Beethoven: Overture to “Fidelio”, op.72
Violin Concerto in D, op.61
Symphony No.3 in E♭, op.55, “Eroica”

Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-02-15

3-star rating


2015-02-16 — Original posting
2016-08-02 — Brushed up for better readability

Introduction

It probably was just a coincidence: a mere 12 days after the concert featuring Isabelle Faust playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the same composition could be heard again, in the same location. In some ways (more than expected, actually!) it was a déjà vu. In others it was not, but hearing the same composition twice in such a short time was definitely still worth it and not a “mishap”. I’m not going to do a side-by-side evaluation of the two concerts, other than by pointing out significant differences and a few similarities between the two performances. But let’s do this chronologically:


The Orchestra

In the center of this lunchtime gala concert at the Tonhalle in Zurich was not the local orchestra, but the Staatskapelle Halle (State Orchestra in Halle / Saxony-Anhalt) under the direction of Heiko Mathias Förster. According to Wikipedia, the Staatskapelle Halle is one of the biggest German orchestras (with approx. 150 members), serving both concert, as well as the full range of opera, operetta, musical, ballet. In 2006, the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester, the Händelfestspielorchester (HFO, Orchestra of the Handel Festival in Halle), and the orchestra of the Opera in Halle merged into one orchestra. The result of this triple-merger is the Staatskapelle Halle.

In fact, we met a fairly big, stately orchestra. Maybe it was a bit too big for the repertoire in this concert? Beethoven never even dreamed of such big orchestras, at least when he composed the works in this concert.

The musicians certainly did not pretend to follow the practice of historically informed playing (HIP). This is in line with the modern orchestra arrangement, featuring the two violin voices (at least 12 players each in this concert) residing next to each other, on the left side of the podium. This helps the rhythmic coordination. But it precludes left-right dialogs between these two voices, that composers in the 19th century composed into their music, assuming the violin voices would be playing on either side of the podium.

The Conductor

The conductor, Heiko Mathias Förster, was born 1966 in the former GDR and started his musical education in Schwerin. He then first built a national career that culminated in the position of Generalmusikdirector (GMD) in Brandenburg an der Havel. In 1999, his career took him to Munich. Since 2007 he is directing the Neue Philharmonie Westfalen, while pursuing an international career as guest conductor.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Overture to the Opera “Fidelio”, op.72

The concert started with the Overture to Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio”, op.72. The local press announcements mentioned the Overture III to “Leonore”, op.72b, which would have been substantially longer. As the concert was long enough already, the shorter piece was a good choice.

Overtures serve as “lead-in piece” both for the audience, as well as for the artists. They tune us in and get us ready for the things to come. At the same time, they allow all participants (artists and audience) to familiarize themselves with the acoustics of the venue. That said: I don’t mean to imply that overtures are to be taken lightly. The piece should still be  selected carefully, in order to fit to the works that follow, for the program to form a harmonic, organic structure. With a Beethoven overture leading into a Beethoven-only program, the above selection can’t possibly be wrong. Especially considering that Beethoven composed all pieces around the same years (1805 – 1806).

Performance

However, an overture may have its own challenges. In this case, for the hornists: after the opening fanfare by timpani and strings, their part starts with a tricky solo. I can imagine hornists having cold sweat before the piece even starts! The hornists did not mess up completely. However, the beginning was shaky enough for the audience to notice. One could ignore this, thinking of this as a “normal live concert mishap”. However, unwillingly, it sensitized the ears of the listeners. So, the subsequent accidents of this kind (there were at least two in the slow movement of the violin concerto) did not go unnoticed. Too bad. On the positive side, the orchestra did not expose major weaknesses. The ensemble played well in general, with homogeneous, smooth string sound, as to be expected from such a large body of string players.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, op.61

Next in the program was Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, op.61, played by the German violinist Sophia Jaffé, born 1980 in Berlin. Sophia Jaffé has won several prizes around 2000 – 2005. She is currently holding a position as professor at the Musikhochschule Frankfurt am Main.

Orchestral Introduction

As we have seen two weeks ago, the orchestral introduction to this concerto bears its own set of challenges, be it only that the percussionist can set or mis-set the pace with the five initial timpani beats! That was not a problem here, though. The timpani were played with reasonably hard (though not wooden) drum stick heads.

Still, I did not entirely feel at ease in the rest of the introduction; at first, I thought of tempo instabilities / alterations, but then I realized that there was a constant tendency for the orchestra to play small notes and ornaments superficially. This was confirmed throughout the concert. That’s a real pity; I’d rather prefer those “little features” to get extra attention, care, and enough time. In other words: to me, the agogics did not play out in this concert. There also was a slight tendency to play faster when the music was louder (I’d rather prefer a little bit of the opposite). To me, this created the impression of a certain lack of sensibility, maybe fantasy on the part of the conductor.

The Solo Part, Vibrato

With the entrance of the solo violin, though, the attention turned towards Sophia Jaffé. She presented herself as an experienced, expressive violinist, with a sonorous, full tone, delivering a solid, convincing interpretation. This was not a HIP (historically informed playing) performance, so her almost permanent (but not too obtrusive) vibrato fitted the overall picture. In the context of a traditional (overall) performance, I don’t have a major issue with vibrato, especially as Sophia Jaffé in general played with excellent intonation. The biggest challenge for the soloist in this concerto is intonation purity. But still, it revealed why playing without vibrato would / might be preferable:

  • Vibrato helps hiding occasional impurities. At the same time it obscures the intonation. After all, vibrato in parts consists of pitch oscillations.
  • Where the solo part switches between “normal” notes and flageolet tones, vibrato introduces and additional, unwanted (i.e., unintended by the composer) contrast in tonal quality.
  • It appears that vibrato requires a minimal amount of volume. At least from the previous concert one got the impression that vibrato-less playing allows for far more detail in the finest of ppp.
  • At least from a comparison with what we heard two weeks ago, constant vibrato (“ketchup everywhere”, as it was referred to elsewhere) makes the music sound more uniform. Besides, in extremis (not here, luckily), it can be boring, if not annoying.
  • Last, but not least, in classic times and all of the 19th century, vibrato was never used constantly. It was merely a means of highlighting / enhancing specific notes (e.g., key notes in a slow melody). This is illustrated by a quote by Joseph Joachim: he apparently told a violinist not to use constant vibrato as a substitute for missing emotions!

The Interpretation

But as stated: I can live with this type of playing & interpretation. It fits into what we hear from the vast majority of violinists still today, following a tradition that was born in the first half of the 20th century. Sophia Jaffé’s playing was certainly better than the accompaniment, which faced occasional coordination issues between the wind and string sections. It also sometimes failed to listen to the solo part, missing out on the soloist’s agogics / phrasing and little ritardandi.

As mentioned, not only the composition itself was likely a déjà vu for parts of the audience, but also in the cadenzas: like Isabelle Faust two weeks ago, Sophia Jaffé played the cadenzas that Wolfgang Schneiderhan has written, closely following Beethoven’s cadenzas for his piano transcription (op.61a) of the concerto. In the first movement, not just the full Schneiderhan cadenza was played, but Jaffé even did Beethoven’s repeats in the central march section with the timpani accompaniment. The cadenza was well-played here. It is definitely impressive, though not very “violinistic”.

I don’t understand why the conductor felt like conducting the percussionist. The coordination with the violin would have been better if the two players had been left playing as a duo, on their own. After all, the percussionist could hear what the violin was playing! Occasionally, I would have hoped for a bit more subtlety in the timpani playing.

Larghetto

In the Larghetto, Sophia Jaffé played the full Schneiderhan cadenza at the transition to the last movement.

Rondo

In the Rondo, Beethoven has written two cadenzas for the piano. Schneiderhan transcribed both for the violin. Sophia Jaffé played the first one for the  fermata at bar 92. But for the “real” cadenza at bar 279, she “abandoned Schneiderhan / Beethoven” and played Fritz Kreisler‘s superb, well-known and popular cadenza. For sure, this is far more adapted to the violin and more attractive for violinists than Beethoven’s somewhat excessive piano cadenza. The musicians skipped the opportunity to expose / play out the country dance / “hurdy-gurdy” episode in the minore part of that last movement. But overall, certainly for the solo part, we enjoyed a very good, solid performance. It was an interesting and pleasant concert experience.

Encore — Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931): “L’Aurore” from the Sonata No.5 for Solo Violin , op.27/5

In a lunchtime concert, the audience is certainly different from the one in typical subscription events on an evening. One could gather this from the extra applause after the first movement. In any case, the applause indicated that audience enjoyed the concerto, and Sophia Jaffé responded by playing the first movement L’aurore” from Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.5 for solo violin in E minor, op.27/5. This is a beautiful, pensive and timeless piece, and probably also one of the soloist’s favorite encores, as she also has if featured as YouTube recording on her Website:


 

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, “Eroica”

The last part of the concert was devoted to Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, known as “Eroica”. As expected from the preceding pieces, the performance failed to stand out from the ordinary. The tempo was conventional, though not too heavy, luckily. The same can be said about the sound of the orchestra. Based the staffing, I would have expected a somewhat more brilliant string sound. The ensemble was attentive, in general, with very active leadership by the concert master. But as already in the violin concerto, there was a certain tendency to play over details that really deserved more attention. Overall, there wasn’t much in terms of agogics and detail in phrasing / articulation. Förster did not repeat the exposition. That’s probably understandable, with the length of this concert.

In the second movement, the famous “Funeral March” (Adagio assai), the tempo was below Beethoven’s annotation. The movement was felt / being played in quavers (like 4/8), rather than the 2/4 time given by the score. Especially with the faster tempo that the composer specified in the score, the movement should feel relentless, driving towards the inevitable. Nevertheless, there are lots of very emotional aspects in this movement, which the conductor respected in the big phrases and evolutions. But he failed to play out the details. Quite often, melodies and motifs were allowed the “time to speak up” through agogics and articulation. It should be possible to combine the overall relentlessness and the expressivity in motifs and melodies.

Scherzo & Finale

The Scherzo (Allegro vivace) is a rather virtuosic piece. It was obviously rehearsed very well, played with a good tempo. It was perhaps not brilliant, but one of the best movements on the part of the orchestra. Of course, the orchestral arrangement with the two violin voices next to each other helped avoiding coordination issues. But it also defeated the left-right dialog in this movement, as mentioned above. In the Trio with its “hunting scenery”, even the horns delivered a good performance.

Also the last movement is virtuosic; it was played quite well. Maybe the timpani were sometimes a bit too prominent, making some passages almost sound like a drum concerto? Unfortunately, even more than in the previous movement, the orchestra arrangement defeated some of the left-right echo responses / dialogs. These would have helped highlighting the many fugato elements in this composition. But needless to say, despite some shortcomings in the interpretation, the symphony didn’t fail to impress and please the audience!


Addendum 1:

For the works in this concert I have written separate CD reviews with more in-depth coverage of the compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven:



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