Rossini, Beethoven, Rihm, Schubert
Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-11-21
2016-08-15 — Brushed up for better readability
The Swiss conductor Räto Tschupp (1929 – 2002) founded the chamber orchestra “Camerata Zürich” in 1957, with a particular focus on performing contemporary music, especially music by Swiss composers. Since its inception, the orchestra played an important role in the Swiss music scene.
The orchestra currently consists of 14 musicians — with the possibility to expand to 30 players, by adding “permanent auxiliary members”. In this concert, the biggest formation consisted of 5 + 4 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos and a double bass. The concertmaster Igor Karško (*1969) directed the ensemble from the first violin desk.
Program and Venue
The title for this concert was “Erscheinung”. There is no direct equivalent in English for this, but to me, “Apparition” and/or “Phenomenon” capture the meaning best. This refers to a composition by Wolfgang Rihm that stood in the center of the program. This 15-minute piece from 1978, in which the composer refers to Schubert (see below), appeared in the context of music from the classic period, between 1795 (Beethoven) and 1826 (Schubert). The venue for concert was the small hall of the Tonhalle in Zurich (“kleiner Tonhallesaal”). The concert was fairly well-attended, but not sold out.
Gioacchino Rossini: String Sonata No.1 in G major
The program started with the String Sonata No.1 in G major by Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868). Rossini composed this at the age of 12 – 15 (probably 1804), for a house concert. The piece premiered in such a small-scale, private concert. The ensemble consisted of soloists, the composer included. Rossini wrote all of the six String Sonatas for two violins, cello, and double bass. The omission of the viola is likely just incidental: these happened to be the instruments that the composer’s friends played. This results in a rather special, somewhat strange sound.
These works (Sei sonate a quattro) were essentially lost / buried in archives; the composer Alfredo Casella (1883 – 1947) re-discovered them in a copy. Only in 1954, the sonatas appeared in print. Since then, they have kept their place in the concert repertoire, especially for chamber orchestras.
Rossini’s String Sonatas are easily accessible works (with a certain danger of turning into “ear-worms”) with simple texture. The Camerata Zurich (4 + 4 violins, 3 cellos, double bass) played the G major sonata with light articulation (discharging notes, while retaining a certain tendency towards legato playing). I was pleased to note that the use of vibrato was restricted. The sound was transparent, especially in the fast movements, the joy of playing dominated the performance. The musicians played standing (excepting the cellists, of course), which definitely helped the mental and emotional presence of the musicians and the liveliness of the performance. On the other hand, it also implied some compromise in intonation and precision / coordination. With such unpretentious music, though, this compromise was definitely acceptable.
The second movement (Andante) always causes me to smile, with its cosy, humorous grumbling in the double bass. I particularly liked how the first violins discharged their sforzato interjections in bars 5 – 8 towards the last / highest note. Throughout the sonata I also liked the orchestra’s courage to play real ppp. The final movement (Allegro) was very fast, the semiquaver passages were at the limits of what the (mostly young) musicians in the orchestra could do. But again: here, the joy of playing was far more important than ultimate precision and occasional slight intonation issues.
Ludwig van Beethoven: “Duet for two Eyeglasses Obligato”, WoO 32
Next in the program: the “Duet for two Eyeglasses Obligato”, WoO 32 (“Duett mit zwei obligaten Augengläsern“), a duet for viola and cello which Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) composed around 1795 — for a good friend who obviously was wearing glasses. Unfortunately, he never completed this composition. All we have is a raw version of the first movement (Allegro) with only few annotations on articulation and phrasing, plus a sketchy, barely readable draft of a Menuet, and rudimentary fragments of a slow movement.
The duet (first movement only) was played by Hannes Bärtschi, viola (first violist in the orchestra) and Thomas Demenga, cello and artistic manager (Künstlerischer Leiter) of the Camerata Zurich (see above). The two experienced artists played with obvious joy and fun, in lively interaction, with vivid, light articulation: a pleasure to watch and listen. The two instruments proved to be an excellent match in their sound. One should note that the composition is not as easy to play as the limitation to two players (and the ironic title) might suggest!
Wolfgang Rihm: “Erscheinung” (1978)
After this short intermezzo, the program continued with “Erscheinung — Skizze über Schubert für neun Streicher” (Apparition — or Phenomenon? — Sketch Piece on Schubert, for nine string players), which Wolfgang Rihm (*1952) composed in 1978, for three violins, three violas, and three cellos. It’s a work of about 15 minutes, in one movement (Assai sostenuto). The beginning is in unison, slowly stepping ahead, single, often isolated notes, moderately melodic, but without tonal goal. Gradually, the rhythm gets more accentuated. The dynamics are widening, some octaves appear, a second voice joins in, then multiple voices, moving into dissonant interjections. Suddenly, one can feel tension, associated with occasional nervousness. Canon-like segments follow, often with groping, searching gestures.
The title of the piece refers to Schubert. The description explicitly refers to a relationship with Schubert’s String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887 (see below). I think, an ordinary listener will at best find some similarities / connections in the frequent use of tremolo in all voices in the second half of the composition. To me, the piece reminded just as much of music by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975), especially in its often ostinato-like rhythms.
Overall, these were 15 minutes of fascinating, very interesting music. My wife spontaneously commented: “A super piece!” — I can only agree to this. The orchestra played with focus and attention; it mastered the composition very well (with the minor exception of occasional, slight intonation issues). It is really good that the Camerata Zurich continues to follow the intention of its founder, Räto Tschupp, by pursuing and supporting new, contemporary music.
Franz Schubert: String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887
In terms of duration at least (but also in terms of technical demand for the players), the real heavy-weight of the program followed after the intermission. The String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887 by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) is the composer’s last string quartet. Schubert composed it in 1826. Only in 1851, the music appeared in print, as op.116. I won’t dwell on this composition here. For comments and details see my earlier blog post that compares recordings of this quartet.
Performance, Version for Orchestra
Schubert may indeed — as the program notes for the concert suggest — have thought in orchestral dimensions when composing this quartet. However, it is definitely true that this quartet is a major challenge even for four solo players. Let alone for a formation of 16 string players (5 + 4 violins, three violas and cellos each, double bass) without conductor: the concert master led the ensemble from the first desk. In general, the Camerata Zurich did well in this piece: they played with enthusiasm, attentively, with excellent presence, and without compromises in the tempo. Quite to the contrary: most parts were actually faster rather than slower in comparison to traditional (solo) quartet performances.
The transfer of this string quartet to a four times larger string ensemble may not be my first choice, but still it worked amazingly well. The music retained the drama, the expression, even though its message was delivered less directly than in the original. Also, transparency and clarity certainly suffer with an orchestra / bigger ensemble.
I. Allegro molto moderato
The first movement (Allegro molto moderato) impressed me with the poignancy of the staccato / ff chords at the beginning. But then, the short interjections proved to be hard to realize (some upbeat semiquavers were hardly audible). More generally, an orchestra performance appears to put more weight & importance on the melody voice. Pizzicato notes / sections were often not audible. On the other hand, the intonation was amazingly good, considering how difficult it is even for a solo quartet. But then, using multiple players for a single voice also averages out intonation impurities to a certain degree. Especially when (even moderate) vibrato is used.
II. Andante un poco moto
The first movement is monumental even when — as here — the repetition of the exposition is omitted. The following movement, an Andante un poco moto, initially appears more placatory. In that first part, I missed the acciaccaturas in the first violin, which Schubert placed on key notes (e.g., already in the first bar). I’m not sure whether they were dropped for the orchestra version, or whether they simply could not be heard. After the repeated first parts, the music turns more dramatic, even eruptive. Also here, the short interjections (semiquaver + sforzato quaver) lacked the ultimate clarity / sharpness. However, this did not really affect the expression in Schubert’s composition.
III. Scherzo — Trio
The performance of the Scherzo was impressive, even though again it could impossibly match the poignancy of a solo quartet. The dynamics appeared somewhat compressed, especially in sections where the composer asks for pp. In the Trio, a solo cello presents the beautiful, flourishing melody line. This intensified the expression. The ensemble occasionally took advantage of that same “trick” in other movements, and with other voices.
IV. Allegro assai
Finally, the last movement was very, even extremely fast, even in comparison to typical solo quartet performances. Schubert’s annotation is “6/8, Allegro assai” (two beats per bar), which leaves no room for leaning back. A slower pace easily loses the Allegro assai character, making this music heavy, if not clumsy. It definitely was not heavy here. But the precision suffered: lots of details appeared superficial, the coordination sometimes marginal. In my opinion, this last movement suffered / lost the most through the move from a solo quartet to an orchestra.
Let me end with the question of the ideal sequence of the compositions in the program. Listeners who already were somewhat familiar with the Schubert quartet may have regretted that this work almost completely erased the fresh impression and memory from Rihm’s “Erscheinung“. However, with this selection of pieces, there was barely an alternative to the intermission after Rihm’s composition. Maybe, an alternative would have been to play the Schubert quartet prior to the intermission, ending the program with Wolfgang Rihm’s composition? This way, the program would also not have ended with the somewhat mixed / superficial impression from Schubert’s final movement? OK, this would have opened the possibility / likelihood for some people to leave prior to the contemporary piece…
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.
In an earlier blog post, I have compared recordings of Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887