G major, op.27/5 (dedicated to Mathieu Crickboom) by Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931). In this piece, playfulness and expression dominated the performance. I liked the musicality, even for this piece though I prefer interpretations with more clarity in structure and articulation.

Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op.28

For the conclusion of the concert evening, the Tonhalle Orchestra under Lionel Bringuier presented their performance of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op.28 (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks) by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949). Strauss completed the fourth of his “tone poems” (Tondichtungen) in 1895. It is one of Strauss’ most popular compositions. The Tonhalle Orchestra is familiar with this 15-minute composition, be it only from their recording with Bringuier’s predecessor David Zinman. I don’t mean to compare the two conductors in their performances of this work—the two personalities and their interpretations are vastly different.

Lionel Bringuier’s approach is impulsive, harmonious, full of musicality. Orchestral excellence and perfection isn’t Bringuier’s prime goal (unlike with some of his predecessor’s recordings). He rather focuses on smooth transitions, warm feelings, expressivity. Occasionally, I missed some of Richard Strauss’ Bavarian comfortableness. Also, the humor—so prominent in this tone poem—could have been more explicit, direct. There was certainly playfulness and musicality. In dramatic parts, Bringuier often tends towards a fast tempo, up to the point where clarity and precision gradually start to suffer.

Conclusion

Not everything was perfect that evening. But one can attribute most or all of those minor imperfections to the youthful age of the artists. Overall, it was an enriching concert experience. The excitement in the audience showed that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Quite deservedly, the hall was essentially sold out. I’d like to express my gratefulness and my respect for the fruitful work of the Orpheum Foundation. Such successful concert events are certainly a big motivator for the Foundation members to continue their excellent service to the artist community.


Addendum:

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.



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