Philipp Mahrenholz / La Scintilla dei Fiati
Beethoven / Dove / Mozart
Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-10-02
Here I was again, looking forward to another, truly historically informed performance in the Zurich Opera House. The last time had been with the orchestra “La Scintilla”, on 2017-07-03, this time this was an encounter with the wind formation of that same orchestra, which gave itself the name La Scintilla dei Fiati. As in the previous concert, the stage had been closed with the fire curtain (see the picture below), the musicians were playing in a half-circle, on a platform on top of the orchestra pit. This yields far better acoustics, even though, of course, there is still very little, if any reverberation in the auditorium of the opera house, with its balconies and boxes that absorb the sound.
The audience was considerably smaller than in the previous concert. Given the small number of musicians and the rather unusual repertoire, this was almost predictable. However, the atmosphere in the concert did not really suffer from this: it actually made the performance more intimate, may have formed a stronger “mental link” between audience and musicians. Definitely, it did not affect he listening pleasure at all.
The instruments in this performance included two oboes, two clarinets, two natural horns, two bassoons, plus a double bass. The instruments were all either (late) baroque, or replicas of such instruments. The horns were both of the type cor d’orchestre, i.e., with extensions (crooks) that were inserted between the mouthpiece and the instrument body. In the course of the evening, each of the hornists used a set of 4 crooks in order to cover all required keys, one of the players even had two horns that he selected from, as needed. The clarinets were of course period instruments, too (not in ebony wood, as modern instruments). For Dove’s piece, the musicians actually used three instruments each, at different pitches (possibly E♭, C, and B♭).
The ensemble was led by the first oboist (and solo oboist in the orchestra Philharmonia Zurich), Philipp Mahrenholz, from the left-most position. The double bass was used in the classic pieces (Mozart, Beethoven). It is not strictly required—an option, at best. However, here it definitely helped by rounding the sound in the dry acoustics of the opera house, particularly with the slightly nasal sound of the baroque bassoon, which would have been rather thin as a harmonic foundation.
Beethoven: Overture to “Egmont”, op.84
The program opened with a true overture, the one the incidental music to the play “Egmont” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), which Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) composer 1809/1810. Beethoven’s well-known overture is of course for a full symphony orchestra. In this concert, we heard an arrangement for wind instruments (Harmoniemusik) by Friedrich Starke (1774 – 1835), a German hornist, conductor and composer.
Right from the first tones, it was a real pleasure to feel how the sound of the small ensemble, in particular the bass foundation with the two bassoons and the double bass, filled the venue. Of course, with this small number of instruments, the music sounded much more transparent than with the full symphony orchestra. The arrangement for wind instruments alters the overall volume, the transparency, and the sound quality / colors.
The Effect of Period Instruments
The orchestral version may offer more power, strength and drama. However, this is more than compensated by the richness of colors, especially with the period instruments. The arrangement also affects the relative weight of the voices within the ensemble. I sometimes had the impression that I heard new / different harmonies, though I’m sure that Friedrich Starke didn’t add or alter any notes. Very likely, this wasn’t a matter of sound color, or the relative weight of the voices, but rather due to the fact that period instruments don’t play in equal temperament tuning. In particular, with all instruments, the pitch is not as accurately defined as with modern ones, but depends on the air pressure, the lip tension, and related factors.
Overall, the music, the instruments definitely sounded unusual to modern ears: more mellow, more flexible than modern instruments. It definitely was also more demanding in getting proper response / articulation, proper intonation. I can’t complain at all about intonation with these musicians: while as “clinically pure” as modern wind instruments, the intonation never seemed in danger. However, at least in the first half of the concert (Beethoven), getting the natural horns to respond turned out to be a rather thorny affair.
Beethoven: Octet in E♭ major, op.103 (1792)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote his Wind Octet in E♭ major in 1792, while still under employment in Bonn. Soon after completing the work, he moved to Vienna. For all we know, he never heard a performance of this octet, nor did he ever publish it. While in Vienna, he later reworked the octet into the String Quintet in E♭ major, op.4; after the composer’s death, the octet was published as op.103—a number which Beethoven had left open (but which of course does not reflect the early composition date). I listened to the String Quintet op.4: I must say that I find the original version for wind instruments vastly more interesting / colorful, more appealing overall. The octet (as well as the Quintet op.4) has four movements:
- Allegro (2/2)
- Andante (6/8)
- Menuetto (3/4) — Trio (3/4)
- Finale: Presto (2/2)
It was interesting to watch the horn players: as their instrument only produces the fundamental harmonics of the base tone, the musicians had to modulate the pitch by placing their right hand in the bell. This not only affects the pitch, but also alters the sound quality. In addition, in-between movements (or in longer rests, when the piece modulated) they needed to change to a different crook. It’s vastly less handy (and more difficult to play) than a modern valve horn—but it also involves a much wider variety of colors. Above all, however, it was amazing to hear the virtuosic coloraturas that the hornists were able to produce (throughout the concert), despite the archaic playing technique with these instruments!
The challenges for the horn players seemed to continue in the octet. I wondered whether Beethoven had access to such excellent horn players in Bonn, or whether he simply didn’t care about practical performing when writing this work? He may have written it for first-class musicians at the time—but I have doubts that these were much better than the members of La Scintilla dei Fiati.
A very virtuosic movement—in a challenging tempo! The agility of the ensemble was amazing, as was the mellow sound and articulation on all the instruments. From their pitch and volume, the oboes were dominating (that’s not criticisms on the musicians, just the way the relative weights work out with period instruments).
This movement is dominated by the oboes, which alternates with duets of the clarinets with their glowing tone, and the equally nice singing, “human” voices of the bassoons with their slightly nasal sound). This felt like a discussion between various characters on stage (quite appropriately, in this environment!).
I mentioned that the intonation isn’t the same as with modern instruments. Here, I made the observation that lead intervals were often wider than expected, i.e., lead tones sometimes didn’t “seek the resolution” (or have as much “lead character”) as much as with modern intonation.
III. Menuetto — Trio
Another virtuosic movement, primarily in the oboe, clarinet and bassoon voices: excellent playing and coordination. The Trio stood out through the mellow character of the clarinets and bassoons (often in parallel), which seemed ideal for this movement! In the da capo, Philipp Mahrenholz added a short, well-fitting cadenza at the fermata.
IV. Finale: Presto
As expected, the Finale is even more virtuosic than any of the preceding movements, for every single voice. But in contrast to performances with modern instrument, where this is sometimes ending in cold, polished perfection, the period retained their “human” character in sound and articulation. I particularly liked the clarinets, which often sounded close to a basset horn, sometimes reminded of a serenade by Mozart. But also the bassoons were brilliant, as were the horns in their coloraturas, despite the occasional mishaps.
Dove: “Figures in the Garden” (1991)
For the Mozart celebrations, in 1991, the Glyndebourne Festival commissioned a set of serenades, each to be played with one of Mozart’s operas (as preamble). In this context, Jonathan Dove (*1959, himself a popular opera composer) wrote his piece “Figures in the Garden“, for the opera “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro), K.492, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791). This is a serenade is based on material from Mozart’s opera and features the following seven movements:
- Dancing in the Dark
- Susanna in the Rain
- A Conversation
- Barbarina Alone
- The Countess Interrupts a Quarrel
- Voices in the Garden
- Nocturne: Figaro and Susanna
The double bass was not involved here. I’m not going to analyze this music, I didn’t even make attempts to look for the concrete links between the serenade and the opera: I’m merely describing how I experienced the performance and the music.
Dove very cleverly avoided quoting Mozart’s music too clearly. He wanted to avoid anticipating too much of the opera, trying to keep the freshness of the opera, not “over-familiarizing the audience” with Mozart’s music before the opera even started. In the first movement (and through most of the serenade), Dove achieved this by quoting just tiny snippets, small fragments of melodies. These may sound familiar, but most listeners will have a hard time identifying / locating them in the original.
I. Dancing in the Dark
An interesting start: jazzy, swinging, playful, joyful, even boisterous at times, tonal, for sure, wildly polyphonic, but working with snippets, short motifs, sometimes sequenced as in minimal music. Then, there are pauses in which tension builds up. The period instruments add a special flavor to this music, which cleverly mixes classic melodic ideas and rhythmic Jazz elements. In the opera, a recitative typically precedes an aria. Here, the movement ends with melody fragments taken from a recitative / dialog in the “Le Nozze“.
II. Susanna in the Rain
In the solemn horn cantilena, this movement may be close to Mozart. However, with its endless cascades of overlapping scales the accompaniment seems to have its origins in Etudes such as Nr.13, “L’Escalier du Diable“, by György Ligeti (1923 – 2006). Interesting, brilliant!
III. A Conversation
Another jazzy, but very short movement, full of syncopes, virtuosic. A hasty (secretive?) dialog between chatty oboes and clarinets and bassoons and horns on the other side.
IV. Barbarina Alone
And here, we are back to minimal music with repeated micro-snippets in clarinets and oboes, as accompaniment to melody fragments un the bassoon and horn voices.
V. The Countess Interrupts a Quarrel
A rapid, wild, strongly rhythmic introduction leads into a section with beautiful, solemn cantilenas, a duet in the clarinets, then the horns and bassoons join in, while the accompaniment remains vivid, all staccato.
VI. Voices in the Garden
Slow, lyric, resting chords under a sequence of melody fragments (“micro-snippets”) from recitatives / dialogs that seemingly try forming a bigger melody, but never (in this short movement) appear to get anywhere: a preparation for the final movement, apparently. Real serenade atmosphere, for once!
VII. Nocturne: Figaro and Susanna
The last is like an expansion on the previous one: chatty oboes and clarinets, vivid and both joyful and serene. Under these voices, there is a solemn, peaceful accompaniment in horns and bassoons: familiar-sounding, but still without longer, direct quotes.
Dove is exploiting all possibilities that are still playable on historic instruments. For the clarinets, though, this means that they need to alternate between three instrument sizes. On the natural horns, this music requires changing crooks (and in one case even the instrument) between every single movement.
Definitely very interesting music! Next to Mozart, it offers familiar elements with 20th century ingredients, without upsetting a Mozart audience. Some may call this rather conservative (for contemporary music). But it should be seen in the context for which it was written (as a preamble to a Mozart opera). I did not expect a radical, utterly dissonant piece. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this as very entertaining, playful, virtuosic, multifaceted music, which I definitely found worth listening. It certainly does not spoil the Mozart opera that followed in 1991. I do suspect, though, that it may spoil itself if heard too frequently!
The musicians of La Scintilla dei Fiati seemed to master the substantial technical challenges in this composition almost effortlessly. Actually, there were much fewer mishaps than in the Beethoven prior to the intermission!
Mozart: Serenade No.12 for Winds in C minor K.388 (384a)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed his Serenade No.12 for Winds in C minor K.388 (384a) in 1792, at a time when he just had a major success with his opera “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (The Abduction from the Seraglio), K.384. It was a happy period in his life, and so it seems strange that a few days after the success with the opera, he composed this serenade in the dramatic, earnest key of C minor. At least, it has a bright ending in C major. The serenade features four movements:
- Allegro (2/2)
- Andante (3/8)
- Menuetto in canone (3/4) — Trio in canone al rovescio (3/4)
- Allegro (2/4)
In my experience, the quality of the performance had improved from Beethoven to Dove. Here, I felt an additional boost in the level: the quality and the sound were more homogeneous. Also, there were very few mishaps with the horns. One may attribute some of this to the composer: true, the horn parts are not nearly as demanding as Beethoven’s. However, Mozart knew exactly how much he could ask for, what to expect from specific musicians. He often tailored his compositions to the abilities of the artists. After all, he wanted to achieve the best effect with his patrons and audiences.
Here, the double bass returned to the podium, providing the proper, solid foundation to the classic composition, doubling the lower of the bassoons. That was not an easy task, for sure, given the often virtuosic bassoon parts. The opening Allegro is a dramatic movement. La Scintilla dei Fiati offered an excellent performance, with very well-balanced, “living, period” sound, so rich in colors and detail!
In the Andante, I particularly liked the mellow singing of the two clarinets, the excellent, imaginative ornamentation in both oboe and clarinet. I also noted how well the oboes held their pitch over a wide dynamic range (while retaining a humane degree of intonation flexibility): unlike with modern (particularly French) instruments, this is anything but self-evident—well-done!
III. Menuetto in canone — Trio in canone al rovescio
The Menuetto is interesting already in the title: the “in canone” reminds of Bach’s canons, might indicate a certain academic aspect. Of course, that’s different with Mozart, who probably just saw this as playful challenge. The movement combines both earnest, as well as moody, even playful aspects, even though the rigid rhythmic foundation makes it sound somewhat academic. It’s not impossible that Mozart meant this as a kind of joke.
The Trio is a canone al rovescio—a canon in four voices (oboes and bassoons), where two of the voices play the inversion of the theme. This sounds even more like a retrospective, conservative and academic construct. However, Mozart was able to turn any form into a wonderful, lyrical piece, with tender singing on all four instruments involved! The return of the Menuetto felt as if all of a sudden we were listening to the Serenade for Wind Instruments in D minor, op.44 from 1878 by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904). That’s an interesting link, pointing almost 90 years forward in time! It is not impossible, of course, that Dvořák knew about this serenade.
The last movement is a set of variations. The ensemble chose a fluent, demanding pace: this is anything but an easy, comfortable play. At the same time, it was more than moody and atmospheric: the performance combined dramatic, as well as playful aspects in this inventive, multi-faceted movement. The virtuosity of the bassoon solo in bars 144ff. was astounding! As mentioned, the serenade has a forward-looking, even joyful ending: indeed, the coda after the last variation felt like a last dance, was almost boisterous, and a real joy to listen to!
Encore — Triebensee: Don Giovanni, Overture and Arias for Harmonie
An encore was almost mandatory after the uplifting closure of the C minor serenade. The choice here was excellent: an increase in joy and playfulness was hardly imaginable. Philipp Mahrenholz announced “something that everybody would instantly recognize”. Indeed, guessing the encore was easy: the aria “Là ci darem la mano“ from the opera “Don Giovanni”, K.527, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), in the arrangement for harmonie (Harmoniemusik) by Josef Triebensee (1772 – 1846). This was more than a mere bedside treat: a comforting, soothing melody, played by bassoon and oboe. It gave testimony of Mozart’s immortal genius in the invention of melodies. The perfect ending for this very enjoyable and interesting evening!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. 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.