Emmanuel Pahud, Willi Zimmermann / ZKO
Ignaz Pleyel / W.A. Mozart
Zurich, Schauspielhaus Pfauen, 2017-05-21
This was the last concert of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO) of the season 2016/2017 in this location: just as with the last concert with that orchestra that I attended, the venue was the venerable Schauspielhaus / Pfauenbühne in Zurich. The event was sold out.
Willi Zimmermann (*1961), the orchestra’s concertmaster, led the ensemble from the first desk. The musicians were sitting in a semi-circle, with the two violin groups at either end. This is definitely correct and appropriate for music of the classical period.
The soloist in the concert was the world-class Franco-Swiss flutist Emmanuel Pahud (*1970). Pahud was born in Geneva, and he now is one of the world’s most prominent flute players. He now pursues an extensive career as soloist and chamber musician. At 22, he became the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. With the exception of an 18-month sabbatical leave, he has held the position of solo flutist with that orchestra ever since. Besides his own Web site, detailed information on his biography and career can be found on Wikipedia.
This concert can be seen as featuring two dichotomies:
- the first half, up to the intermission, featured works by Ignaz Pleyel, the second half works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- the “outer” works were symphonies, the “inner” ones flute concerts (or a fragment thereof).
Pleyel: Symphony in D major, Ben.126
Ignaz Joseph Pleyel (1757 – 1831) was born in Austria, one year after Mozart. He spent most of his life in France (Strasbourg 1783–1795, from then on in or near Paris). He was a prolific composer up to around 1805—a time at which he deemed his second profession as publisher more important, and even more so when he also started a piano factory.
Pleyel composed at least 41 symphonies (plus 70 string quartets, other chamber music, as well as operas)—most between 1778 and 1805. This concert proved: it is unfortunate that his works are rarely showing up in concerts these days. His Symphony in D major, Ben.126, turns out to be much more than pure, pleasant entertainment music. It reveals a composer who does not just follow given, traditional form schemes and conventions: it is a symphony full of fantasy, rich in themes and motifs, harmonic and atmospheric variation. The symphony features four movements:
- Allegro assai
- Minuetto: Allegretto
- Finale: Rondo, Allegro
It was a joy to watch the Zurich Chamber Orchestra in action: the performance was precise, virtuosic, and full of very obvious pleasure and joy of playing. The ensemble acted as a community of solidarity, joined in what looks like playing in a family circle. It was especially the first desks (the voice leaders) who maintained close, intense contact and visual communication. In particular, the first cellist, Nicola Mosca, seemed to enjoy his pivotal position in the center of the semi-circle!
I. Allegro assai
The opening movement (Allegro assai) features a dancing first theme that appears as a canon. This contrasts to a rather reflective second theme, in which pictures of a flower garden filled with bird songs appeared in my mind. The exposition was not repeated, but the start of the development section was still obvious from the switch to minor tonalities, sometimes quite dramatic, also featuring surprise effects in the harmonies. Also the recapitulation does not follow standard rules at all: it is excellent music that doesn’t need to shy away from comparisons with Haydn or Mozart!
The Andante is reflective, pensive, earnest and retained; however, there is an unexpected, jolly, bouncing insert!
III. Minuetto: Allegretto
As contrast, a Minuetto follows—though, it’s not just a gallant dance, it also features intermittent, more dramatic segments. In the Trio, two solo violins in unison (yields an interesting sound!) are accompanied by pizzicati.
IV. Finale: Rondo, Allegro
The Finale is virtuosic, both serene and boisterous. In the background more than once, a thunderstorm appears to show up on the horizon—though, these remain episodes only. Overall: a brilliant symphony, for sure!
Pleyel: Flute Concerto in C major, Ben.106
Ignaz Joseph Pleyel (1757 – 1831) composed his Concerto in C major (Ben.106) in 1797. Interestingly, its title indicates that the solo instrument can be clarinet, flute, or cello—quite a diverse range of instruments! In interviews, the soloist, Emmanuel Pahud, stated that this is one of the largest flute concertos in the entire literature. The performance in this concert lasted 24 minutes. There are three movements:
- Rondo: Allegro molto
Even though he was standing in the center of the semi-circle, Emmanuel Pahud initially appeared to leave the leadership in the hands of the concert master, Willi Zimmermann. However, after a few bars, discreet movements in hands, arms, and body gave clear indications that the soloist had at least an equal role in leading the team. Through the intense visual communication with the ensemble it was clear that the performance was the result of intense, joint preparations. Quite obviously, Pahud felt very much at ease in playing with the ZKO—a cooperation fundamentally different from his main “job” as solo flutist with the Berlin Philharmonics.
On the Soloist
From a distance, a friend of mine envied my concert attendance, stating that Pahud is a “flute god”. I’m generally cautious with religious attributions. On top of that, I’m not even sure whether “flute god” is a suitable, even desirable attribute here. To me, it implies a kind of “body-less”, perfect playing without blowing, finger or key noises: in essence, tones without “earth-bound” attributes. A few decades ago, this may indeed have been the ideal that artists were aiming for. However, by now, through electronics and advances in recording technique, there is an overabundance in perfection. On top of that, the use of original, period instruments brought (back) the appreciation for the “human” imperfections associated with playing on “real” instruments. Many listeners like the idea of hearing how the human body interacts with instruments in producing sounds.
Emmanuel Pahud’s playing is a prime example for this change in trend: it is far away from neutral, “body-less” perfection. From the most subtle ppp up to a wall-penetrating fff, from the warm depth of the bottom register up to incisive heights, his tone is always exceptionally projecting, full of “substance” and character—and his intonation is perfect at all times. The instrument’s response is immediate, instantaneous and clear, articulation and tone quality are extremely differentiated. The artist appears to have grown together with the instrument, breathing pauses feel entirely natural and remain completely inconspicuous. Apparently independent of breathing needs and (minute) pauses, Pahud is able to form long, harmonious phrases, and virtuosity (in speed, ornamentation and jumps) is simply a given.
As a composition, the flute concerto is absolutely on a par with the above symphony, in terms of fantasy, richness in melodies, harmonic and rhythmic features. Quite obviously, Pleyel had excellent knowledge about the technical and virtuosic possibilities with this instrument. Needless to say that Pahud’s cadenza was differentiated and more than mere demonstration of virtuosity.
The lyrical slow movement gave a testimony of Pahud’s flawless intonation. At the same time it demonstrated the excellent cooperation with the orchestra: how soloist and orchestra followed each other’s intent in agogics and dynamics, and how soloist and accompaniment carried, supported each other in the interpretation.
III. Rondo: Allegro molto
The concluding Rondo is both dancing and gallant, very virtuosic in the solo part. There are also almost violent eruptions—and at all times, Pahud’s intonation remained perfect.
It is unclear whether Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed the Andante in C major, K.315 (285e), as a substitute or alternative for the slow movement in the Flute Concerto in G major, K.313, or whether this is a first movement to a new concerto which the composer then abandoned. The Andante was written 1778. It uses the same instrumentation (strings, two oboes, two horns) as K.313.
With Mozart, we entered a totally different world: this Andante is an oasis of serenity and tranquility. Its predominant quality is in Mozart’s consummate ability to create perfect, immaculate and catchy melodies. He doesn’t even try to pack as much fantasy, the same multitude of motifs, changes in atmosphere into the piece as Pleyel. So, rather than sitting on needles as in Pleyel’s fast movements, listeners can indulge in Mozart’s melodic mastership.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) wrote his Symphony No.28 in C major, K.200 (189k) in Salzburg, probably 1773 or 1774. It’s the last one of his “Salzburg Symphonies”. It features four movements:
- Allegro spiritoso, 3/4
- Andante, 2/4
- Menuet — Trio, 3/4
- Presto, 2/2
With this symphony, the listener’s focus turned back to the orchestra:
I. Allegro spiritoso
Thinking back about past Mozart performances with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, my first question to myself was: how much of Sir Roger Norrington‘s legacy is still there? My conclusion from the symphony: the orchestra has retained its lightness and conciseness, and the articulation is still excellent. On the other hand, the music is no longer quite as provoking (if not aggressive) as it used to be. The fast movements are not “driven forward” to the same degree as with Norrington. Some may regret this. On the other hand, the playing is more relaxed, collegiality and cooperation have become more central to the performance.
I also felt that by now, the orchestra has adopted and adjusted to the dry acoustics of the Schauspielhaus. Maybe as a listener, I’m starting to get used to the venue? Sure, I could imagine acoustically warmer environments with more support for the lower registers. A little bit of audible reverberation would help, too. Still, to me, the acoustics were inconspicuous, and I didn’t have an immediate feeling of “too much” or “not enough” in this concert.
The Andante tempo felt natural (meaning I could relate it to a walking pace, or to a regular heartbeat): it wasn’t pushed, “driven”—yet, the playing retained sufficient alertness, felt “awake”. Of course, this was helped by the f bursts in the wind section, which I’m sure Mozart added with a twinkling eye, as a soft joke.
III. Menuet — Trio
The Menuet felt tidy, yet playful, while the Trio felt humorous, featured very light articulation.
The symphony concludes with a virtuosic, sparkling Presto. This movement shed some light on the work of the second violins: I admired the excellent coordination, the discipline in that voice! From my personal experience, decades ago (no, not with this symphony) I know that the effervescent, often monotonously repetitive accompanying figures are often more difficult than the part of the first violin. Here, the second violins sounded light, precise—like a single player/instrument, really. They actually stood out against the first violins, which didn’t sound quite as homogeneous.
Encore — Mozart: Symphony No.22 in C major, K.162 (III. Presto)
The orchestra offered an encore—Mozart, of course (the only good option, really!). They selected the last one (Finale: Presto) of the three movements in the Symphony No.22 in C major, K.162. Mozart composed this in April 1773. Like Symphony No.28, it is set for two oboes, two horns, two trumpets and strings.
The applause was long and intense: it was a delightful concert experience throughout!
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