Stephen Waarts, Diyang Mei, Julia Hagen, Sir András Schiff
Schumann / Beethoven / Brahms

Tonhalle am See, Zurich, 2022-06-19

4.0-star rating

2022-07-09— Original posting



Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeSmall Hall of the Tonhalle am See, Zurich, 2022-06-19 19:30h
Series / TitleYoung Soloists On Stage — Orpheum Foundation
OrganizerOrpheum Foundation for the Advancement of Young Artists, jointly with
Kronberg Academy (see also Wikipedia)
PR Agency: 2Dream Productions
Reviews from related eventsEarlier Concerts organized by the Orpheum Foundation. Among these:
Orchestral Concert featuring Stephen Waarts — Zurich, 2019-09-15
Mozart Concerto recording with Stephen Waarts — Zurich, 2021-03-18
Orchestral Concert featuring Julia Hagen — Zurich, 2020-03-04
“Partitura Workshop 2018” with Maria João Pires — Zurich, 2018-11-02

On the Event

I don’t need to introduce the Orpheum Foundation for the Advancement of Young Artists—an institution founded in 1990. Over the past years, I have written about many of their concerts. Descriptions about the foundation’s activities are included in most of these reviews, e.g., in the one on the concert on 2019-09-15.

Each year, the Orpheum Foundation’s Board of Trustees selects 4 – 8 talented young artists for their support program. The latter aims to help the artists in successfully launching an international career. At the core of that support are orchestral concerts that the foundation organizes at least twice a year, with notable conductors and orchestras. Most of the concerts that I reviewed for the Foundation fall into this category. Apart from that, the Foundation also started offering a limited number of chamber music and solo recitals, as well as workshops. Examples in my reviews are the chamber music event on 2018-04-13, and the “Partitura Workshop 2018” with Maria João Pires in Zurich, on 2018-11-02.

A Cooperation with the Kronberg Academy

As a chamber music event, this event wasn’t just of the rarer kind of Orpheum concerts—it was also the first time that the Foundation organized a concert in cooperation with the Kronberg Academy. The latter is a chamber music academy in Kronberg in the Taunus hills north-west of Frankfurt. Raimund Trenkler—still its chairman of the board—founded the Academy in 1993. The institution trains and sponsors gifted young players of the violin, viola, and cello, and organizes a diverse range of musical projects and concerts. All three string soloists in this concert are or were students at the Kronberg Academy.

As Hans Heinrich Coninx, founder and President of the Orpheum Foundation, explained in his introductory speech, this concert demonstrates the common goals and values between the Foundation and the Kronberg Academy.


The Artists

(from left:) Diyang Mei, Stephen Waarts, Julia Hagen, Sir András Schiff, Thomas Pfiffner (Orpheum Foundation) @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2022-06-19 (source: Facebook / Orpheum Foundation)
(from left:) Diyang Mei, Stephen Waarts, Julia Hagen, Sir András Schiff, Thomas Pfiffner (Orpheum Foundation) @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2022-06-19 (source: Facebook / Orpheum Foundation)

With one exception, I have witnessed all artists (and written about them) in earlier concerts:

Stephen Waarts, Violin

My first encounter with the violinist Stephen Waarts (*1996 in the USA) was in an orchestral concert in 2019, organized by the Orpheum Foundation. See my review for a section on Stephen Waarts’ biography. In addition to that, the Orpheum Foundation invited me to three recording sessions in the context of their series covering all of Mozart’s instrumental concertos. One of these featured Stephen Waarts as soloist in a Mozart violin concerto.

Stephen Waarts is currently studying with Mihaela Martin (*1959) at the Kronberg Academy. He is performing on a 1860 violin by the French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798 – 1875).

Diyang Mei, Viola

The one artist in this concert whom I have not encountered before is the Chinese violist Diyang Mei (*1994). This musician’s career took a fulminant start when he won the 2018 ARD International Music Competition. 2019 – 2022, he was 1st principal violist with the Munich Philharmonic, and in 2022, he moved into that same position with the Berlin Philharmonic. Diyang Mei studied with Hariolf Schlichtig (*1950) at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Munich, and he continues his studies with Nobuko Imai (*1943) at the Kronberg Academy.

According to the program notes, Diyang Mei performed on an instrument (c. 1890) by the Italian luthier Giovanni Pistucci (1864 – 1955).

Julia Hagen, Cello

A little over two years ago (2020-03-04, just when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out), I enjoyed an Orpheum concert with the Austrian cellist Julia Hagen (*1995 in Salzburg, see also Wikipedia). Julia is the daughter of Clemens Hagen (*1966, cellist in the Hagen Quartett). Key stations in her education as cellist include studies with Enrico Bronzi (*1973) at the Salzburg Mozarteum, with Reinhard Latzko (*1963) at the University of the Arts in Berlin, and 2013 – 2015 with Heinrich Schiff (1951 – 2016). She then continued with Jens Peter Maintz (*1967) at the University of the Arts in Berlin. Finally, since 2019, she is holding a scholarship with Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt (*1971) at the Kronberg Academy.

For Julia Hagen’s detailed biography see her Website, or again Wikipedia. Julia Hagen performs on a 1684 cello by Francesco Ruggeri (also Rugeri or Ruggieri, c.1628 – 1698, Cremona).

Sir András Schiff, Piano

The one senior artist in this concert, Sir András Schiff (*1953), does not require an introduction. I have written about him in two concert reviews from 2016 and 2017, and he also appears as duo partner in a series of CD reviews in this blog. For full details on Sir András Schiff’s biography see Wikipedia. Schiff is a member of the Artistic Board of Trustees of the Orpheum Foundation, therefore has firm ties with the Foundation. At the same time, since 2018, he is also leading the “Sir András Schiff Performance Programme for Young Pianists” at the Kronberg Academy.

András Schiff’s instrument in this concert was a Steinway B-211 mid-size grand piano with fully open lid, set up by Gebrüder Bachmann, Wetzikon.


Program

The program featured a duo performance with each of the young artists, together with Sir András Schiff. After the intermission, all artists joined the stage for a piano quartet:


Setting, etc.

Most of the Orpheum concerts take place in the big hall of the Tonhalle am See in Zurich. This event, however, was in the more exclusive setting of the small hall, which is better suited for chamber music events, from the point-of-view of acoustics, as well as its more intimate chamber music atmosphere.

My seat was on the right-hand side of row 12 in the central block of the parquet seating. The event was essentially sold out.


Concert & Review

Robert Schumann, by M. Lämmel
Robert Schumann, by M. Lämmel

Schumann: Märchenbilder, 4 Pieces for viola and piano, op.113

Composer & Work

1851, the Berlin poet Louis du Rieux (1824 – 1862+) sent Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) a 4-part poem “Märchenbilder” (Fairy Tale Pictures), asking the composer to use it as model for a “sonata”. Schumann’s response was positive, and a few weeks later, he had finished his Märchenbilder, 4 Pieces for viola and piano, op.113, which appeared in 1852 and premiered in 1853. The four lyrical character pieces bear the following annotations:

  1. Nicht schnell (not fast) in D minor (3/4)
  2. Lebhaft (lively) in F major (2/4)
  3. Rasch (quick) in D minor (2/4)
  4. Langsam, mit melancholischem Ausdruck (slow, with melancholic expression) in D major (3/8)

The Performance

I. Nicht schnell

Diyang Mei made it to the position of 1st principal violist with the Berlin Philharmonic. So, performing with Sir András Schiff at the piano can’t be all that intimidating. Especially given that Schiff is an excellent communicator and an empathetic, diligent teacher. Still, opening a recital with Schumann’s Märchenbilder is challenging, given the introverted, reflecting nature of the first movement. On the other hand, this forced the listeners to focus on the intimate nature of this music.

The first bars are all p, and Diyang Mei approached these particularly carefully, retained. With this, his viola appeared to understate its part, modest in volume, sometimes almost hiding in the sound of the piano. Only with the f at [B], the instrument seemed to wake up, revealing its warm, characterful timbre. Once the listener’s ear adapted to the sonorities, one realized the richness in colors, the fine, diligent and differentiated dynamics. And as the expression livened up, the intensely singing heights and the slightly grainy sound on the c and g strings came to full bearing.

Even more remarkable that the sound was, how the two artists cooperated and harmonized in the rubato and the strong agogic swaying in every bar: remarkable!
★★★★

Diyang Mei & Sir András Schiff: Orpheum Concert @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2022-06-19 (source: Facebook / Orpheum Foundation)
Diyang Mei & Sir András Schiff: Orpheum Concert @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2022-06-19 (source: Facebook / Orpheum Foundation)
II. Lebhaft

Joyful music with some moody aspects, often even rebellious: Schumann disrupts the flow with syncopes / rhythmic changes & stumbling blocks. This makes it difficult to establish a feeling of “regular flow”, occasionally leaving an “unsettled impression”. On the other hand, this music showed how well the sound of the viola was projecting into this venue. Diyang Mei’s articulation was clear and careful. And again, the artists maintained coherence and coordination in the rubato—despite the rhythmic adversities in this movement.
★★★

III. Rasch

A virtuosic movement on the viola in the semiquaver triplet segments: these are initially p, with occasional, short outbreaks, later evolving into agitated ff. Short, mostly chordic marcato motifs dominate in the piano accompaniment. In the intense, singing parts, the viola exposed its characteristic, slightly nasal sonority. However, in the semiquaver triplet sections, the viola often was in danger of getting drowned in the accompaniment. Even though András Schiff certainly was diligent in the dynamics, and even though the instrument wasn’t a full-size concert grand. A period instrument would have fared far better here.
★★★½

IV. Langsam, mit melancholischem Ausdruck

So gentle, so intimate, calm: a wonderful, beautiful lullaby! Highly atmospheric, expressive, singing, with harmoniously swaying vibrato: a true Lied ohne Worte (Song Without Words). Too bad the two final pizzicati were hardly audible—was the timing too perfect, too much spot-on with the piano chords?
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven, by Schimon, Ferdinand, 1797-1852

Beethoven: 7 Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” for piano and cello, WoO 46

Composer & Work

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote his 7 Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” in E♭ major for piano and cello, WoO 46 in 1801 (published in 1802). The theme is from the duet “In men, who feel love” (Pamina and Papageno) from the first act of the Singspiel “Die Zauberflöte” (The Magic Flute), K.620, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791). With one exception, all variations are in 6/8 time, and all (also with one exception) are in E♭ major:

  • Tema: Andante
  • Var.I
  • Var.II
  • Var.III
  • Var.IV (E♭ minor)
  • Var.V: Si prenda il tempo un poco più vivace
  • Var.VI: Adagio (4/4)
  • Var.VII: Allegro, ma non troppo — Coda

The Performance

Tema: Andante

Already from how Julia Hagen entered the podium, I had the impression that the artist had gained / grown in personality since the last encounter, some 15 months ago. Her initially careful, diligent, but soon self-assured, expressive playing in the theme of these variations seemed to confirm this impression.

Variations I – IV

Variation I followed seamlessly, attacca—not pushing the tempo, maybe a tad heavy (a little too retained?) in nature, but careful and diligent in articulation and dynamics. In variation II, the piano sets the pace and the character: In Schiff’s hands, this was playful, but still a tad careful—in favor of detail in articulation and dynamics, particularly once the cello joined in. In the virtuosic figures, Julia Hagen resisted the temptation to indulge in boisterous excursions, keeping her part p. And András Schiff supported this with extra diligence in the accompaniment.

Variation III is p, mostly even pp (excepting the final bars). After the virtuosic figures in variation II, this felt maybe a tad too careful—shouldn’t, couldn’t this be a little more playful, even fun? The f / ff in the final bar felt rather restrained. The same could be said about the E♭ minor variation IV. I see no need to make this extra sad—the minor key alone darkens the tone enough. Apart from the Andante for the theme, the composer didn’t add tempo annotations for variations I – IV. Yet, up till here, the tempo appeared to have slowed down a bit.

Variations V – VII

In variation V, the dynamics remained careful, restrained—but (also with the fresher pace) the character of the music was truly light, lively: the best part so far!

In the Adagio variation, the piano sets the (initial) character and tempo. Not untypical for András Schiff, this appeared extra diligent and careful, subtle—maybe occasionally (once the cello joined in) dragging a little bit. However, the performance definitely felt very atmospheric, contemplative.

In the final variation and coda, at last (too short, alas!), Julia Hagen appeared to liven up: did this music particularly suit her personality, or was this a sign of relief?

My conclusion: Julia Hagen’s playing was flawless in intonation, articulation, dynamics, agility—technique and musicality in general. And András Schiff’s accompaniment was perfectly in tune, supportive. Yet, I felt that not all transitions between the variations were entirely harmonious / natural. Both parts aren’t trivial to play, but technique wasn’t the issue here. Rather, it seems that a key challenge in this work is in the transitions, in making the piece (as short as it is!) appear as a compelling whole.

Rating: ★★★½

Robert Schumann, by M. Lämmel
Robert Schumann, by M. Lämmel

Schumann: Violin Sonata No.2 in D minor, op.121

Composer & Work

It was also in 1851 (the year in which he created the Märchenbilder, op.113), when Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote his Violin Sonata No.2 in D minor, op.121. The sonata premiered with the composer’s wife, Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896) at the piano, and with Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907) performing the violin part. The dedication of the sonata is to the violinist Ferdinand David (1810 – 1873). The four movements use the following annotations:

  1. Ziemlich langsam — Lebhaft
  2. Sehr lebhaft
  3. Leise, einfach — Etwas lebhafter — Etwas bewegter — Tempo wie vorher
  4. Bewegt

The Performance

Stephen Waarts set himself apart from the preceding soloists not just because he performed by far the biggest of the pieces, Schumann’s late masterwork in four movements. He also performed this demanding sonata by heart. This freed up his ability to interact with András Schiff, while at the same time allowing for more direct communication with the audience.

Stephen Warts & Sir András Schiff: Orpheum Concert @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2022-06-19 (source: Facebook / Orpheum Foundation)
Stephen Warts & Sir András Schiff: Orpheum Concert @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2022-06-19 (source: Facebook / Orpheum Foundation)
I. Ziemlich langsam —

Schumann’s opening gestures (isolated staccato chords, f) are abrupt, almost rude, energetic (the composer explicitly annotated “kurz, energisch“). However, after a few bars, the violin retracts into p, inserting a lyrical 3-bar solo cadenza, which allowed Stephen Waarts to present the warm, well-rounded sonority of his instrument. For the rest of the 18-bar introduction, the violin stays p, even pp, while the piano accompaniment is a soft reminiscence of the opening staccato chords. So, it’s both the composer’s merit, as well as the pianist’s carefully tuned dynamics which allowed the violin to retain its presence even in pp and below.

Right from the start, Stephen Waarts demonstrated self-assuredness in the placement of a few conspicuous portamenti in the second part of the introduction.

Lebhaft

The Lebhaft (lively) marks the beginning of the sonata form, i.e., the exposition—thanks for repeating it: I consider this a must! A resolute duo, rebellious, moody, often vehement, momentarily almost like a fight between the two instruments. The performance demonstrated excellent partnership between the two musicians, with well-attuned dynamics and agogics. Stephen Waarts’ playing was firm, determined, even masterful, with carefully dosed / targeted vibrato: expressive where needed, but also leaving passages / motifs with little or no vibration. The range from expressive to “bleak”, flat tones widened the expressive spectrum.

Both parts are demanding, with an intricate rhythmic interplay—unruly. The piano tended to dominate—with Schumann’s busy, often full-fingered piano textures on a modern instrument, that’s almost unavoidable. Luckily the violin’s ability to project kept that voice audible throughout the movement. The performance kept momentum and drive throughout, and the two artists appeared to fire each other up, especially towards the accelerando (Schneller) in the coda.

II. Sehr lebhaft

A true Scherzo in B minor, full of energy, performed with verve and momentum: excellent, and so well-attuned, down to the little ritenuto at the beginning of a phrase! The short “Trio” (F♯ minor) offers a lyrical-expressive contrast, before the initial theme returns.

However, the movement does not follow a simple A-B-A scheme: instead of ending after the return of the A part, Schumann introduces a new theme in D major, where the violin plays 2/4 against the 6/8 in the piano—a short window into a brighter world. And that’s not the end: in a mysterious move, the music modulates back to B minor, but now remains restrained, almost sotto voce, then gradually building up to the initial theme.

A sudden turn leads to a new surprise, a short, grandiose quote of the Lutheran chorale “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (“Praise be to You, Jesus Christ”), followed by a short, jubilant ending. It’s a direct reference to Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) who used that chorale quote in the last movement of his Piano Trio No.2 in C minor, op.66 from 1845. And as in Mendelssohn’s op.66, that surprising insert doesn’t fail in its profound effect!

III. Leise, einfach (3/8) — Etwas lebhafter — Etwas bewegter — Tempo wie vorher

The third movement is a set of variations. The 24-bar theme has the annotation Leise, einfach (soft, simple). Schumann also writes p (dolce on the violin). Schumann further specifies Mit Verschiebung (i.e., una corda) for the theme and the first variation. There are no instructions for the sustain pedal. In addition, in the bass line, most bars of the theme have a rest on the middle quaver. I don’t quite understand why András Schiff made it sound as if he left the sustain pedal down at all times. Certainly, the left-hand rests were not present. The sound on period instruments was fading faster. So, if anything, on a modern instrument, rests should probably be longer, not shorter (let alone suppressed).

Apart from this one quibble, the performance was highly atmospheric, warm, intimate, calm, and subtle. Despite “suppressed rests” in the piano part, the violin pizzicati remained audible, which speaks for carefully balanced dynamics. One could feel Stephen Waarts’ total reliance on the pianist—he turned towards the audience for most of this movement.

Romantic, slow movements may tempt violinists to use excessive vibrato. To my amazement, Stephen Waarts’ vibrato was very selective, largely inconspicuous, sometimes even absent altogether. Only in the last variation (Tempo wie vorher, with the demisemiquavers in the accompaniment), the violinist fittingly let the vibrato evolve harmoniously. Apart from that, the only “romantic additions” were a few portamenti in the Etwas bewegter variation. The closing bars disappear into ppp and below—magic, enchanting, touching!

IV. Bewegt

Dramatic, virtuosic, full of momentum, verve and drive, feverish—so typical Schumann! Needless to say that the two artists mastered the technical challenges seemingly effortlessly—with the repeat, of course. In addition, their interpretation was highly engaged and coherent at all times, often boiling from emotions. The performance was compelling also Schumann’s momentary mood swings. Enthralling!

Rating: ★★★★½

One might say that the juxtaposition of these three works & performances wasn’t entirely fair: the viola faces a very limited duo repertoire (at least in the classic and early romantic eras), the Beethoven variations may be technically non-trivial, but musically cannot compete with Schumann’s sonata. The latter is simply not comparable to the preceding pieces, both in size and musically: a musical masterpiece. However, it also seemed as if Stephen Waarts’ outstanding talent also motivated Sir András Schiff to extraordinary performance levels, i.e., the two artists experienced mutual stimulation—and the result was memorable.


Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms

Brahms: Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, op.25

Composer & Work

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote his Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, op.25 in the years 1856 – 1861. The premiere was in Hamburg, with Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896) at the piano. The first performance with the composer at the piano was 1862 in Vienna.

  1. Allegro
  2. Intermezzo: Allegro ma non troppo — Trio: Animato
  3. Andante con moto
  4. Rondo alla Zingarese: Presto

The Performance

I. Allegro

The Brahms quartet turned out to be much more than a mere merger / synthesis / combination of the previous duo experiences! Sure, among the string players, Stephen Waarts naturally took a lead role, and—Brahms being Brahms—the piano maintained a central function at all times. It’s the latter which also opens the movement.

However, already in bar 5, when the cello answers the piano’s opening motif, Julia Hagen presented a strong, active presence, exposing the beautiful, intensely singing tone of her instrument. Later, it felt as if the quartet formation had now freed up her musical creativity. Often, from the auditive impression, cello and piano sounded like the two “anchors” of the performance. It’s of course no surprise that Julia Hagen is a first class chamber musician: that must be “in her blood”!

But also the viola got its fair share of presence, in a role that is far more active than in Schumann’s introverted “Märchenbilder“. In fact, Brahms must have paid extra attention in giving the three string instruments equal weight / “rights”. And so, this performance showed chamber music in the best sense of the word—four musicians performing at eye level, truly unanimously, coherently, firing each other up.

Often, Brahms has two string instruments perform in pairs (violin/viola, violin/cello, viola/cello), or all three perform in parallel lines, creating colorful combinations. In all these cases, each instrument retained presence and its individual character, yet formed “magic matches”.

Sir András Schiff, Stephen Waarts, Diyang Mei, Julia Hagen: Orpheum Concert @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2022-06-19 (source: Facebook / Orpheum Foundation)
Sir András Schiff, Stephen Waarts, Diyang Mei, Julia Hagen: Orpheum Concert @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2022-06-19 (source: Facebook / Orpheum Foundation)
II. Intermezzo: Allegro ma non troppo — Trio: Animato

Also here, violin and viola (later violin and cello) often perform in parallel lines. However, as the violin is with mute (con sordino), this subtly shifts the weight towards the viola, and it creates yet another color. Here, the steady quaver triplet heartbeat is carried by either viola or cello, while the piano engaged in an intense, serene dialog with the other (paired) string instruments. In all this, there was a fine dynamic accord throughout the ensemble.

In the Trio, the piano often had the lead function. Yet, András Schiff never appeared to impose his will on the others, but rather remained supportive and fully integrated into the ensemble. Needless to say that the performance was as engaged and active as in the first movement: never was there any loss in tension or pace.

Finally, András Schiff turned the light and serene 13-bar Coda into a magic, enchanting moment of transfiguration: beautiful!

III. Andante con moto

Very often in this movement, the string instruments are homophonic. All the more important was the coordination, the fine tuning in the dynamics. It was fascinating to see how the musicians carefully listened to each other, at all times. Often, András Schiff took back a busy right hand, in order to leave room for young instrumentalists.

And, of course, the music! So full of Brahms’ intensely glowing feelings, the equally intense colors, especially around the climax (after [G], C major). The latter was full of verve, power and expression. Who could possibly be left untouched by this music, this interpretation?

IV. Rondo alla Zingarese: Presto

András Schiff must have injected his Hungarian blood into this performance: fast, virtuosic, excellent in the coordination, agile in the syncopated accents, the “torn off” ending chords—enthralling, for sure!

In the first episode, the piano has both hands in parallel, all in semiquavers. At the chosen tempo, these were so fast that they almost reminded me of the short Scherzo in the Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, op.16 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953).

The interpretation (which included all repeats) remained unanimous, coherent and enthralling through all changes in tempo and character, through all the *Hungarian rubati“,

Rating: ★★★★½

An amazing performance, throughout, especially considering that this wasn’t an ensemble performing in year-long partnership! And the performance confirmed that the absence of a “hyper-romantic vibrato” has no detrimental effect on this music—quite to the contrary: reducing the vibrato improves the clarity, makes the music “speak more directly”.


Sir András Schiff, Stephen Waarts, Diyang Mei, Julia Hagen: Orpheum Concert @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2022-06-19 (source: Facebook / Orpheum Foundation)
Sir András Schiff, Stephen Waarts, Diyang Mei, Julia Hagen: Orpheum Concert @ Tonhalle Zurich, 2022-06-19 (source: Facebook / Orpheum Foundation)

Acknowledgement

The author would like to express his gratitude to the organizer, Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists, and to Ms. Jacqueline Saner (2Dream Productions) for the invitation and the press ticket to this concert.



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