Regula Mühlemann, Joshua Bell, Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
Mozart /Mendelssohn / Beethoven

Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-10-22

4-star rating

2016-10-25 — Original posting


Introduction

The Orchestra

The Verbier Festival is more than just a prominent music festival in the Swiss Alps. It also understands itself as a teaching institution. This addresses, both soloists, through the Academy (for solo musicians up to the age of 28), as well as orchestra musicians. For the latter, there is the Verbier Festival Junior Orchestra (for musicians aged between 15 and 18), as well as the “follow-up institution”, the Verbier Festival Orchestra (for musicians aged between 18 and 28). Finally, there is the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra, formed from alumni of the Verbier Festival Orchestra. The Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra was founded in 2005. Its current Music Director is Gábor Takács-Nagy (*1956).

In this concert, the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra played with 8 + 6 violins (plus Joshua Bell, while not being soloist), 4 violas, 4 cellos, 2 double basses, plus timpani and wind instruments, as required. The orchestra arrangement was Vl.1 — Vl.2 — Vla. — Vc. — Cb., wind instruments and timpani in the rear of the podium.

Joshua Bell

In this concert in the big hall of the Tonhalle Zurich, the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra was directed by the American violinist and conductor Joshua Bell (*1967). Bell was born in Bloomington IN. He had his first violin lessons at the age of 4. His third teacher was Josef Gingold (1909 – 1995), and at the age of 14, he appeared as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Riccardo Muti. In 1989, Joshua Bell received the Artist Diploma in Violin Performance from Indiana University. His instrument is the 1713 “Gibson ex Huberman” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737). For details on the instrument and its interesting history see Wikipedia.

About Joshua Bell’s career: after his debut at Carnegie Hall in 1985, the artist has launched an international career as violinist. Since 2004, he is artistic partner of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and at the same time also visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 2007 he became senior lecturer at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. As conductor, Joshua Bell became Music Director with the Academy of St.Martin in the Fields, starting 2011.

Regula Mühlemann

The Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann received her vocal education at the Academy of Music in Lucerne. In 2010, she graduated (with honors) with a Master of Arts. She has since launched a successful career as singer, mostly in opera, on various, prominent stages throughout Europe. For additional information and further links see Wikipedia.

The organizer for this concert is Migros, the biggest Swiss chain of supermarkets. This is part of their statuary obligation to spend one percent of their budget on culture. As a little aside: the concert handout had a little asterisk next to the name of the singer, pointing to a footnote “Swiss Soloist”. This may be due to the fact that the organizer, Migros, has a legal obligation to declare every detail in all merchandize they are selling? Or is there any extra benefit of extra value in pointing out the nationality of the soloist? Applying this to the soloist in a concert sounds rather strange to me. On top of that: among the Swiss singers there are very few (if any) that are less in need of such “branding protection” than Regula Mühlemann!


Mozart: “Exsultate, Jubilate”, K.165

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed his motet “Exsultate, Jubilate”, Motet for soprano, K.165 (158a) in 1773, in Milan. At that time, he was involved in the production of his opera Lucio Silla, K.135. The motet was “written into the voice” of the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini (1746 – 1810), who was also singing the role of Cecilio in Lucio Silla. The motet features four movements:

  1. Allegro “Exsultate, jubilate” (4/4)
  2. Recitativo “Fulget amica dies” (4/4)
  3. Andante “Tu virginum corona” (3/4) —
  4. Allegro “Alleluja” (2/4)

The outer two movements are very virtuosic. They not just require great vocal agility, but they also covering a wide tonal range. The Andante, in contrast, is more lyrical in nature. Despite the virtuosic, operatic nature of this motet, it should still retain its religious character. The text is entirely in Latin. The accompaniment is written for two oboes, two horns, strings, and basso continuo.

The Performance

I. Allegro “Exsultate, jubilate”

For 15 minutes, Regula Mühlemann put herself into the role of a famous castrato in Northern Italy of the 18th century. As pointed out above: she has no need to prove her abilities to the audience and hence should be relaxed about approaching this concert. However, starting in front of a big audience with such a virtuosic role still is a challenge. But of course, as expected, Regula Mühlemann’s performance was impeccable! Maybe at the very beginning, she was a bit too explicit in the accents. However, after a few bars, she was in total control, was able to expose the beauty of her voice, its silver lining, the clarity in the coloraturas.

The balance in her voice and its tonal range are astounding. Her timbre is silvery, never pushed or hard or steely, the projection excellent, even in soft and low passages. Joshua Bell and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra provided optimum support, through careful, prudent accompaniment: the ensemble played with light articulation and a mellow sound throughout. I also liked how the singer took her time to allow for proper, clear pronunciation. And yet, she remained “on the beat”: pronunciation happened in the limits of normal agogics / rhythmic play.

II. Recitativo “Fulget amica dies”

I noted the absence of a keyboard for the basso continuo in the orchestra. Some might have expected a harpsichord as the most likely choice. However, for a religious motet, a (small) organ would be more appropriate. Neither of these were present here. However, the solemn, mellow sound of a small subset of string players proved an excellent substitute for a small organ. I did not miss the keyboard instrument at all.

III. Andante “Tu virginum corona”

To Regula Mühlemann, switching from a dramatic coloratura part into a lyrical piece proved effortless: here, she used a natural, harmonious, never obtrusive vibrato. the articulation was now softer, though the singer kept the “ping” in her voice. The orchestra accompanied with vivid dynamics, led by Joshua Bell from the first desk. He switched between directing with his bow and (mostly) using body gestures, i.e., moving his body while seated.

IV. Allegro “Alleluja”

The last, joyful, jubilant part follows attacca. It requires switching back into the virtuosic coloratura mode. Even at a relatively fast pace, Regula Mühlemann mastered this seemingly without major effort. She kept the brilliant timbre of her voice, mastered the high C at the end with bravura and hardly much effort. The audience gave her the enthusiastic applause that she fully deserved: I’m sure she gained many new fans in this concert!


Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, op.64

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) completed his Violin Concerto in E minor, op.64 in 1845. I have posted some notes on the creation of this concerto in an earlier post and will not repeat this here. In addition, I have previously also posted a brief comparison of 3 CD recordings. So, I’m just giving a list of the movements in the concerto:

  1. Allegro molto appassionato (2/2)
  2. Andante (6/8)
  3. Allegretto non troppo (4/4) – Allegro molto vivace (4/4)

The Performance

For the rest of the evening, Joshua Bell took the lead, together with the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra. For the concerto, Bell conducted from the soloist’s position in the center, with some assistance by the concert master. The bulk of hist direction was merely through (often vehement) body gestures, except for longer rests, when he turned around to the orchestra and conducted with his bow. This obviously can’t be as accurate and precise as a conductor’s baton. However, conductor and orchestra were obviously familiar enough with the music, such that a baton was not really necessary.

Right from the first note (in the second bar), the violin solo stood in the center of the attention: physically, of course, but equally in sound. Bell’s superb Stradivarius instrument effortlessly stood out from the orchestral accompaniment, from the lowest tones on the G-string up to the highest flageolet. Not just the projection of the instrument was outstanding, but also the perfect balance of its registers across the range. Of course, Mendelssohn’s prudent disposition of the accompaniment, and the orchestra’s careful dynamics and disposition both helped in highlighting the solo part.

But on top of all this, Joshua Bell of course also attracted the listener’s attention through his body language, his often vehement gestures, and his clear, decisive, sometimes almost resolute articulation. He was clearly leading the ensemble throughout the concerto, providing the impulses, the momentum, maintaining control. His playing was emphatic, full of drive, with vivid agogics (often up to rubato)—electrifying overall.

I. Allegro molto appassionato

Particularly in the fast movements one could call Joshua Bell’s interpretation virile. His playing may not have been devoid of show elements, though I never had the impression that the soloist ever explicitly meant to put himself into the center of the performance. The way he played is just natural to him, his very nature, devoid of arrogance, never presumptuous.

The Mendelssohn concerto (and I could say the same about Mendelssohn’s piano concertos) bears some inherent danger (for both the listener and the artist) of “letting it flow” or “letting it run by”. This may eventually cause the listener to lose attention, and in the extreme, the concerto might appear boring. Nothing could be farther from the experience in this concert than such dangers! As a listener, one often felt like sitting on needles. It seemed impossible to get distracted while watching Joshua Bell play, from the first bars up to the final, racing stretto in the coda.

Cadenza

Not unexpectedly, Joshua Bell played his own cadenza. He has done so for many years. I would characterize his cadenza in this concert as “in the style of Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907)”, especially in the extended double-stop passages. This may appear debatable, as Mendelssohn has indeed provided a fully written-out cadenza. In addition, in this concerto, the cadenza unusually appears between the development section and the recapitulation, i.e., it is more central to the movement that if it were to appear only prior to the coda. On the other hand, the composer also annotated the “Cadenza ad libitum“. This arguably may refer to the playing style or to playing the (or any) cadenza altogether.

Sure, the original cadenza is perfectly, organically fitting into the context: after all, Mendelssohn wrote the cadenza and the concerto in cooperation with (and into the hands of) his friend and concertmaster Ferdinand David (1810 – 1873). But this “organic enclosure” may also contribute to the possible impression of lengths in the movement. More than Mendelssohn’s original, Joshua Bells cadenza stands out from the movement, takes its own path, partly also in thematic material and in style. However, compared to Bell’s earlier performances, the cadenza now appears somewhat more compact. With this, there is less danger of “cutting the movement” prior to the recapitulation. Overall, I really liked Joshua Bell’s cadenza.

II. Andante

After the excitement of the busy first movement, the transition to the Andante with its serene, calm melodies seemed almost extreme. The lyrical outer parts of the movement (to me) felt somewhat pastose, which I mainly attribute to the soloist’s rather strong vibrato. Interestingly, I had this impression even though the playing in the orchestra remained light and clear, was never overblown. This was not an issue in the middle part, which is more dramatic: its double-stop tremolo passages prohibit using an excess of (or any) vibrato.

III. Allegretto non troppo — Allegro molto vivace

After the 14 bars of the Allegretto non troppo introduction, the final Allegro molto vivace brought us back into the vivid nature of the initial part of the first movement: once more, we experienced Joshua Bell’s more than vivid, always alert, light and sporty playing—like sitting at the very edge of a chair. It was an enthralling performance, for sure, utterly vivid, with extreme physical and mental presence!

And yes, there are downsides, too: with his temperament, Joshua Bell isn’t the man to explore the finest of details, the emotional nuances that others may find in this concerto. Also, his “conducting” activities, the often lively gestures to lead and drive the orchestra often caused over-enhanced transitions, sometimes also bow transitions standing out excessively. However, on the bright side, the absence of a mediating conductor allowed for a much more direct interaction with the orchestra. There may have been a certain danger of the soloist getting carried away in all this action: at least in the final build-up, he was at the fringe of over-pushing the pace for his fellow musicians in the orchestra.


Solo Encore — Bach: Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006, Gavotte en rondeau

In response to the vivid applause, Joshua Bell laconically announced his encore as “Bach”. He played the Gavotte en rondeau from the Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). This may have been almost opposed in style to Mendelssohn’s concerto. Bell played it at a fluent pace (the couplets were decidedly faster than the ritornello parts). However, with its playful and somewhat melancholic character, it was an extra opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the instrument’s sound—and to relax after the sporty interpretation of the preceding concerto.


Beethoven: Symphony No.7 in A major, op.92

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) composed his Symphony No.7 in A major, op.92 in 1811/1812. I have posted a detailed comparison of over 10 recordings and will not add more description here. In addition, I have posted reviews from concerts with this symphony, from events on 2015-09-04 and 2016-05-09. Here, I’m therefore just giving the list of the movements.

  1. Poco sostenuto (4/4, 1/4 = 69) – Vivace (6/8, 3/8 = 104)
  2. Allegretto (2/4, 1/4 = 76)
  3. Presto (3/4, 3/4 = 132) – Assai meno presto (3/4, 3/4 = 82)
  4. Allegro con brio (2/4, 1/2 = 72)

The Performance

Here now, Joshua Bell led the ensemble from the first desk. In order to have ample space for both playing the violin and conducting through body movements, he was sitting on a slightly elevated piano bench. Even though the space in the center of the podium remained empty, he seemed to more than just fill it out with his physical actions and his mental presence.

I. Poco sostenuto – Vivace

Already in the first bars I noticed how the ensemble distinctly pointed out the contrast between the opening staccato beats and the lyrical cantabile voices in the wind instruments. Bell built up tension in these bars—and maintained it in the fluent pace of the Vivace part: also here, there was never a danger of the music losing tension. He kept the momentum throughout the movement, accents / sforzati stood out firmly and clearly, but were never harsh.

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) called this symphony an “Apotheosis of the dance”; I don’t think this applies to that performance. To me, dance music requires some “swing”, a certain amount of relaxed atmosphere. Here, there was way too much tension, drive and suspense. This is not meant to be a critique: the performance was thrilling, enthralling. The one downside of the performance was that occasionally, wind soloists did not get the time to play out nuances using agogics. However, such subtle dilatations and re-accelerating requires an increased amount of coordination—which may be hard to achieve from the first desk, i.e., without a conductor.

II. Allegretto

In the fast movements, Joshua Bell followed Beethoven’s metronome marks pretty closely. However, in the “slow” movement (Allegretto!), he selected a more moderate pace, avoiding extremes and the harshness in rhythm and sound that occasionally creeps in with some historically informed performances. The articulation remained light in the bass theme, the orchestra formed nice, long phrasing arches. I really liked the beautiful, mellow, gleaming melodies from the wind section, particularly the clarinets.

III. Presto – Assai meno presto

The Presto took the listeners back into world of driven, sometimes almost explosive vividness. Joshua Bell occasionally seemed in danger of catapulting himself off his piano bench. It was not a smooth, highly polished performance: drive and suspense were far more important here. Though, the last recurrence of the Presto part was almost too driven. Also, a “proper” conductor might have achieved better coordination in the transitions from the Trio sections (Assai meno presto) back to the Presto.

On the other hand, I really liked the Trio parts, which Bell kept light and fluent: they were far from being celebrated and solemn, as often heard in traditional performances. Allegedly, the Trio theme is derived from an Austrian pilgrim’s chant. However, one should not ignore Beethoven’s metronome numbers. Bell did very well in that respect.

IV. Allegro con brio

One would expect an Allegro con brio to be slightly “less” (fast) than a Presto. However, here, the music seemed even more enthralling—sometimes maybe almost too much. Again, there was often not much room for agogic play, for a more playful element. On the bright side, there again was never a danger for the music to lose tension—the music remained full of drive and tension, up to the very end.

Was this a HIP (historically informed playing) performance? I would say it at least came very close in terms of tempo (except for the Allegretto), the light and clear articulation, and the limited size of the orchestra. But the instruments were modern (particularly bows and wind instruments), and a historically correct orchestra would have called for the two violin groups facing each other, i.e., to sit on the two sides of the podium (this would help the listener in recognizing dialogs between these two voices). But then again, this arrangement is more demanding in terms of coordination, may necessitate a conductor’s baton. At least, for the last movement, the timpanist switched to harder sticks for the last movement (though not purely wooden sticks, as some purists might prefer). It was a fascinating performance and experience nevertheless.


Orchestra Encore — Mozart: Overture to the Opera “Le nozze di Figaro”, K.492

After the stirring excitement of the Beethoven symphony, particularly its last movement, further intensification was truly impossible. It felt like an excellent idea to end the concert with a return to the 18th century, in a performance of the popular Overture to the Opera “Le nozze di Figaro”, K.492, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) in 1786. Despite the inherent excitement and tension in Mozart’s music, the encore remained relaxed, joy- and playful—an excellent closure of the evening!


Addendum 1:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create 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.


Addendum 2:

Regula Mühlemann’s interpretation of Mozart’s “Exsultate jubilate”, K.165, is available on a newly released CD, along with 8 arias:

Mozart Arias — Regula Mühlemann; CD cover

Mozart: Arias

Regula Mühlemann, Soprano
Umberto Benedetti Michelangeli — Kammerorchester Basel

Sony Classical (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2016

amazon media link
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CD Contents:

  1. Schon lacht der holde Frühling“, K.580 [8’05”]
  2. Geme la Tortorella” from “La finta giardiniera“, K.196 [4’31”]
  3. Da schlägt die Abschiedsstunde” from “Der Schauspieldirektor“, K.486 [3’53”]
  4. Voi avete un cor fedele“, K.217 [6’49”]
  5. S’altro che lacrime” from “La clemenza di Tito“, K.621 [2’26”]
  6. Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” from “Die Entführung aus dem Serail“, K.384 [4’23”]
  7. Strider sento la procella” from “Lucio Silla“, K.135 [3’51”]
  8. Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio… Ah, conte, partite“, K.418 [6’28”]
  9. “Exsultate, jubilate“, K.165 (158a):
    1. Exsultate, jubilate” [4’20”]
    2. Fuget amica dies” [0’49”]
    3. Tu virginum corona” [6’09”]
    4. Alleluia” [2’31”]


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