2017-12-13 — Original posting
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2017-12-06
Camilla Tilling, Pablo Heras-Casado / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Dutilleux / Debussy / Brahms
In this concert, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich was playing under the direction of Pablo Heras-Casado (*1977). This is one of the middle-generation conductors enjoying increasing popularity these days. He is experienced in opera as well as on concert stages. I personally know his name from his work with the Freiburger Barockorchester, an ensemble with excellent reputation through its historically informed performances. With that orchestra, he has explored also the romantic repertoire (see some of my CD review posts). Apart from his activities in Freiburg/Germany, he of course is also active in his native country, Spain, as well as in the United States, and with other orchestras in Germany. This is the first time I experience him in a live concert.
The concert took place in the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich—it was a subscription concert. Sadly enough, though, the audience was rather small that evening. Were Debussy and Brahms no popular enough? Neither of their works are difficult to “understand” or to “get into”. Does it require a famous soloist performing artistic magic to fill the venue—or was the weather simply too cold? The latter can hardly be the reason, as it only takes minutes to get from public transport (train, tramway) to the concert venue.
Yes, it wasn’t the regular conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra (Lionel Bringuier), nor his successor (Paavo Järvi)—but Heras-Casado certainly isn’t a no-name! True, compared to the regular / chief conductor of the ensemble, motivating the orchestra to deliver a top performance may be more difficult for guest conductors. However, as this concert proved, the orchestra obviously enjoyed working with Pablo Heras-Casado—and did indeed deliver a top-level performance.
The concert started with a 20-minute contemporary piece by Henri Dutilleux (1916 – 2013). Dutilleux isn’t a complete no-name, nor is his music such that it should keep people from attending. Zurich audiences are no strangers to contemporary music (at least, as long as it is mixed with “other” classical music).
Soloist in Dutilleux’ “Correspondances“ was the Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling, who was singing in Zurich for the second time (the last performance was in 2014). Camilla Tilling studied in Göteborg / Sweden, then at the Royal College of Music in London. She has since launched a very successful career both in concert as well as in opera.
Dutilleux: “Correspondances” for Soprano and Orchestra
Henri Dutilleux (1916 – 2013) write his “Correspondances” for soprano and orchestra in 2002 – 2004; the work was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonics, who premiered this under Sir Simon Rattle (*1955), with the soprano Dawn Upshaw (*1960). The work explores the ambiguity of the French title “Correspondances“, meaning both the exchange of (written) messages, as well as “equivalence”. According to the description in the program notes, Dutilleux selected five letters / texts / poems by various authors, all with an inclination towards mystical thinking. Let me give a brief description, using information from the concert booklet (text written by Lion Gallusser):
This is based on an excerpt from a French poem that Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926) wrote between 1923 and 1926:
Timbre || qui n’est plus par l’ouïe mesurable. || Comme si le son qui nous surpasse de toutes parts || Était l’espace qui mûrit.
This I would translate to something like
Sound || which can no longer be detected by the ear. || As if the tone itself that passes above us from everywhere || was the ripening space.
Another, more poetic translation (taken from americansymphony.org) would be
No longer for ears…: sound || which, like a deeper ear, || hears us, who only seem || to be hearing. Reversal of spaces.
The second “movement” uses a poem “Danse cosmique” by the Indian (Bengali) writer Prithwindra Mukherjee (*1936). The poem tries approaching the god Shiva. It starts with “Des flammes, des flammes qui envahissent le ciel” (flames, flames that invade the sky).
Interlude — Slava et Galina…
Dutilleux inserts a short Interlude, which is followed by the French translation of a letter (1984) by the Russian novelist, historian and writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008). In this text, Solzhenitsyn expresses his gratitude towards the Russian cellist Mstislav (“Slava”) Rostropovich (1927 – 2007) and his wife, the soprano Galina Wishnevskaya (1926 – 2012). The couple has given shelter to the novelist while he was writing his books “The Gulag Archipelago“. The letter starts with “A l’approche du dixième anniversaire de mon exil, …” (As the tenth anniversary of my extradition / exile is approaching, …”
The fourth song “Gong 2” uses the beginning of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Gong” (see above):
Bourdonnement épars, silence perverti,
tout ce qui fut autour, en mille bruits se change,
nous quitte et revient: rapprochement étrange
de la marée de l’infini.
This has been translated as
A scattered humming, perverted silence,
all that was around changes to a thousand noises,
leaves us and returns: the strange harmony
of infinity’s tide.
(Translation taken from americansymphony.org).
De Vincent à Théo…
The final segment “De Vincent à Théo…” is taken from a letter by the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) to his brother, the art dealer Theodorus (Theo) van Gogh (1857 – 1891). The letter starts with “Tant que durera l’automne…” (As long as autumn lasts,…). The text describes the impossibility of fully rendering the beauty of nature in paintings.
Conveying Dutilleux’ Message to the Audience
The above should give an idea about the manifold nature of the texts in “Correspondances“. I also meant to indicate how poetically convoluted the message is, which these texts carry.
Conveying this—through Dutilleux’ composition—to a subscription audience is virtually impossible. A full understanding of the poetic / literary content would require in-depth studies and reflection—particularly, if one wished to understand the abstract, mystic-transcendent aspects. Sure, the concert booklet had all the texts at full length, including translation to German. But who will take (or have) the time to study this in detail during the few minutes prior to the concert? In addition, and expectedly, translations only convey a mere shadow of the original, poetic content. And they are unable to transport the melody, the rhythm of the French language. The same goes for lots of the symbolic content.
All this aside, it is too dark for most people in the audience to read the text in the booklet. Plus, most people want to see and watch what’s happening on the podium. On top of this, even if it is well-pronounced (as here), only a small fraction of the text content can be captured in real-time—let alone fully understood.
A Wasted Effort?
Not quite. For one, it is impressive to see how Henri Dutilleux was able to convey the basic atmosphere, the “emotional spirit” of these texts. His music well-accessible, not off-putting in any way. One can definitely gather its basic spirit also without in-depth knowledge of the underlying texts & poetry.
Last, but not least, such a performance may motivate one or the other audience member to return to this composition later, and to study it more in-depth.
I. Gong 1 (Rilke) “Timbre qui n’est plus…“
Already with the first bars, Camilla Tilling demonstrated how she can produce intensity, even urgency without drama and excessive vibrato, just using the natural color / timbre of her voice. Where others would use a dramatic vibrato, she starts with a flat voice. She does let a moderate, natural, harmonious vibrato evolve within longer notes—but not so much at a climax, rather in rhythmically weak notes, on eased parts of a phrase. Amazingly, this works really well! I liked the timbre, the versatility of her well-projecting voice.
II. Danse cosmique (Mukherjee) “Des flammes qui envahissent le ciel“
The second segment / movement is definitely more dramatic—as now was the singer’s voice. Yet, the vibrato remained natural, while still being very impressive at depicting anguish, pain. Camilla Tilling did not appear to compete with the orchestra: it was very interesting to see how voice and orchestra joined forces to form a single entity, a performing body. Within this, the singer managed to retain her presence within the impressive orchestral forces with their strong percussion section.
The short Interlude bursted into a vivid conversation between tuba and the orchestra, whereby an accordion gave this a homely touch.
III. A Slava et Galina… (Solzhenitsyn) “A l’approche du dixième anniversaire…“
Here, Camilla Tilling demonstrated her amazing firmness in intonation. Her singing was rich in expression, with a strong narrative component. I was impressed by her careful, diligent use of dynamics: she often held back peak notes rather than giving into the temptation to indulge in them (there is no need to highlight high notes, unless the composer asks for it). Needless to say that this can only work if the orchestral accompaniment is equally sensitive in its dynamics. Pablo Heras-Casado led the orchestra firmly, decidedly, without baton, but all the more differentiated and detailed in the expression, the guidance through his gestures.
IV. Gong 2 (Rilke) “Bourdonnements épars silence perverti…“
As in the opening piece, the “Gong” is a (moderate) initial splash, here with tam-tam and machine timpani, later followed by an “inverse splash”, as if the first instance was bouncing back, then being swallowed by the percussion instruments again.
V. De Vincent à Théo… (van Gogh) “Tant que durera l’automne…“
The impressive closing segment, with van Gogh’s letter to his brother felt strongly pictorial, again very intense and urging in its expression. It aptly describes the painter’s strong impressions and emotions when trying to capture nature, the universe, life.
In every aspect, this was an impressive, standard-setting performance.
Debussy: “La mer”, L.109
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) composed his symphonic work “La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre, L.109 (“The sea, three symphonic sketches for orchestra”) between 1903 and 1905. By now, this is one of Debussy’s most popular works for orchestra. It comes in three parts:
- De l’aube à midi sur la mer (“From dawn to noon on the sea”)
- Jeux des vagues (“Play of the waves”)
- Dialogue du vent et de la mer (“Dialog between the wind and the sea”)
Already the opening piece had required a fairly large orchestra. For Debussy’s “La mer“, even more musicians entered the podium, filling it up to the rim. In the absence of the singer, the human voice, the auditive focus now rested entirely on the orchestra, while the listeners turned their visual attention to the conductor. Heras-Casado’s gestures remained unspectacular, but were nevertheless still very precise.
I. De l’aube à midi sur la mer
Impressionist music is typically described as rich in colors and expressions. Here, however, after Dutilleux’ “Corresponcances“, which was so rich in colors and expression, Debussy’s composition appeared almost limited in the color palette—at least initially. With retrograde concert programming, this is to be expected. Chronological programming should avoid this effect.
My general impression in this first movement was, that Pablo Heras-Casado was not trying to give a “pictorial representation”, i.e., to evoke the scenery of the underlying “poetic program” (as indicated in the title). Rather, I sensed warmth in the expression, a harmonious soundscape. At the same time, I felt a certain soberness in the performance. Some of this, though, may be attributable to the acoustics.
II. Jeux de vagues
This movement seemed to profit from the acoustics, i.e., the transparency, the clarity of the sound in this venue. It was enthralling music, and enthralling interpretation with an astounding dynamic bandwidth, and definitely not just a mere “sound bath”.
III. Dialogue du vent et de la mer
Also here, Heras-Casado (in my view) did not try to imitate the stage by being overly expressive and pictorial. But conductor and orchestra gave a careful interpretation, a detailed and faithful representation of Debussy’s score. I liked the dense, smooth and full sound of the strings, the excellent wind soloists, the superb discipline in the orchestra.
This is a temporary venue, with all the disadvantages of such a setting (limited facilities, little space outside the concert hall, etc.). It’s anything but certain that it will persist for more than three years (until the renovation of the old Tonhalle is complete). However, I suspect that the musicians in the orchestra really like playing on this podium, as the clarity, the transparency of the acoustics must be a great help in the internal coordination, in keeping auditive contact within the ensemble while playing.
Brahms: Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98
The Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98 is the last symphony that Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote, 1884. The symphony has four movements:
- Allegro non troppo
- Andante moderato
- Allegro giocoso
- Allegro energico e passionato
A detailed analysis is available via Wikipedia. For now, just briefly: the first three movements are sonata movements (except that the Andante moderato has no development section), the last movement is an extensive set of (30) variations with a coda.
The second half of the concert added yet another step backwards in time: from the richness of the expressionist color scale back to the cooler colors in Brahms’ late oeuvre. The latter is definitely not devoid of expression, intensity, passion, even ardor. However, these are “filtered” by the mildness and a slightly resigned trait of Brahms’ mature age.
I. Allegro non troppo
Also this music profited from the transparency in the acoustics, which brought forward the cantilena in the violins and of the cellos. Heras-Casado was able to motivate the orchestra. It responded with focus and concentration, showing excellent coordination. Brahms’ music was expressive and breathing, Heras-Casado paid attention to articulation in motifs, did not neglect agogics.
II. Andante moderato
Here, the conductor managed to make the horn and woodwind sections sound like chamber music, a chamber play, accompanied by pizzicati from the joint strings. The transition of the motifs from one voice to another was smooth, seamless: excellent! Clarinets and horns deserve a special mention in this movement: flawless playing, especially how the clarinet was blooming towards the end of the movement! In the middle part, i.e., the secondary theme, the warm sound, the singing in the strings formed big, breathing phrases. I also noted the careful articulation, the attention to nuances. A little detail: I mentioned how diligently Heras-Casado conducted with his bare hands. Those who watched closely may have observed that he ended the last tone in this movement with a tiny movement—of his thumb!
III. Allegro giocoso
Heras-Casado took this at a challengingly fast pace—and the orchestra responded with a top performance: clear, virtuosic, full of drive, but still retaining flexibility for agogics, a swaying rhythm. Such movements demonstrate some of the true strengths of this orchestra.
IV. Allegro energico e passionato
The Finale brought rhapsodic playing in the strings, in big gestures, while retaining emphatic articulation at the level of motifs. And it’s a stellar movement for the solo flutist—and the clarinettists, and also the brass section showed beautiful, smooth, harmonious playing. In fact, it’s hard to mention outstanding individuals, as this would end up as a long list: the performance was excellent throughout, including all the rhythmically tricky, challenging segments, and through the many tempo changes in the score.
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.