Stephen Waarts, Howard Griffiths / Camerata Schweiz
Mozart: Violin Concerto No.1 in B♭ major, K.207 (Recording Session)

Recording @ Kirche Oberstrass, Zurich, 2021-03-18


2021-03-25 — Original posting



Table of Contents


General Remarks

This is the first example of a (probably small) set of posts that are neither media nor concert reviews in the strict sense of the word. Rather, one should consider them “workshop reports“:

  • In contrast to media reviews, there is no CD to discuss (just yet). Rather, I’m merely give a sketchy report about my impressions on a recording session. The resulting CD will still take months to become available.
  • In contrast to concert reviews, I’m essentially not commenting on the interpretation or the performance. I’m merely listening to short fragments of a performance, often in numerous repetitions. My visits cover one of several recording sessions for a given work. This typically includes snippets from one single movement. That movement may never even be performed in one piece, from beginning to end.
  • It is a live experience (like a concert), in a venue that is also used as location for concerts. However, the performance bears the character of a “studio” recording. The event therefore does not follow the same principles as a live concert.
  • I can hear what is being recorded. However, from that, I could not tell what the microphones “hear”. And even less so, how the end result (after cutting and mixing, etc.) will sound & feel.

Overall, one should read this as a “teaser” for an ongoing CD recording project. The “end product” will only become available in about a year’s time.


Introduction

Venue, Date(s)Kirche Oberstrass, Zurich, 2021-03-18 / 2021-03-19
Series / TitleOrpheum Foundation: Next Generation Mozart Soloists
Organizer(s)Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists
Goldmann Public Relations
Related PostingsReviews of concerts organized by the Orpheum Foundation
Orpheum Concert with Stephen Waarts (2019-09-15)

The Context

I’m honored to be invited to attend recording sessions for a newly launched CD project that the Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists is initiating. The title of the project is “Next Generation Mozart Soloists“. It involves the recording of (essentially) all of the instrumental concerts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791). That project will span a duration of around five years. It involves numerous young soloists that the Orpheum Foundation is currently supporting, or who have received support in the past. The session discussed here was part of the first series of recordings.


The Organizer

For the past several years, the Orpheum Foundation for the Support of Young Artists has been inviting me to attend and review their concerts. The foundation was launched in 1990 and typically chooses two soloists (condition for eligibility: 18 – 26 years of age) that they support by offering performances with notable orchestras and conductors.

Hans-Heinrich Coninx (© Christian Beutler, Keystone)
Hans-Heinrich Coninx (© Christian Beutler, Keystone)

The founder of the organization is Hans-Heinrich Coninx (*1945), a well-known newspaper publisher (and amateur cellist) in the Zurich area. He realized that after the conclusion of their education, young artists often end up in a “void”. In order to launch a career, they often need an essential “kick” in the form of initial concert engagements, recitals, by establishing contacts with concert organizers and artist agencies, by arranging for CD recordings. That should help establishing their name to a broader, international audience. For more information see my earlier review from a concert on 2015-09-04.

Unlike other organizations, the Orpheum Foundation does not organize competitions for the selection of candidates. Rather, the organization’s artistic board selects artists among candidates. These result from applications, or from suggestions from within the foundation. Over the 31 years of its existence, the Foundation has been a key supporter to numerous young musicians that by now enjoy a reputation as top-class concert and recording artists. See the Foundation’s Website for a list of supported artists.


The CD Project “Next Generation Mozart Soloists”

Thomas Pfiffner (© Orpheum Foundation)
Thomas Pfiffner (© Orpheum Foundation)

The Orpheum Foundation organizes at least two orchestral concerts per year. These typically feature two young soloists each. Also CD recordings form part of their support activities. The recording sessions described in this and the two following postings mark the launch of the biggest project in the history of the foundation: recording Mozart’s instrumental concertos on 11 CDs. This will happen over the course of the coming five years. Besides the organization’s Board of Trustees, the driving force behind the Mozart CD project is Thomas Pfiffner, managing director of the Orpheum Foundation.

The idea with that project is, to cover Mozart’s “native” concertos roughly in chronological sequence. Each concerto typically is recorded with a different Orpheum artist / soloist. Various orchestras and conductors are involved, all with ties to the Foundation. The list of concertos includes

  • 5 violin concertos (K.207, 211, 216, 218, 219)
  • the horn concertos
  • the concertos for wind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon)
  • the piano concertos from #5, K.175, up to #27, K.595. The early concertos #1 – #4 are merely arrangements of works by other composers and are not included.

The concertos are assigned to the artists according to their individual abilities and experience. This first CD was recorded in Zurich. Some of the upcoming CDs will be recorded in other locations, such as Salzburg, in order to accommodate non-local orchestras.


The First CD

The first of 11 CDs in this project covers three concertos:

The three concertos above were all performed with the accompaniment of the Camerata Schweiz (see also Wikipedia) under the direction of Howard Griffiths (*1950, see also Wikipedia). Howard Griffiths is also the Artistic Director of the Orpheum Foundation.


The Artists in This Recording Session

Stephen Waarts, Violin

This was the second time I witnessed Stephen Waarts in a live performance. The first time was in an Orpheum Concert in Zurich, on 2019-09-15. For simplicity, let me just quote the biographic information on Stephen Waarts from my concert review back then:

The violinist Stephen Waarts (*1996 in the USA) is of Dutch-American origin. He started his studies with Li Lin at the San Francisco Conservatory. From there, he moved to the Curtis Institute, to study with Aaron Rosand (1927 – 2019). Stephen Waarts won the second prize at the 2013 Montreal International Competition, and the first prize at the 2014 International Menuhin Competition. He also was a prizewinner at the 2015 Queen Elisabeth Competition. With these awards in his pocket, Stephen Waarts successfully launched an international solo career. At the same time, he is now continuing his studies at the Kronberg Academy in Germany, with Mihaela Martin.

As he told me, Stephen Waarts is performing on a 1860 violin by the French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798 – 1875).

Camerata Schweiz

As in the case of the soloist, this was my second encounter with the orchestra, the Camerata Schweiz. The first instance was a concert in Zurich on 2018-12-02. And again, for simplicity, I’m quoting from my earlier concert review:

This orchestra emerged in 1999 from a predecessor orchestra, the Schweizer Jugend-Sinfonie-Orchester (Swiss Youth Symphony Orchestra). The ensemble describes itself as “one of Switzerland’s most important professional, project-oriented orchestras”. Between 2004 and 2009, the orchestra’s principal conductor was Graziella Contratto (*1966), who continues to work with the ensemble. In 2010, the Camerata Schweiz entered a close artistic partnership with Howard Griffiths, with whom it released its first two CD recordings.

All three concertos for this CD feature the same instrumentation: two horns, two oboes, and strings. The latter consisted of 6 + 5 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos, and 2 double basses—24 instrumentalists in total.

Howard Griffiths

Among the artists in this recording session, Howard Griffiths is the one with whom I’m most familiar. Besides the three concerts with him conducting (2018 / 2019) that I reviewed so far, I have encountered him in concert long before I started blogging, back in the early ’90s. Griffiths grew up in England and received his musical education at the Royal College of Music in London. Since 1981 he is living in Switzerland. In 2000, Howard Griffiths assumed the position of Artistic Director for the Orpheum Foundation—a function that he is still holding today.

Griffiths was the Artistic Director of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO), a position he took over in 1996 from the orchestra’s founder, Edmond de Stoutz (1920 – 1997). He kept that position until 2006. Between 1997 and 2018, he held the position of General Music Director of the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt (Brandenburg State Orchestra in Frankfurt / Oder). As mentioned above, Howard Griffiths has been working with the Camerata Schweiz since 2010.


The Recording Venue

The eight recordings sessions for this CD (two 3-hour sessions on four consecutive days) took place at the Reformierte Kirche Zürich Oberstrass. I have been in this venue a few times before. The last instance was a concert on 2017-11-22 that I reviewed in this blog.

This is a fairly large church, built 1908 – 1910 in the style of Art Nouveau. The church had its interior renovated in 1976, the outside followed in 1998. In 2000, just two years later, a fire forced a second, total renovation of the interior. The mechanical pipe organ from 1975 suffered damage beyond repair. It was replaced by an electronic organ (the Art Nouveau organ prospect on the left side of the nave is just a prospect, not a functional organ).

The simple, rectangular nave features a flat, coffered, wooden ceiling. The acoustics turned out to be excellent, with an ideal amount of natural reverberation.


Setting

The usual furniture (chairs) had been removed, except for the spacious seating for the orchestra in front of the choir, filling the front part of the nave. In the rear part of the nave, in front of the balcony (the former organ balcony), just three rows of chairs served as wardrobe for the orchestra musicians.

There was no audience, other than occasionally one or two photographers, one or two persons from the PR agency (Goldmann PR) and/or the Orpheum Foundation, and myself. The recording team had set itself up in rooms adjacent to (or below) the nave. I was mostly sitting in one of these rear-side chairs, excerpt when I was taking pictures further towards the choir.

This report is from the afternoon session of the first recording day. It was the second of 2.5 sessions devoted to Stephen Waarts and the Violin Concerto No.1 in B♭ major, K.207 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791).

As one can probably see from the pictures, the lighting was anything but ideal for photography. The pictures were taken with a tripod and a telephoto lens. I tried to stay in background, to avoid noise, and not to disturb the musicians or the recording. I merely meant to capture the atmosphere, rather than being artful.


Recording Session Experience

As mentioned above, this is not a concert critique; I’m merely describing my first, unbiased impressions. The morning session (which I did not attend) was mostly devoted to the slow movement (Adagio), and for the musicians to adjust to the venue, the environment. This afternoon session was mostly filled with takes for the first movement (Allegro moderato), plus an initial set of takes for the final movement (Presto).

Orchestra Setup

As entirely appropriate / adequate (if not even prerequisite these days), Howard Griffiths relied upon a relatively small orchestral configuration. The ensemble looked bigger than it actually was, as the pandemic imposed a relatively loose arrangement. The setup was “antiphonal”, with the two violin voices (6 + 5) on either side, four violas in the rear right, three cellos at the rear left, followed by the two double basses at the far left. The wind instruments (two horns, two oboes) had slightly elevated positions at the front edge of the church choir.

The orchestra was not set up for a strict, let alone radical, historically informed performance (HIP) performance. The musicians performed on modern instruments: valve horns, modern oboes, modernized string instruments and post-classical Tourte bows (not using pure gut strings). However, a strictly historic setup would require a substantial extra effort. Also, one should also take into consideration that at the center of the projects there are the young artists at the beginning of their career. The majority of the new generation artists still comes from a background of traditional instrumentation. From that point-of-view it makes sense not to take an extreme / radical approach.

Sound—Historically Informed?

That said: the influence of the HIP practice, i.e., the trend towards light articulation, limited vibrato, fluent, natural tempo, etc. that evolved over the recent decades, was evident. I experienced the orchestral interpretation as youthful-light, refreshing, lively, vivid. Long notes were “discharged”, I never noted signs of “Nachdrücken” (unwanted swelling towards the end of long notes).

One can certainly not complain about slow tempo: Howard Griffiths prefers a natural, light, occasionally even sporty tempo (see the notes to the Presto movement below). That not only suited the orchestra and the soloists, but also the acoustics, in that it retained clarity and transparency.

Solo Part

Also Stephen Waarts was playing with a modern bow. His Vuillaume violin featured a warm, full tone—grippy, but never rough. It felt less bright than many (typical?) Italian instruments, such as (some) Stradivari violins. It projected well through the sound of the orchestra (which is of course also owed to Mozart’s diligent accompaniment), seemed to fit ideally into the acoustics and the sound of the orchestra.

I: Allegro moderato

I was very pleased to note that Stephen Waarts used vibrato sparingly, and the vibration was discreet, natural, never obtrusive. Frequently, he even produced tones without any audible vibration. In accordance with the orchestra, the soloist’s articulation and phrasing were natural and full of life throughout. His intonation and coordination with the orchestra were flawless, his technique and familiarity of the solo part firm and unfailing. I liked his natural attitude: there was no trumping up, no attempt to impress with extroverted virtuosity.

Stephen Waarts played his own cadenza, which I very much enjoyed, especially in the “quasi improvisando” aspect.

III: Presto

At the first go, Howard Griffiths seemed to push the tempo to the orchestra’s limit, to the point where some of the semiquaver and demisemiquaver figures started to sound blurred in the violins. However, then, Stephen Waarts stepped in at an even faster pace! Griffiths quickly checked with the soloist, asking / confirming “as fast as possible?”—and so they went! The initial passes felt slightly pushed in the orchestra. However, that impression settled with time, and Stephen Waarts naturally stayed relaxed throughout the takes. Needless to say that he was not challenged by this concerto.

Also here, I enjoyed Stephen Waarts’ own cadenza—virtuosic, yet narrating / verbose, expressive, never superficial.

Acoustics

The acoustics turned out to be excellent, with just the right amount (and duration) of reverberation. Several times, after the last note in a movement, or in the rare instances of a general rest, one could observe how Howard Griffiths enjoyed the experience of following the reverberation over several “long seconds”.


Conclusions

I’m very much looking forward to listening to the result of this recording. In a year’s time, though: some patience is required here! This definitely was an excellent start to a big, multi-year, 11-CD recording project, featuring music that includes countless highlights of the classical period—music that one can listen to on end, with joy and pleasure. And: if the artists are able to maintain the quality / the performance level set by this first concerto, the resulting collection will no problem withstanding comparisons with the existing wealth of top-class recordings on the market today.


To be continued…


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