Oliver Schnyder, Sir Roger Norrington / ZKO
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5, Symphony No.3
Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-01-26
2016-02-02 — Original posting
2016-09-20 — Brushed up for better readability
Once his contract as Principal Conductor with the Zürcher Kammerorchester (Zurich Chamber Orchestra, ZKO) ended, Sir Roger Norrington (*1934, see my earlier concert report for information) was named honorary conductor. As such he now returned for a concert with the ZKO at Zurich’s Tonhalle, together with pianist Oliver Schnyder (*1973), one of the key talents among the younger generation of Swiss pianists (see my earlier post for information on the artist).
The combination of Roger Norrington, the ZKO, and Oliver Schnyder (and the selected repertoire, obviously) was so popular that the venue was totally sold out. There were not only chairs in the corridor behind the hall, but there were rows of chairs even at the rear of the podium.
For the first part of the concert, a concert grand (Steinway D) without lid was occupying the center of the stage. The tail was pointing towards the organ. The Zurich Chamber Orchestra gathered around the piano, in a ¾ circle, in “historically informed” formation: violin I — cello — viola — violin II (basses in the rear). The wind instruments were standing on either side (flutes, oboes, horns on the left, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets on the right). The instruments in use were modern (Tourte bows for the strings). The one “historic” component in the instrumentation were the drum sticks with wooden heads.
Oliver Schnyder was sitting with his back towards the main audience. This setting is not unique. Other pianists, such as Leif Ove Andsnes have been using this for a couple of years, also with Beethoven concertos. With Mozart, let alone baroque composers, this is even more common.
At the tail end of the piano, Sir Roger Norrington led the ensemble, facing the audience. With this, Oliver Schnyder could focus on the solo part, while Sir Roger Norrington took care of the coordination with the orchestra.
For the most part (i.e., with the exception of the conductor and the modern instruments), the setup is the one used at Beethoven’s time. I can certainly see that for the communication between soloist, conductor, and the orchestra, as well as within the orchestra, this makes a lot of sense. However, whether in a moderately large venue such as the Zurich Tonhalle (over 1500 seats) this still works, remains to be seen. I was also curious to experience how this works with a modern Steinway concert grand.
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 in E♭ major, op.73
This concert featured “just” compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). This explains part of the popularity of this evening. The program started with the Piano Concerto No.5 in E♭ major, op.73, Beethoven’s last and biggest composition in this genre. This was written between 1809 and 1811. Beethoven dedicated it to Archduke Rudolf, the composer’s patron and pupil, and the youngest son of the emperor. This explains why people in the Anglo-Saxon world often call this concerto “Emperor”.
The concerto deviates from the classic form scheme in some ways — most notably, it lacks a spot for a free cadenza; instead, Beethoven added fully written-out, cadenza-like solo sections. There are three movements:
- Allegro, 4/4
- Adagio un poco mosso, 4/4 — attacca:
- Rondo: Allegro, 6/8
Already the beginning is most unusual for its time: the first movement starts with three orchestral ff chords, each followed by the solo instrument freely preluding (mostly no bar lines) with cadenza-like broken chords and virtuosic runs across the keyboard. Only then, the actual theme is presented on the orchestral introduction. Also the attacca transition between the second movement (B major) and the third one (E♭ major) is unusual, with the modulation happening on a single tone: the bassoon along is playing a B, then switching to a B♭, after which the piano gradually / hesitatingly introduces fragments of the Rondo theme, still at the slow pace, building up tension. Then, suddenly, the solo introduces the full Rondo theme—more on that below.
The opening chords in the orchestra started the concert as strong accents (ff drum beats!), festive, but well-delimited, not pompous. The piano cadenzas that follow each of these chords already indicated the nature of Oliver Schnyder‘s playing. He is not a keyboard “thunderer”, but a diligent player with delicate, light articulation. This is an excellent fit with the orchestra’s clear, “discharged” playing. It is possible, if not likely that Schnyder wanted to adjust the instrument’s sonority to that of historical fortepianos of Beethoven’s time. At least, this was the impression that I got from a parquet seat in the center-right of the hall. Realistically, of course, that goal is hardly achievable with a modern concert grand.
Working against the Acoustics
Sadly, the result was very far from historic reality. With this setup, removing the lid on the concert grand is prerequisite for the communication among the musicians in the orchestra to work across the piano. Unfortunately, this also defeats the focusing function of the lid. The sound of the piano reached the ear partly directly, but predominantly through reflection at the ceiling. With a typical, modern piano concerto setup, the lid reflects, directs the sound into the audience.
The chosen setup caused the sound to be mellow, “washed out”, badly defined, always legato. This contradicts the fragile, transparent sound of a fortepiano at Beethoven’s time. Of course, the latter type of instrument is hardly ideal for filling a venue such as the Tonhalle. Overall, this really leaves the modern concert grand (traditional placement with lid) as the only option. It is possible that from a balcony seat (especially near the orchestra) the piano sound was a little more direct and therefore better. But that only helps a small fraction of the audience.
Of course, everybody’s ear is very much spoiled by CD recordings where piano and orchestra appear perfectly balanced. In fact, a recording was made from the concert. I expect that this will compensate (most of) the above shortcomings.
Overall, these deficiencies often caused the orchestra to dominate the concerto. There are indeed sections where this is the composer’s intent, e.g., when the piano is playing the accompaniment for voices in the orchestra.
The Solo Part
Even though it was sometimes hard to get a clear “view” on Oliver Schnyder’s playing, I found it to be agile, fluent, precise and virtuosic, the coordination with the orchestra was really excellent. One exception to that last point: in the very last bars, the orchestra was a tad late after the last piano “parade”. Maybe the soloist got carried away in the last runs? But given the above sound issues, the focus was clearly on the orchestra with its vivid, expansive dynamics. Towards the end of the first movement I found it to be a real pleasure to hear some sections in the cadenza being soft and elegant—not just in “titanic” mode. The first movement obviously pleased the audience so much as to cause extra, spontaneous applause!
II. Adagio un poco mosso
The Adagio un poco mosso was absolutely fascinating to me! In slow movements, even some hard-core, historically informed players succumb to common (ordinary) taste by still using vibrato (albeit maybe selectively, to highlight key notes, etc.). Roger Norrington had the orchestra play entirely without vibrato, and it all worked!
Beethoven did not specify metronome numbers. Norrington’s tempo was refreshingly (surprisingly, maybe) fluent. The music was not celebrated, as in many other, especially traditional, interpretations. This opened up entirely new perspectives onto this movement. It took away the focus from the small-scale (mostly uniform) motifs, onto the big phrases, the evolution in the harmonics.
III. Rondo: Allegro
The execution of the Rondo theme is somewhat controversial among performing artists:The movement is in 6/8 time. This implies two accents per bar: 3/8 + 3/8. This is what the left hand is playing. The controversy is in the right hand. The notation above is taken from Wikipedia. The new Bärenreiter edition by Jonathan Del Mar apparently has an sf mark under the first crotchet in the second bar.
That sf is not the issue, but the two slurs at the beginning. Beethoven does not specify accents or sf. In my opinion this leaves it unclear whether rhythmically the right hand ought to follow the 6/8 beats in the left hand, or whether one should accentuate the first note in the second pair of quavers, as a syncope. From memory, I would claim that the ratio of pianists playing a syncope against those playing 6/8 rhythm in both hands in that bar (and later occurrences of the Rondo theme) is about 50 : 50, so that does not offer a clear preference either.
The two camps will certainly have some reasoning for their solution. Both could argue that if Beethoven wanted it otherwise, he would have used an accent or sf mark on the “other” note. The syncope option to me sounds a little limping / a touch grotesque (especially with the sf in the second bar). But OK, for Beethoven it is common to have some distinct humor to the last movement, particularly in concertos (but isn’t that second sf already humorous?)…
There is some inherent acceleration in this theme (4 quavers, followed by 4 semiquavers). The syncopated version adds extra acceleration to that sequence—is that needed?
Personally, I have always felt the non-syncopated version (3/8 + 3/8) to be correct, or “feeling right”. Oliver Schnyder played with the extra syncope. Though, if I’m not mistaken, he chose the non-syncopated version in (some) later occurrences of the theme. However, the tempo was rather fast, and so, this rhythmic choice may not have been very relevant (most listeners probably don’t even think about this issue!).
In general, Roger Norrington’s tempo in the Rondo was very fast, imposing limits to detailed articulation in the last movement. Even in the orchestra, some acciaccaturas were hard to perceive: I felt that the tempo in the Rondo was too much “optimized” for the orchestra, at the border of causing some part of the piano part to sound superficial (though some of this might be attributable to the acoustics, see above).
Even with the acoustic limitations, it was a fascinating interpretation overall, and hugely successful with the audience. Oliver Schnyder played Beethoven’s Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59, “Für Elise” as an encore.
Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, “Eroica”
The bigger second part of the concert was devoted to Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, “Eroica”. I don’t need to spend many words on the composition here — for details see my earlier post with a comparison of various CD recordings. Let me just list the movements here:
- Allegro con brio, 3/4 (3/4=60)
- Marcia funebre. Adagio assai, 2/4 (1/8=80)
- Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio, 3/4 (3/4=116)
- Finale; Allegro molto, 2/4 (1/2=76) — Poco Andante (1/8=108) — Presto (1/4=116)
The Conductor’s “Preface”
Sir Roger Norrington could of course not resist giving an introduction to this composition. He called it the “Sacre du printemps of 1806”, illustrating how revolutionary this symphony must have sounded to the audiences at the time of its creation. He summarized his explanations by giving a short characterization to each of the movements (followed by the inevitable remark “Fasten your seat belts!”):
- “A battle”, at the speed of galloping horses (in conducting, he imitated the rider on a galloping horse at times!)
- “A funeral march” — but of course one at Beethoven’s time, and respecting the 2/4 time
- “A hunt”, at the slower speed of a horse canter (as opposed to the gallop of the first movement)
- “A dance” (counter-dance)
Norrington’s views onto the Beethoven symphonies are known, of course, primarily from his two integral recordings. The first one he did with the London Classical Players, the second one with the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart. As a general observation, I felt that with this performance and the Zürcher Kammerorchester he is now returning to the orchestra size of his first recording, but now using modern instruments, as in his second recording. At the same time, I think that this third interpretation was more radical in dynamics and articulation than either of the recorded versions. For sure, Norrington no longer feels bound to any conventions.
The most obvious change from the RSO Stuttgart to the ZKO is in the smaller orchestra size, which de-emphasized the strings relative to the wind instruments. Of course, as in the piano concerto, no vibrato was allowed. Meanwhile, this is getting accepted more widely. But still, those whirring, long string tones (particularly on “empty” strings) caught the listener’s attention. None of these tones sounded “bad” or disruptive—quite to the contrary.
The articulation was light throughout, devoid of heaviness, consequently “discharging” notes, but the interpretation was full of drive and momentum in the fast movements. Everything was stunningly vivid, “al fresco”: in conducting, Norrington did not control every detail in the score, but shed light onto individual instrument groups for their prominent phrases. All of this, as of course the refreshing drum accents, was “as expected”. Yet, to me, this music sounded all-new, it made me discover numerous details that so far went unnoticed!
Some brief details on individual movements:
I. Allegro con brio
The galloping was so intense at times that it reminded me of specific sequences of Carl Orff’s “Carmina burana” (“… ist geritten hinnen hinnen…“); that movement received an extra applause!
II. Marcia funebre. Adagio assai
Even though I expected exactly this, the tempo still felt unusually fast (though not causing discomfort!). As in the piano concerto, the playing without vibrato absolutely “worked”, including the incisive, long notes in the violins, the grimacing interjections. Clearly, to me, this was the movement that sounded most revolutionary in this symphony, with its extreme dynamics. Compared to traditional interpretations, the sections in major tonalities sounded less serene, more “pressed”, like visions that were passing by in a flurry.
III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio
The tempo was close to what I expected (from this conductor), not too far from many “conventional” interpretations. However, the artists presented this with a combination of virtuosity, agility, vitality—even just in the many echo effects. At the same time, they still allowed for phases of tense calm. The horns were modern valve instruments. Still, they managed to create a bright, “raw” sound close to that of natural horns in the “hunting calls” in the Trio. Another movement with extra applause!
IV. Finale; Allegro molto — Poco Andante — Presto
I felt that the tempo was a tad above the limit, particularly in the fugue parts (at least with this orchestra). Some fast figures sounded superficial. But one can just as well see this as Beethoven ignoring the limitations of an orchestra. Plus, after all, this was a concert, not a CD recording! Still, there was so much detail to be heard in the wind instruments, and the final stretta was really enthralling!
As expected, Norrington used Beethoven’s fast metronome numbers. At times, he even exceeded Beethoven’s annotation, was occasionally close to the limits of what the orchestra still could manage. The ultimate perfection is not needed in a concert. What counts is the live, “al fresco” effect. Ignoring the rare instances where details were in danger of getting lost: throughout the symphony, the coordination was excellent, as also the focused cooperation of all orchestra musicians. Certainly, in the final movement, it felt as if the musicians were sitting at the very edge of their chairs!
To me, the key point in this concert was that it made me experience the sensation (if not revolution) that this was for the audience at Beethoven’s time. It seems that I wasn’t alone, with all the extra, in-between applause. The concert definitely was a full success. It was an absolute highlight of this concert season, despite the (lastly forgotten) acoustic flaw in the first part.
For the same concert, I have also written a (much 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.
Sir Roger Norrington’s Recording with the RSO Stuttgart is available as part of his integral symphony recording with that ensemble:
Beethoven: Symphonies 1 – 9, Introductions by Sir Roger Norrington
Sir Roger Norrington, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart
Hänssler Classics (5 CDs + Bonus CD, stereo); ℗ 2000 / © 2000
Booklet: 17 pp. de/en (this CD)