Maria João Pires, Bernard Haitink / Tonhalle Orchestra
Mozart / Bruckner
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2017-12-20
Maria João Pires (*1944) has announced that she will retire from concert life by mid-2018. So, in all likelihood, this was going to be her farewell concert in Zurich. This in parts explains why the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich was sold out in this concert. People queued up at the ticket counter for the eventual, returned ticket, the foyer was packed with people. Even the bigger old Tonhalle (currently in renovation) would have been sold out! Another reason for the popularity of the concert was that maestro Bernard Haitink (*1929) was conducting the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. Close to age 90 now, he doesn’t seem to have intents to retire!
A key part to the popularity of the program was of course in the program: Mozart’s serene, last piano concerto, played by a specialist for the classical and early romantic repertoire. In the second half, Bruckner’s most popular (and most “accessible”) symphony was performed by Zurich’s key orchestra under a conductor whose core repertoire has been in the symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner, for many decades.
The last piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) is probably the most serene, the most peaceful, the most intimate of them all. There are no virtuosic show-effects built in, and similarly, there aren’t any of the moments through which, as in earlier concerts, Mozart used to surprise his audiences, nor really any humorous facets. Consequently, the piano concerto No.27 in B♭ major, K.595, uses a standard structure of three movements:
In the aftermath, I think that the B♭ major concerto is far from ideal as start of a concert. Listeners are coming from noisy surroundings, arrived through hectic traffic or public transport, from busy day-to-day life. Once they arrive at the venue, they are still facing the narrowness, the squeezing in the foyer, associated with constant chatting. Even in the concert hall, there is all the audience noise before the concert starts. None of this is suited to create the right mood, to ready one’s mind for the serene intimacy of this concerto. Really, there ought to be some music to prepare for Mozart’s concerto.
Bernard Haitink started the first movement out of the finest pianissimo (the score asks for p only). It was so fine that some people in the audience may have missed the first tones. But adjusting to this music is not just a matter of adapting to the low volume. It takes a while to get into the calm and serene atmosphere that dominates all three movements (and it’s a pity for any bit of this music that escapes the listener’s attention). Yes, starting extremely softly forces listeners to “sharpen their ears”. But—doesn’t that mean wasting, “abusing” some of Mozart’s composition?
With Haitink, I did not expect a “strictly historically informed” performance, though of course, the findings about historic performances will still have some influence on this maestro, too. I take this latter point from the clarity of articulation and soundscape, the moderate size of the orchestra (around 8 + 8 + 6 + 4 + 3 string players). But yes, the at the level of motifs, there was far less “Klangrede” and meticulous detail than in many “HIP” performances. The contours remained gentle, mellow, the tempo was moderate (one might say “familiar”, or “as expected”). Haitink is not in for a revolution, nor does he want to shake up things with his Mozart interpretation. On the other hand, one instantly noticed his extreme diligence in dynamics.
Enter the Soloist
As soon as Maria João Pires entered them picture, the scene gradually livened up: it felt as if the soloist had preferred a slightly faster pace. That little, hardly noticeable divergence soon vanished, and the pianist kept close contact with the orchestra, particularly in dialogs with wind instruments. Her playing was careful and diligent, as usual (as expected!). Similar to Haitink’s approach, in terms of agogics, dynamics and articulation, she feels the music in phrases rather than motifs. The tone remained light, clear, and she always kept an eye on secondary voices.
Pires remained close to the score, avoided extra ornaments (though these are hardly needed or expected in this concerto). The only (and irrelevant) exceptions were the scales that she used to fill two large intervals: that conforms with today’s understanding of classical notation.
By no means do I want to imply that Maria João Pires’ interpretation was (too) harmless. Yes, the concerto is anything but a virtuosic show, and rebelling or joking elements are entirely absent. However, the artist didn’t just keep it serene and relaxed: the music retained a melancholic, longing trait (memories of an innocent past? outlook into / longing for redemption?). And of course, there were those miraculous, subtle moments that gained Pires her popularity: one such moment was at the beginning of the last solo prior to the cadenza, where she filled the return of the secondary theme with emotion and vivid agogics. The cadenza was entirely Mozart’s own.
One little quibble: the first movement has numerous instances of three subsequent quavers on the same note, all with an ascending acciaccatura: in Maria João Pires’ hands, these sounded completely natural, whereas in the orchestra, they felt rushed in most or all instances. Why?
The slow movement starts with the piano. So, Maria João Pires defined the tempo, the emotion. As in the other movements, Mozart’s score, his piano part seemed so perfectly laid out that and addition (or omission) of ornaments would disturb the internal harmony.
Strangely, already in the second solo, the quavers in the left hand sounded oddly stiff, almost coarse. To me at least, it was impossible to say whether the Steinway D-274 was hard, badly regulated, or perhaps (also) the acoustics which maybe didn’t mix well enough the sound of the concert grand with that of the orchestra, and/or which maybe accentuated the hard aspects of the piano sound?
In her third solo, Pires first accelerated slightly, but after a few bars, she appeared to focus on the aspects of subtlety and serenity in her part. Yet, I found that throughout the second movement, solo and accompaniment didn’t find entirely to a harmonious interplay, to the harmony that seems embedded in this music.
I liked the final Allegro for its delicate passages in the solo part. Maria João Pires played the finale with high agogic and dynamic differentiation and subtlety. This was particularly also true for the cadenzas: Pires shortened Mozart’s first cadenza (bar 130) substantially, inserted a very short one of her own at bar 180, but played Mozart’s full cadenza (at bar 272). In these cadenzas, Maria João Pires avoided anything that might have sounded like extroverted virtuosity: every scale, every run was played carefully, with consciously shaped phrasing. Throughout the movement, I also liked Pires’ excellent, harmonious and convincing transitions.
However, here, the pianist actually also showed some “bite”. Examples were in her solo at bar 65, or later, in short, concise interjections, where she demonstrated distinct grip and determination. It occasionally even happened that one heard her stomp, when she resolutely operated the sustain pedal. But all this happened within the confinements of the serene, pensive atmosphere in this movement, this concerto.
A devious thought: wouldn’t that have been an ideal composition to end a concert evening? OK, maybe not after Bruckner’s fourth symphony…
Bruckner: Symphony No.4 in E♭ major, “Romantic”
The Symphony No.4 in E♭ major, WAB 104, “Romantic” is the most popular symphony by Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896). He wrote it in 1873/1874. I have given a longer description with some details on the two main versions in an earlier concert report. Here, I just list the movements:
- Bewegt, nicht zu schnell (with motion, not too fast)
- Andante, quasi Allegretto
- Scherzo: Bewegt (with motion) – Trio: Nicht zu schnell. Keinesfalls schleppend (Not too fast, don’t ever drag)
- Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (with motion, but not too fast)
I. Bewegt, nicht zu schnell
With Bruckner, master Bernard Haitink must now have felt in his element, his home turf! Indeed, the first ff felt like a big relief, even salvation, after the slow crescendo over the first 50 bars of introduction. Bernard Haitink continued to conduct the orchestra with most economical gestures. In a calm manner, he was carefully shaping large-scale dynamics, the big build-up waves and arches in Bruckner’s music. And he managed to inspire life into the symphony. Only when it came to calling upon the forces of the brass section, Haitink occasionally resorted to bigger gestures. However, at any time, the dynamic balance within the orchestra remained carefully crafted.
The orchestra produced a compact soundscape, yet remained transparent (which of course is partly due to the acoustics of the venue). I liked the string sound of the orchestra (like: the cello sound at bar 382ff), and—as expected—the wind soloists were excellent: in first place, I should mention the trombones, the horns, and the solo flute. Never in this long movement, actually, throughout the symphony, there was any moment where I had the impression of the music idling along, and never there were even traces of boredom at the listener’s end!
II. Andante, quasi Allegretto
I liked the calm intensity, with which the cellos started presenting the main theme. A term “primordial tranquility” spontaneously sprung to mind. Though, Bruckner’s soon starts evoking expectations, evolves in waves: the calm singing returned at [C] and [G], at [I] it mutated to beautiful viola singing at [I], and in the end, the movement returns to the initial calmness.Throughout the performance, the orchestra supported the conductor actively, and with engagement. On the other hand, I noted some intonation impurities in the woodwinds. That did not happen throughout, but in punctual occurrences, and strangely with soloists who otherwise showed perfect intonation.
III. Scherzo: Bewegt – Trio: Nicht zu schnell. Keinesfalls schleppend
In the Scherzo part, the passing-on of motifs / interjections between the wind instruments revealed deficiencies in the coordination, and also here, the intonation wasn’t always flawless (as occasionally also in the last movement).
The Trio, a peaceful, pastoral idyl, was not (or far less) affected by this.
IV. Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell
In the last movement, conductor and orchestra explored the limits of the acoustics—without overloading the venue, though. Examples are at [P], where the orchestra burst out with compact sound from the impressive brass group, and of course in the rapid build-up at [X], towards the elemental forces of the final climax. Even here, the orchestra sound remained transparent (thanks to the acoustics), though in the second half of the movement, some of the softest passages lacked rhythmic clarity.
In the end, Bernard Haitink seemed exhausted—probably both physically, as well as emotionally. Not many conductors will perform that symphony at his age! It would, however, be cheap to attribute deficiencies in the performance to the conductor, or to short rehearsal times: the orchestra can do better. I would rather seek the explanation in a continued need to adjust to the acoustics of the new venue, and (more importantly, I think) to the (still unfamiliar) bigger distances between the groups on the podium.
A recent text in the press noted that—different from the impression that I recently had as a listener—the temporary venue is somewhat of a challenge for the musicians (one that they can master, I think). It gives the instrumentalists the feeling of playing for themselves. Maybe that’s a generic problem with “open” acoustics such as this one?
I hate to say this: when I heard that same symphony in the Zurich Opera, on 2017-11-12, the Philharmonia Zurich performed this work with more coherence and precision—simply better. However, this was under their regular chief conductor, in a much more compact setup, possibly with more rehearsal time, and in an acoustic environment that they are thoroughly familiar with.
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.