Renaud Capuçon / Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO)
Mozart / Schumann / Tchaikovsky
Zurich, Schauspielhaus Pfauen, 2017-03-26
2017-03-29 — Original posting
This fall, the Zurich Tonhalle will close its doors for a renovation period of three years. Therefore both the Tonhalle Orchestra, as well as the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO) to look for alternate concert venues. The Tonhalle Orchestra is building an interim venue in an industrial complex in Zurich’s West, the “Maag Halle“, a “box in a box” building, featuring a concert hall for an audience of 1224. This will be available in September 2017. It will be the primary concert venue for the Tonhalle Orchestra. However, it will of course also be available to the ZKO.
Given its size, however, the ZKO will presumably use the Maag Hall primarily for concerts with good chances to attract big audiences. Also, the Maag Hall is in one of Zurich’s fashionable, new quarters—but it is a little further away from the old city center. So, the ZKO was looking for other alternatives as interim, main concert venues. In this search, the ZKO “discovered” the “Pfauenbühne” (“peacock’s stage”, named after the square at which it is located), the original main stage of the Schauspielhaus Zürich. Initially, this had been a little known place, but at the time of the Nazi regime in Germany, numerous, famous stage artists from Germany and Austria fled to Switzerland and made their appearance on this stage.
Concerts on a Stage for the Spoken Word?
After attending a number of concerts at the Zurich Opera House, I know about the potential pitfalls of performing concerts on stage that is built to optimize clarity and understandability of the human voice. The Zurich Opera House has very dry acoustics, lacking all reverberation. So, I was curious to see how the Schauspielhaus—built purely for the spoken word—would fare in that respect. The people from the ZKO obviously were aware of the potential issues. So, they took the help from acoustics experts and did some trials. These tests obviously were promising. In this season, months before the Tonhalle is actually closing, the ZKO already scheduled some concerts at the Schauspielhaus. This event with the French violinist Renaud Capuçon (*1976) was the third concert in this venue.
Let me state this here already: it was worth the risk! Sure, the venue is small (it certainly feels relatively small, despite its capacity of 750 seats), much shorter than the Tonhalle—the distances to the stage are short (for best understandability). Also, the hall is heavily structured, with balcony and box seats. Consequently, there is no noticeable reverberation. Interestingly, the high frequencies were not attenuated (“swallowed”) nearly as much as I had feared, and the bass / low frequencies even appeared supported by the acoustics. Of course, the stage (rear, ceiling, sides) had been almost completely shielded off with acoustic panels—without that, most of the sound would have been lost in the depth of the stage.
Mozart: Divertimento in D major, “Salzburg Symphony” K.136 (K.125a)
- D major, K.131 (1772)
- D major, K.136 (125a) — “Salzburg Symphony No.1” (1772)
- B♭ major, K.137 (125b) — “Salzburg Symphony No.2” (1772)
- F major, K.138 (125c) — “Salzburg Symphony No.3” (1772)
- Divertimenti Nos.1 – 5 in B♭ major, K.229 (439b, 1783–85)
The most well-known among these are the three (K.136 – 138) also named “Salzburg Symphony”. These are popular pieces for string orchestras, but one can also hear them in the repertoire of (and in recordings by) string quartets. The first of these “Salzburg Symphonies”, K.136 in D major, features three movements:
A little side-note: the “alternative Koechel numbers (KV)” are emerging because the Koechel catalog (Koechel-Verzeichnis, KV) is meant to be strictly chronological. Needless to say that the chronology on Mozart’s oeuvre is not entirely known, i.e., partly hypothetical. Koechel made his catalog based on the best assumptions available at the time. Now, as newer research reveals additional detail / information about a piece’s date off creation, that essentially requires a new Koechel number, in order to maintain the chronology. And as all numbers between 1 and 625 are taken, an appropriate existing number is used, with a character “a”, “b”, etc. added as suffix. Hence the alternate numbers with the character suffix. Needless to say that this concept is rather confusing, to say the least!
In this concert, the Divertimento in D formed a first test for the acoustics of the venue: balance, transparency, clarity, acoustic “support” across general rests, acoustic “filling” of the venue—all these would be under scrutiny by the audience. Renaud Capuçon directed the orchestra from the first desk. He was integrating into the ensemble—just as if it hadn’t been around 8 years since he last performed with the orchestra. There was no need for exaggeration in gestures to keep the musicians “in line”—their cooperation almost felt like playing in a family circle.
Yes, the Divertimento in D is anything but technically challenging, but still, it has its pitfalls. The simple texture bears the danger that ensembles might choose an extreme, “sporty” tempo. In other words, some may try creating a technical challenge where the composer did not have that intent. The ZKO did not step into that trap: their articulation and the pace selected by Renaud Capuçon felt really natural. Nothing exotic, not too fast, not too slow. The dynamics were carefully laid out and detailed, the musicians used a very minimal amount of vibrato. The acoustics did not require exceedingly dry staccato articulation, nor was there a need to use extra legato articulation to fill gaps, such as in very dry acoustics.
Overall, the articulation felt light, often “flying”, the rolling semiquaver figures fluent, rather legato than spiccato.
In the Andante, interestingly, the articulation felt almost lighter than in the outer movements.
Also in the last movement I felt a natural attitude: there was not show effect, no sporty exaggeration here. One example for the amount of dynamic detail: within p segments, there are occasionally repeated bars / motifs. Capuçon had the repeats performed ppp—that not marked this way in the score, but it sure is a nice idea! Also here, the sound remained transparent, clear.
Overall, the Divertimento did not serve as opportunity to demonstrate virtuosity or instrumental perfection. There was equally no attempt to make the music sound revolutionary, rebelling. The key is that the ZKO gave this often underestimated little “symphony” the appropriate amount of care, detail and attention. It was an excellent entry into the concert—and at the same time a good indication that the acoustics in this venue are (or can be made) “just right” for this size of orchestra.
Schumann: Violin Concerto in A minor, after the Cello Concerto, op.129
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) composed his Cello Concerto in A minor, op.129, in a mere two weeks in October 1850, in a happy period in his life, shortly after he became music director in Düsseldorf. It clearly is the work of a genius, and a beautiful composition—yet, the composer never heard a performance of this music in its original form. Maybe there weren’t enough good cellists around, back then? Or maybe artists felt that the work was difficult to play, or hard to understand (or a combination of these). The premiere of op.129 only happened 1860 in Leipzig, four years after the composer’s death.
However, Schumann transcribed the composition for violin and orchestra, for his friend Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907) to play. In this version (only), he did indeed hear his composition in a performance. The two scores are essentially identical, except for the obvious octave shifts required to accommodate the violin’s tonal range. The concerto has three movements:
- Nicht zu schnell (not too fast)
- Langsam (slowly)
- Sehr lebhaft (very lively)
Meanwhile, the cello concerto has gained quite some popularity in the concert repertoire. However, the version for violin and orchestra is rarely performed at all.
I have written a short blog post with a comparison of three CD recordings of the version for cello and orchestra.
Pure Strings Instrumentation
Schumann’s original concerto (as well as his own transcription for the violin) specifies an orchestra with two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. That’s 13 musicians on top of the string voices. The ZKO decided to spare that extra effort musicians. Instead, they were performing a reduced version without timpani, in which all the wind voices (or those deemed important / relevant?) were played by individual string players. The result is a partially authentic, pure string version of the concerto.
This reduction had several consequences:
- The ZKO’s string configuration in this concert was 5+5/4/3/2. This is already compact for a romantic concerto. With this reduction it was shrinking even more, making this a chamber music performance. Well, it’s the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, isn’t it?
- Second, the sound color shifted considerably, and
- third, the acoustic balance was shifting substantially towards the original string voices (even though these were further “diluted”). In terms of volume, a violin cannot replace a flute, an oboe, or a clarinet.
Often, the wind voices were really missing. Not only did I miss their sound (from listening to the full cello version), but also their specific color. More than once I caught myself in thinking “Ah, those very soft secondary voices would / should actually be oboes!” (or flutes, etc.). From the point-of-view of authenticity, this reduction seemed questionable, to say the very least.
I have never heard the violin version with the original orchestral setting. However, I can well imagine that it comes with its share of issues, given the higher pitch of the violin, the missing full and warm-sounding tone of the cello, for which Schumann presumably must have optimized the original orchestral score. On the other hand, the string-only version offers more freedom, a larger dynamic scope to the soloist—especially if the solo is a violin.
I. Nicht zu schnell
Schumann left several of the high and very high-pitch sections in the solo identical to the cello version. In these places, the difference to the cello version was amazingly small, thanks to the warm and round sound that Renaud Capuçon produced on his instrument. Of course, low and lowest sections were shifted up by an octave or two. With the listener, this is certainly causing a certain degree of alienation with the solo part. However, overall, this violin version “worked” amazingly well in the first movement. It was a very interesting experience, to say the least.
I liked the transparency, the lightness in the ZKO’s playing and instrumentation. I enjoyed the vivid agogics, the rubato which Renaud Capuçon (now standing in the center of the orchestra) used to realize Schumann’s frequent changes / switches in atmosphere, in mood.
Prior to the concert, the part which I was most skeptical about in the violin version was the slow movement. In the original score, this is a composition of almost unearthly, haunting beauty. A movement like a longing, yet serene view into heaven or the paradise, where the cello can play out its singing tone in high positions, slightly eerie in the double-stop passages.
I was really surprised how well this worked out with Renaud Capuçon at the violin. It’s different, for sure—but nevertheless incredibly nice, touching music! A specialty in this version was the dialog with the first cello in the orchestra, which here I experienced as an enrichment, but didn’t particularly remember from the original concerto.
III. Sehr lebhaft
Interestingly, the last movement to me was the weakest one in the violin version. It could be that I mainly missed the specific cello sonority. Or maybe my memory simply is “locked into” the original version of the concerto? However, I would still not call this a weakness in the violin transcription. Even here, it is an excellent composition, particularly if its performance is as good as this one with Renaud Capuçon!
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for strings in C major, op.48
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) wrote his Serenade for strings in C major, op.48 in 1880. Although in the first movement, the composer intended to imitate Mozart’s style, at the same time he added a remark in the score, to the effect of “the more string players, the better”. Clearly, it is a (Russian, obviously) late-romantic composition throughout. It features four movements:
- Pezzo in forma di sonatina: Andante non troppo — Allegro moderato
- Valse: Moderato — Tempo di valse
- Élégie: Larghetto elegiaco
- Finale (Tema russo): Andante — Allegro con spirito
In line with the style of the piece, the orchestra now switched to a dense and intense string sound, and to emphatic playing, full of verve and drive. Compared to the Schumann concerto, I felt a certain drop, either in the quality of the performance, and/or in the quality of the music. Maybe this was just because of the switch from a rarely played work to one that is well-known, maybe too popular? Or was it the piece’s simpler structure, the decrease in textural diversity? Or could it be that—despite the concentrated, seemingly focused playing in the orchestra, the performance was maybe more coarse? Almost certainly, it was less precise and careful?
I. Pezzo in forma di sonatina: Andante non troppo — Allegro moderato
What I disliked here was a certain tendency towards “Nachdrücken” (“post-pressing”) on long notes, i.e., giving in to the temptation to quickly accelerate the bow towards the end, in order to have the full length available for the next note. I personally regard this a bad habit, and I know that at least certain notable soloists feel the same way. On the bright side, the virtuosic cello solos were excellent.
II. Valse: Moderato — Tempo di valse
To me, this was the best movement in this composition, no doubt. It sounded light, effortless, transparent, almost like a Viennese waltz, devoid of Slavonian melancholy or heaviness. Tchaikovsky frequently asks for accelerando, ritenuto, or a Tempo—leading to lively rubato
III. Élégie: Larghetto elegiaco
I liked the well-coordinated pizzicato in this movement. On the other hand, this (as the first movement) again suffered from a certain amount of “Nachdrücken” in most voices. The violas, though, appeared to be the least susceptible to this: the cantilenas in that voice were very nice, featuring excellent sonority and tonal quality.
IV. Finale (Tema russo): Andante — Allegro con spirito
In the last part of the Élégie, as well as in the Andante part of this movement, Tchaikovsky specified “con sordino” in all voices. The Allegro con spirito part, finally, showed the musicians in the ensemble entirely in their element, and so, the joy of playing won over attempts to maintain precision and perfection. It seemed to please most of the audience, but didn’t leave me entirely happy. Overall, and particularly with the above shortcomings in the performance, the presentation of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade op.48 wasn’t anywhere close to the quality of the composition of Schumann’s concerto, and to its performance in this concert.
The duration of the Valse in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade (less than 4 minutes), as well as the fact that this was by far the best-performed piece in the Serenade, made this the obvious choice for an encore. And yes: it reconciled me with the performance of the ensemble, overall.
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 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.