Sol Gabetta, John Storgårds / Gstaad Festival Orchestra
Weber / Elgar / Brahms

Tonhalle am See, Zurich, 2022-01-07

4.5-star rating

2022-01-11 — Original posting


Sol Gabetta (© Uwe Arens)
Sol Gabetta (© Uwe Arens)

Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeTonhalle am See, Zurich, 2022-01-07 19:30
Series / TitleNeue Konzertreihe Zürich, Extrakonzert II
OrganizerHochuli Konzert AG
Reviews from related eventsEarlier concerts with Sol Gabetta

At the peak of a hefty pandemic wave, concert life appears to resume “almost as usual”. With Sol Gabetta as soloist, success was guaranteed. Indeed, the hall was sold out, despite the need for a Covid-19 certificate, and for masks to be worn at all times.


The Artists

Sol Gabetta, Cello

Sol Gabetta (*1981, see also Wikipedia) was born in Argentina, but is now living in Switzerland. I have witnessed several concert performances with this artist over the past 6 years, covering music from the classic up to the contemporary repertoire (for details on her biography see my earlier reports, or check Wikipedia, or the artist’s Website. One of these concerts (Lucerne Festival, 2018-09-14) even featured the Elgar concerto that she was performing here as well.

The artist performed on a 1730 cello by Matteo Goffriller (1659 – 1742), Venice.

John Storgårds (source: program booklet, all rights reserved)

John Storgårds, Conductor

After studies in Helsinki and in Israel, John Storgårds (*1963, see Wikipedia) made a first career as violinist—as soloist, but also as concertmaster in several orchestras. The latter made him interested in conducting. So, 1993 – 1997, he returned to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki to study conducting with Jorma Juhani Panula (*1930) and Eri Klas (1939 – 2016).

2003 – 2015, Storgårds was principal guest conductor with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and from 2006 – 2009, he was chief conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2012, Storgårds also became principal guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic.

Gstaad Festival Orchestra

The Gstaad Festival Orchestra emerged in 2010. Its Website states that it is “made up of the best musicians from Switzerland’s leading orchestras”. Obviously, it is tied to the Gstaad Menuhin Festival & Academy, which was founded by Lord Yehudi Menuhin (1916 – 1999), back in 1957. In 2014, the Gstaad Festival Orchestra became the heart of the Gstaad Conducting Academy. It has since seen several prominent conductors at its helm, such as

And of course, the orchestra has cooperated with a large number of prominent, international soloists.


Program

The official program listed the following works:

For the encore (prior to the intermission) see below.

Setting, etc.

The big hall of the “Tonhalle am See” was sold out, despite the pandemic. My wife and I received press seats #7 and #8 in row 13 in the parquet (stall) seating (front block, left hand side). Some of the photos were taken from my position, using a smartphone—apologies for the limited quality. It is forbidden to take photos during a performance, and I didn’t dare using my “real” camera amidst the audience.


Concert & Review

Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria von Weber

Weber: Overture to the Opera “Oberon”

Composer & Work

Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826) composed piano works, a fair number of concertos, 2 symphonies, 2 masses, and vocal works with orchestra. Hower, he now is mostly known for his operas. The concert opened with the overture to the opera “Oberon”, or “The Elf King’s Oath”, a work from 1825/1826. See also my review from a concert in Lucerne, on 2018-05-31, which also opened with the same piece.

The composer was in bad health, suffering from tuberculosis, when he wrote this opera. The work was a commission by the director of London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden. Weber only ever heard the English, original version of the opera. He did not even start working on a translation before he died in London, in the year of the premiere. The overture is written for 2 flutes, 2 clarinets (in A), 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 4 horns (in D and A), 2 trumpets (in D), 3 trombones (alto, tenor, and bass), strings and timpani.

The Encounter with the Orchestra

The Gstaad Festival Orchestra appeared in a fairly big configuration—big for an ensemble associated specifically with a festival in the Swiss Alps. The spacious setting due to the pandemic made the ensemble look even bigger, of course.

John Storgårds, Gstaad Festival Orchestra @ Tonhalle Zürich (© Melchior Hochuli)
John Storgårds, Gstaad Festival Orchestra @ Tonhalle Zürich (© Melchior Hochuli)

John Storgårds had the orchestra perform in an arrangement that was typical in most of the 20th century, with the two violin voices on the left, followed by violas, and the cellos on the right, double basses on the far right. This has one major advantage of facilitating coordination between the violin voices. This is particularly important for orchestras “on the go”, where the ensemble is facing a variety of acoustic settings. Often there is little chance of adjusting to such environments. Possible disadvantages of this setup are a potential acoustic imbalance, and a loss of “left-right dialog” between the violins. Neither of these turned out to be problematic—not the least thanks to the excellent acoustics of the renovated hall.

The Gstaad Festival Orchestra consists of predominantly young artists. The average age is clearly below that of the major permanent / resident orchestras in Switzerland, from which it draws most of its members. In fact, the youthful liveliness, the vivid interaction between the musicians, the constant attention and active participation contributed a big deal to the outcome of the concert.

The Performance

The “warm-up piece” for this performance—not to be underestimated, though! But first things first. The overture opens with two dolce horn calls—and already these made the excellent quality of the hornist very obvious: so smooth, clean (devoid of vibrato), and subtle in the dynamics! Subsequently (throughout the concert, especially in the Brahms symphony, of course), there were plenty of instances that confirmed this.

Another favorable impression was with the harmonious, well-balanced soundscape, the carefully controlled dynamics. At first, the violins seemed underrepresented relative to the beautiful, warm singing of the cellos. However, that was merely because the composer wanted the violins to play with mutes. That soon changed with the Allegro con fuoco: without mutes, the violins appeared well-integrated into the ensemble, never dominating.

Warming up?

The “warm-up aspect” showed up in the rapid, virtuosic semiquaver passages in the violins. Momentarily, the coordination in the violins felt somewhat shaky, and the clarity wasn’t quite what the composer must have had in mind. This remained the only such incident in the concert, though. The orchestra only arrived in Zurich on the day of the concert. It may have taken some of the musicians a while to adapt to the acoustic environment. Indeed, the clarity improved over the course of the overture.

Overall, John Storgårds presented a compelling sequence of “pictures” / scenes and dramatic build-up. It’s a little unfortunate, though, that this build-up led into a void. Where in the opera the curtain opens, the rearrangements for the subsequent concerto required a short break…

★★★

Edward Elgar, 1917
Edward Elgar, 1917

Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85

Composer & Work

Sir Edward William Elgar (1857 – 1934) wrote his Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85 in summer 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War—his last major work. The composition had a bad premiere (due to lack of rehearsal time, apparently). It was only in the 1960s that the concerto gained widespread popularity, when Jacqueline du Pré, OBE (1945 – 1987) “threw her life into this concerto” and recorded it. It has since become a core piece of the cello repertoire. The movements are as follows:

  1. Adagio – Moderato —
  2. Lento – Allegro molto
  3. Adagio
  4. Allegro – Moderato – Allegro, ma non troppo – Poco più lento – Adagio

I wrote about a concert in London, on 2018-04-04, featuring this concerto. Later in the same year, I attended and reviewed a concert in Lucerne, on 2018-09-14, also featuring this concerto. This was also with Sol Gabetta as soloist, but then with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Marin Alsop (*1956).

Expectations?

Ever since she popularized this concerto, people relate this piece to Jacqueline du Pré’s performances and recordings: dramatic, intense, highly emotional. In a recent video that I watched, a (British) composer named this work the “world’s saddest concerto”. Indeed, sadness seems inherent to this composition. However, the tragedy of Jacqueline du Pré’s life inevitably contributes to this: sadness about the loss of a great artist, and/or premonitions about the brevity of her career that must have influenced that artist’s interpretation?

Of course, it was at least melancholy, if not sadness that must have dominated the composer’s mind. He appeared to have fallen out of fashion and was on the verge of giving up composing altogether.

Sure, Jacqueline du Pré is central to the success and the popularity of this concerto. Her interpretation remains a cornerstone and benchmark the performance history of this work. However, I don’t think that one should see it as the one and only “authentic reference”. In fact, both performances that I witnessed in 2018—the one with Steven Isserlis (*1958), and the second one with Sol Gabetta—took their own, personal approach. Needless to say that I was curious to find out whether this concert confirmed my impression.

The Performance

Sol Gabetta’s wide, flowing garment seemed to match the colors of the new organ prospect at the Tonhalle. However, it wasn’t just the artist’s spectacular appearance that dominated the first half of the concert. Rather, it was her openness, the vivacity in her interaction with John Storgårds and the orchestra (through gestures and facial mimics) that made her the center of the performance. She appeared to be in control over the performance throughout the concerto. There was definitely also a component of joy in her playing. That’s her nature, but not the least probably also the joy of being able to be back in concert halls after two years of pandemic.

I. Adagio –

For the Adagio introduction, Elgar annotates the solo part with nobilmente and largamente. The first chords are ff and have marcato marks. In Sol Gabetta’s interpretation, the opening was indeed broad, noble, but not dramatic. Interestingly, the opening chords emphasized the rounded, full-bodied sonority of the C and G strings on her Goffriller cello. Relative to these, the upper strings sounded rather subtle, almost inconspicuous. That remained a peculiarity of the first bars, though!

Moderato —

Over the first part of the Moderato, the tone of the instrument gradually built up, became dense and intensely singing (at [4]). It wasn’t just Elgar’s writing which gave her instrument presence amidst the orchestra sound at all times. The spectacular crescendo eruption over the upwards allargando scale finally allowed the orchestra to take up the theme in full ff sound.

There was occasionally some excess brass dominance in the soundscape. The acoustics (or failure to adjust to the acoustics?) may have contributed to this. On the other hand, I really (again) enjoyed the acoustics of the renovated hall. It excels in transparency, and particularly spatial clarity and resolution. Towards the end of the movement there are intimate passages, in which not only the solo was subtle, but also the orchestra joined that subtlety. It felt like chamber music. Such moments demonstrated the advantages of a medium-size concert hall over bigger venues such as the KKL in Lucerne.
★★★★½

II. Lento – Allegro molto

The two-bar Lento transition—three pizzicato chords in the solo, followed by a crescendo to an abrupt ff explosion—leads into what felt like an exploration of the Allegro molto theme. Semiquaver tremulations in the solo: intimate, subtle, lyrical, expressive, often pensive, reflecting hesitant, interrupted by an emotional outburst. A reminiscence of the final movement in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

At [20], the actual Allegro molto sets in, filled with leggierissimo semiquaver trembling in the solo. Sol Gabetta’s interpretation included playfulness and serenity, yet retained the melancholy and moodiness in the melody. Undoubtedly, there is also virtuosity in the solo part (at one point Elgar wrote brillante), but the virtuosic aspect never ever prevailed. Clearly, Sol Gabetta now “owns” this concerto: it forms a central part of her repertoire. She even has recorded it twice already (2020 and 2015, see below).
★★★★½

III. Adagio

To me, this was the emotional climax of the evening. Elegiac, expressive in the narration. Incredible intensity and depth, subtle, most intimate, and so touching—what more can I say? Well, obviously, the movement is too short…
★★★★★

IV. Allegro – Moderato – Allegro, ma non troppo – Poco più lento – Adagio

Not unlike in the second movement, the composer appears to seek a “proper entry”, starting with an orchestral Allegro, breaking off into a solo recitative (Moderato) that leads into a short cadenza. At [44], the central part of the movement (Allegro, ma non troppo) begins with verve and momentum. Soloist and orchestra appeared to liven up, stimulating each other in close interaction.

Sol Gabetta—technically and musically superb—did not appear to encounter any challenges. Her part appeared as easy as playful finger exercises. Also here, she never had a need to trump up, to try exposing virtuosity. Despite the elegiac nature of the music, she was a joy to watch and observe!

Needless to say that Elgar did not end the concerto in a boisterous stretta. Rather, an “emotional crack” causes a sudden change to the earnest, sad poco più lento, full of reminiscences, dreamy reflections, intense longing—and a theme of extreme beauty. Also this does not last long, and was heartbreaking to watch the composer’s despair, seeking a way out through themes / excerpts from the preceding movements. Musically, the ending felt devastating—the performance nevertheless fascinating, if not exhilarating. And musically / emotionally superb, sublime.
★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Encore — Tchaikovsky: Lensky’s Aria from “Eugene Onegin“, op.24

Composer & Work

The Opera Eugene Onegin” (Евгений Онегин), op.24 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), is based on a novel by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799 – 1837). “Eugene Onegin” premiered in Moscow, in 1879. Lensky’s aria is part of the second scene in act II of the Opera. Lensky is a tenor role, which makes this ideal for an adaptation (I would not even call this a transcription) for cello and orchestra.

The aria “Where have you gone, O golden days of my spring?” (Куда, куда вы удалились, весны моей златые дни) is a fearful, sad reflection by Vladimir Lensky. He is waiting for Eugene Onegin to arrive for the fatal duel which ends act II of the opera.

The Performance

Without a doubt, Lensky’s aria deserves its popularity: a beautiful melodic line that Sol Gabetta filled with warmth and intensity. Melancholic memories, as well as anguish, uncertainty and anxiety.

One might ask whether this was the “right” encore after the Elgar concerto. Is there any fitting encore after the emotional depth and intensity of the Elgar concerto? Despite the beauty of Tchaikovsky’s melody, this combination seemed close to “emotional overload”. Of course, any light or joyful piece would be much worse! So: better no encore at all?

Lastly: the one thing I definitely found regretful is that the encore was not announced. I think the audience appreciates knowing what music is being played.
★★★★


Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms

Brahms: Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98

Composer & Work

The Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98 is the last symphony that Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote, 1884. The work has four movements:

  1. Allegro non troppo
  2. Andante moderato
  3. Allegro giocoso — Poco meno presto — Tempo I
  4. Allegro energico e passionato

A detailed analysis is available via Wikipedia. For now, just briefly: among the movements, the first three are in sonata form (except that the Andante moderato has no development section). The last one is an extensive set of 30 variations, with a coda.

I have written about several earlier concerts featuring this symphony, so I won’t add more introductory comments here.

The Performance

I. Allegro non troppo

Here it was again, this chamber music atmosphere that I noted already early in the Elgar concerto: a restrained, careful beginning, followed by a harmonious, organic build-up. The orchestra (and the acoustics, of course) retained a clear, light and transparent soundscape. To me, this was distinctly (and favorably) different from what one would expect and hear from a typical, (big) resident / permanent orchestra. The playing remained lively and attentive, never approaching the thickness and density that many associate with romantic and early 20th century orchestral performances. Rather, the music reminded me of a Schubert symphony.

In line with this, John Storgards never exaggerated the expression, the emotions. I also noted that compared to the overture, the violins now exhibited much more profile. However, they remained slender, clear.
★★★★

II. Andante moderato

The hour of the wind section! First and foremost, of course, the horns, outstanding in their purity, the clarity in articulation and sonority. But I can’t mention the horns without also pointing out the excellence in the woodwinds. The wind section in general profited from the acoustics of this venue. They did not appear as a single “conglomerate” / register, but retained their individual characteristics at all times: clarity and transparency. A melodious, serene performance, creating the atmosphere of a serenade.

Only around the climax I asked myself whether this really was the ff (in the strings) that the composer was asking for—or was this my “false” expectation from performances with bigger traditional orchestras with more string dominance?
★★★★½

III. Allegro giocoso — Poco meno presto — Tempo I

Fast, but light and virtuosic, never even a tad “military”. John Storgårds did not make compromises in the tempo. In fast passages, the strings retained coordination and the clarity in articulation—but one could sense that this was close to the limits.

In the Poco meno presto, John Storgårds switched to a decidedly slower pace: was this just “a little less fast”? But OK, without metronome indication in the score, the “poco meno” is open to interpretation. In any case, this was a short episode, a resting point. At Tempo I the musicians threw themselves back into the Scherzo mood, full of drive and momentum, in a performance that maintained an irresistible pull up to the brilliant closure.
★★★★

IV. Allegro energico e passionato

It felt as if Brahms meant to compensate the boisterous third movement with the earnest, almost tragic mood in the finale. Storgårds emphasized that contrast by waiting only a very short moment, then continuing quasi attacca. The beginning was almost exceedingly dry, hadn’t there been the melancholic interventions from the wind section.

It’s a challenging movement—not primarily technically, but musically. I’m thinking of moments such as around D, where after a first climax the motion appears to halt for moments of reflection, maybe seeking a way out? It’s very easy to “lose the thread”. Not so here: John Storgards and the Gstaad Festival Orchestra managed to hold the tension. He even added suspense, also through the subsequent, long and beautiful flute solo. The tension further increased in the marvelously warm and comforting brass segment, ending in a relaxed fermata in the solo flute.

The last section is also technically challenging. However, it was not only mastered very well by the ensemble, but firmly managed by John Storgårds, driven to a conclusive, affirmative ending. Overall, John Storgårds realized a clear vision of the symphony, with a compelling dramaturgy throughout, especially in this last movement.
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½
John Storgårds, Gstaad Festival Orchestra @ Tonhalle Zürich (© Rolf Kyburz)
John Storgårds, Gstaad Festival Orchestra @ Tonhalle Zürich (© Rolf Kyburz)

Addendum: CDs to the Concert

Below, you find the parts of Sol Gabetta’s discography that are relevant to the concert reviewed above. Note: I’m quoting these just for reference—I have not reviewed these media.

Sol Gabetta — Elgar & Martinů, Cello Concertos (2015)

Elgar & Martinů: Cello Concertos — Sol Gabetta, Rattle, Urbański, Berlin Philharmonic: CD cover

Sir Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85
Bohuslav Martinů: Cello Concerto No.1, H.196

Sol Gabetta, Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonics (live)
Sol Gabetta, Krzysztof Urbański, Berlin Philharmonics (live)

Sony Music 88985350792 (CD, stereo; ℗ / © 2015)

Elgar & Martinů: Cello Concertos — Sol Gabetta, Rattle, Urbański, Berlin Philharmonic: CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link
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Sol Gabetta — Elgar: Cello Concertos; Pieces by Dvořák & Respighi (2010)

Elgar: Cello Concerto — Sol Gabetta, Mario Venzago, Danish National Symphony Orchestra: CD cover

Sir Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85
Antonín Dvořák: Waldesruh, Rondo
Ottorino Respighi: Adagio con variazioni

Sol Gabetta, Mario Venzago, Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Sony / RCA Red Seal 88697658242 (CD, stereo; ℗ / © 2010)

Elgar: Cello Concerto — Sol Gabetta, Mario Venzago, Danish National Symphony Orchestra: CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link
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Sol Gabetta — Cantabile (2008)

Sol Gabetta: Cantabile, music for cello and orchestra: CD cover

Tchaikovsky: Lensky’s Aria, from “Eugene Onegin”, op.24
Pieces for Cello and Orchestra by Gounod, Offenbach, Bizet, Delibes, Thomas, Tchaikovsky, Canteloube, Hahn, Fauré, Lopez, Rossini (*)

Sol Gabetta, Charles Olivieri-Munroe; Prague Philharmonic Orchestra
Mihaela Ursuleasa, piano (*)

Sony / RCA Red Seal 88697312792 (CD, stereo; ℗ / © 2008)

Sol Gabetta: Cantabile, music for cello and orchestra: CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

Acknowledgement

The author would like to express his gratitude to the organizer, Hochuli Konzert AG, for the press tickets to this concert, and for the three photos by Melchior Hochuli.



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