Fazıl Say, Gábor Boldoczki, Willi Zimmermann / ZKO
Shostakovich / Beethoven
Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-06-21
2016-06-25 — Added “afterthought” at the bottom
This was the last concert of the season 2015/2016 for the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (Zürcher Kammerorchester, ZKO). It also was the last concert during the “interregnum” between Sir Roger Norrington (Principal Conductor up till 2015) and his successor. The latter is the violinist Daniel Hope, who will start with the beginning of the next season, 2016/2017. For the orchestral works in this concert, the ensemble was led from the first desk, by the principal violinist, Willi Zimmermann.
The end of the season also meant that this was the last concert with the pianist Fazıl Say in his role as Artist in Residence with the orchestra. And it was the last concert in the big hall of the Tonhalle Zurich. Later this year, the Zurich Congress Center (Kongresshaus) will undergo a major renovation / restoration. The concert hall will be thoroughly restored and brought back into the original, colorful state. At the same time, the artist’s rooms / facilities will be restructured and re-built for today’s needs. During the next three seasons (that’s an estimate), big concerts will be held at a temporary site in the western part of Zurich (Maag-Halle). The temporary concert hall (yet to be constructed) is easily reachable from the main station.
The ZKO will use the renovation period for a cooperation with the Zürcher Schauspielhaus (Pfauenbühne), and in this context, for the next season, its Artist in Residence will not be a musician, but a well-known actor, Klaus-Maria Brandauer. Interesting perspectives!
The main soloist in this concert was the Turkish pianist and composer Fazıl Say (born 1970 in Ankara). This was my first live encounter with this popular artist, who has a big fan community all over Europe. This concert featured a second soloist, Gábor Boldoczki, playing the trumpet. Boldoczki is Hungarian, born 1976; he started his career at the age of 14, when he won the National Trumpet Competition. The ZKO was performing standing, as usual for several years already (cellists excepted, of course). In its full configuration, it features 6 + 5 violins, 3 violas and cellos, 2 double basses, an oboe and two horn players, plus Naoki Kitaya at the harpsichord.
The program for this concert featured two contrasting parts. Despite the name of Dmitri Shostakovich, the first part (with the two soloists) was light-minded, often joyful, but also ironic, joking, fun. Beethoven’s “Serioso” string quartet dominated the second part of the concert. It is entirely different in character. I’ll discuss the works in the sequence of the concert:
Handel: Suite in D for Trumpet and Strings, HWV 341
The program started with Gábor Boldoczki playing the solo in the Suite in D major for Trumpet and Strings, HWV 341, by George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759). This is a suite for trumpet and strings, in five movements:
- Overture (4/4)
- Allegro (12/8)
- Aria (3/8)
- [Tempo ordinario] (4/4)
- March (4/4)
At least in parts, Handel built this suite by collecting and arranging music from earlier pieces. The “recycling” of older compositions was quite common in baroque times. Here, the first movement originates from the first movement (Prélude) of the Suite No.2 in D major (HWV 349) from Handel’s Water Music — a piece known almost too well.
The entire suite is a joyful, serene composition. Gábor Boldoczki’s playing was effortless, light and flawless. The sound of his piccolo trumpet (Clarintrompete, a high-pitch variant of the trumpet) was bright, smooth, brilliant. I quite liked Boldoczki’s ornamentation: well-adapted, suitable, yet largely inconspicuous. Overall, this provided an ideal opening for the concert: easy on the audience, no technical challenge, neither for the soloist, nor for the orchestra. My only, minor critical remark: ideally, I would have wished for a slightly lighter articulation in the orchestra. The way I heard it, it was a little broad and not quite adapted to that of the soloist.
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, op.35
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) composed his Piano Concerto No.1 for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra in C minor, op.35 in 1933. It premiered in the same year (in Leningrad / Saint Petersburg, with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra), with the composer at the piano. The concerto features four movements, as follows:
- Allegretto (4/4, 1/4 = 96)
- Lento (3/4, 1/4 = 76)
- Moderato (4/4, 1/4 = 108)
- Allegro con brio (2/4, 1/4 = 184)
I’m listing only the initial time signatures. All movements are to be played attacca, i.e., without major interruption. It’s a concerto with substantial technical challenges (Shostakovich was an excellent pianist!); one special feature is the second solo part, for trumpet, the orchestral accompaniment is for strings only.
The Setting in this Concert
In this concert the ZKO was playing without conductor. I assume that this will not change when Daniel Hope joins the team. Hope will probably lead the ensemble from the first desk, just as Willi Zimmermann did now. With this setting, Fazıl Say took the chance to direct the orchestra from the piano. It’s a legitimate and understandable idea, as it greatly simplifies the coordination with the orchestra: there is no conductor mediating between soloists and orchestra. However, this mandates using the instrument without cover, as the soloist needs to maintain visual contact with all members of the orchestra: the coordination with the orchestra is one of the major challenges in this composition.
I started “smelling trouble” when the Steinway concert grand (Model D) was moved to the center of the podium (in normal orientation, keyboard on the left). In a small venue, this should not be problematic, but I know from an earlier concert that in this hall this comes with major acoustic disadvantages.
This performance confirmed what I anticipated: in the descant range, the piano lacked conciseness, clarity and precision. The bass register was often worse: in ff / fff segments, the bass notes were mainly noisy, overpowered, the pitch almost undefined. It was as if the decorations in the ceiling and the depth of the organ niche sucked up the sound of the piano. This also seriously affected the sound balance. Gábor Boldoczki of course never had any issues in making his instrument shine! But Fazıl Say appeared to have problems in maintaining presence with his instrument, despite the relatively small orchestra formation. Where the trumpet was accompanying the piano part, it always dominated. Also, because of that dominance, Gábor Boldoczki’s playing seemed to lack some intimacy and warmth, even where he played with mute.
With these restrictions, the following comments about Fazıl Say’s playing can’t be considered complete and accurate: I had a parquet seat, and within the audience, the parquet was likely suffering the most from this setup.
Fazıl Say played with lots of momentum, with impulsive agogics. His articulation was relatively soft, rather legato. It was certainly not nearly as hard, mechanic or motoric as heard in many Shostakovich performances, including the composer’s own. In the fast segments / movements, the artist preferred a fast tempo, but never pushed or rushed. With the given acoustics (from my seat), Fazıl Say’s playing often appeared inconspicuous, almost introverted. Sadly, this also resulted in a loss of the humorous, roguish aspects of the concerto.
In the Lento movement, for my personal taste Fazıl Say used too much and too frequent arpeggiando articulation. With Chopin, this may sometimes be appropriate for an entire movement. However, I don’t think it fits the style of this concerto. On the other hand, the whispered pp in the orchestra sounded wonderful, mysterious, and an ideal accompaniment for the subsequent trumpet solo. On the bright side, the softly fading ending in the piano may even have profited from the given acoustics. Also in the third movement, the acoustics may have helped making the piano part sound very lyrical, gently flowing, and enchanting!
Overall, Fazıl Say presented a playful, often lyrical interpretation. Actually, I had the impression that only in the last movement with its very challenging cadenza, Say seemed to reach his top form and virtuosic peak performance. With his brilliant solo, Gábor Boldoczki helped making the last part of the movement truly enthralling. Aside from the balance issues, the orchestral accompaniment was excellent throughout the concerto.
The brilliant ending of the concerto certainly helped generating enthusiastic applause. Fazil Say announced an encore by the same composer: the “Waltz No.2” (in C minor and E♭ major) from the Suite for Variety Orchestra (Cюита для эстрадного оркестра в восьми частях). Dmitri Shostakovich composed this Suite after 1956; it consists of 8 pieces that may be played in any order. The waltz was fitting in quite well, even though it is definitely light entertainment. Also, it’s a very well-known melody, maybe even somewhat worn out?
Shostakovich: Adagio and Allegretto for String Orchestra
After the intermission, the ZKO inserted two short movements by Shostakovich: Adagio (Elegy) and Allegretto (Polka) for String Orchestra. The Elegy, a short piece of about 5 minutes, starts almost out of nothing, very softly, builds up in one single, big arch, and then gradually returns to the silence of the beginning. A vera intense piece, the orchestra playing with very warm string sound, entirely legato. The Polka is only about half as long, and totally different. It is humorous, audacious, almost insulting with its pizzicati, the syncopes, strong, very dissonant interjections. At times, it felt like a Schlager, in other parts it was rather joking and ironic. It’s an interesting way to start after the intermission, avoiding a direct confrontation of the audience with the “serioso” atmosphere of the following work:
Beethoven: String Quartet No.11 in F minor, op.95 (arr. Mahler)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770- 1827) wrote his String Quartet No.11 in F minor, op.95, around 1810 — the work premiered in 1814. Beethoven called it “Quartetto serioso” and apparently stated that he composed it for performances in small circles only, not in public. The work consists of four short movements:
- Allegro con brio (4/4)
- Allegretto ma non troppo (2/4) —
- Allegro assai vivace ma serioso (3/4)
- Larghetto espressivo (2/4) — Allegro (2/2)
The op.95 appears at the break point between Beethoven’s “middle” period and his late quartets (opp.127, 130 – 133, 135). The title “quartetto serioso” indicates a strong contrast to the first part of the program. Luckily, however, that “serioso” mood does not prevail in all parts of this composition!
For more detail on the quartet, see my earlier post, comparing several recordings of this composition.
Mahler’s Orchestral Version
Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) appeared to be fascinated by this quartet — interested enough to adapt it for string orchestra. He left the musical substance essentially untouched. If we ignore the few octave shifts, Mahler just gently added the double bass as reinforcement for the cello voice. Occasionally, he also used the double bass for rhythmic accentuation through pizzicati. Technically, the orchestral version is therefore at least as demanding for the individual voice as the original composition. The performance by the ZKO was superb, absolutely comparable to that of “real” string quartets — excellent!
How Does the Orchestral Version Compare to the Original?
Even though it’s the same music, the larger setting still alters the character of the composition. Many sections are more dramatic, the larger ensemble opens the possibility for stronger dynamic contrasts. The music feels very vivid, expressive. On the other hand, a “naked” string quartet interacts more directly with the listener. In the original the Klangrede, the “musical talking” of individual voices / instruments is a major contributor. The orchestral version, in contrast, achieves expression mostly through the big gestures of the entire ensemble.
In the slow movement (Allegretto ma non troppo), the four players of a quartet are in a better position to express the forlornness, the depressed mood in this music. On the other hand, the orchestra is better at playing out the dramatic character of the Scherzo segments in the third movement. And with a quartet, the Trio parts express a touching intimacy, while with the orchestra, they appear predominantly lyrical, less intimate.
With the original, the last movement often appears as primarily obstinate, grim—a result of the crisis in Beethoven’s middle years? The orchestral version rather reveals the ironic trait that one frequently encounters in Beethoven’s late compositions. One could say that the quartet version tends to associate op.95 with Beethoven’s middle period, while the orchestral version associates it more with the late quartets.
The serene-virtuosic ending of the last movement ultimately opened up people’s minds, loosened and lighted up the atmosphere. It was an excellent way to end both the concert and the season!
After the Concert
The concert wasn’t just the end of the season for the ZKO, it also happened on the day of this year’s summer solstice. When I walked to the Tonhalle that evening, the sky was overcast, there was a very light drizzle. We have had wet and cool weather for the past several weeks, missing spring 2016, essentially. The concert ended shortly after 9 p.m. When I walked back to the station, the sky was clear, blue, the alps were glowing dark red in the dawn. Summer had started (the next days, the temperatures went up to 30 C!). So, it was a pivotal concert in many, also unexpected ways!
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.
Dmitri Shostakovich would never have dreamed about conducting his Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, op.35, from the piano. But pianists conducting and playing have become an almost common phenomenon. Artists such as Friedrich Gulda managed this despite the piano cover, but not every pianist will feel comfortable with the cover blocking the view to parts of the orchestra. In the case of this concerto the challenges in the area of coordination with the orchestra are relevant, though. Here, the cover may indeed cause problems that exceed its benefits (focusing the sound into the audience).
A Transparent Piano Lid?
With this, it just occurred to me that a transparent piano cover might solve that problem! I’m not suggesting using a plexiglass instrument (such as the one used by some artists in the entertainment genres), but merely about replacing the cover with a transparent one. This may at first look strange, may perhaps upset some purists. But acoustically, the only function of the cover on a concert grand (other than protecting the inside when storing and transporting the instrument) is in the area of focusing and moderating the sound. For a concerto, the only function is in the focusing. For chamber music, the cover may be half-closed, or even fully closed, in order to achieve sound balance.
All these functions can just as well be achieved with a transparent cover. This would have the added benefit that is does not (or to a lesser degree) obstruct the view to the musicians in parts of the orchestra. Apart from the focus and possible moderation by the cover, the sound qualities of a concert grand are determined exclusively by the body-soundboard-strings assembly (and the cast iron support frame, maybe). So, apart from purely visual esthetic considerations, I don’t see a reason why not to use a transparent cover!