Mario Venzago, Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno / BSO
Hartmann / Janáček

Münster, Bern, 2018-02-01

3.5-star rating


2018-02-17 — Original posting

Introduction

Bern Symphony Orchestra / Mario Venzago

The Bern Symphony Orchestra was founded 1877, see also Wikipedia for additional information. I have posted information on this orchestra in an earlier concert review from 2017-05-18 in Bern. The same review also features information on the conductor, Mario Venzago, principal conductor with the Bern Symphony Orchestra since 2011.  For additional information see again Wikipedia.

I’m mentioning the choir and the soloists in the sections below.

Venue

My concert reviewing takes me to places that I haven’t visited before. This concert was given in the Minster in Bern, a nice, gothic cathedral, the largest church in Switzerland. Its construction started in 1421, but the 100.6 m tower was completed only in 1893. The church is currently undergoing major restoration work, while still being kept in a state that allows it to be used. The lateral parts of the choir are filled with scaffolding, which even reaches into the central part of the choir (see the picture above). Just behind the choir’s first arch, a steep scaffold had been build to accommodate the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno in the second part of the concert, see below.

For the first part of the concert, the podium in front of the choir—in the central part of the church (which does not have a transept)— held a reduced string formation of the Bern Symphony Orchestra. This was the eighth symphony concert of this season in Bern. Note that the regular concert venue in Bern, the Kultur-Kasino with its big hall, is currently in renovation.

From experience, I felt that the church is likely well-suited for the mass in the second part of the concert. However, I was somewhat skeptical about the violin concerto:


Hartmann: Concerto funebre

The Composition

The concert opened with the Concerto funebre for solo violin and string orchestra by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905 – 1963). Hartmann spent his entire life in Germany, in Munich, also through WWII, and even though he was vehemently opposed to the Nazis. Superficially, he seemed to cooperate with the Nazis. However, he was devastated by what was happening in his country. Still, the love for his home country was strong enough to make him stay in Munich.

Background

In 1939, he wrote a Musik der Trauer (“music of mourning”) for solo violin and string orchestra, which he later renamed to Concerto funebre. He described this work as having four movements that all transition to each other. Here he described his despair about the political situation. In the two outer movements, he incorporated chorales. The first movement quotes a chorale that is actually a war song from the time of the Hussite wars in the first half of the 15th century. Later, this became a symbol of protest of the Czechs against the Austrian regime, and it was used by Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884) in the movements Tábor  and  Blanik from Ma vlást (My Country). By using this chorale in his concerto, Hartmann protested against the German occupation of parts of Czechoslovakia in the Sudetenland crisis in 1939.

The last movement quotes another chorale, Unsterbliche Opfer (Immortal Victims), originally used on a funeral ceremony for the victims of the February revolution 1917. The conductor and composer Hermann Scherchen (1891 – 1966, also Hartmann’s teacher and mentor), had picked this up in the Ural, where he was held captive during WWI. Scherchen later added German lyrics that made it popular in the worker’s movements. These chorales were hidden enough in the concerto not to be noted by the authorities.

Structure

The concerto premiered in St.Gallen, Switzerland, on 1940-02-29. Hartmann added revisions to the concerto, in the late 1950s, primarily in the third movement, and he retracted the original version. These are the movements of the Concerto funebre in its final form:

  1. Introduktion. Largo
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegro di molto
  4. Choral: Langsamer Marsch (slow march)
Theresa Bokány (source: BSO / zVg)
Theresa Bokány (source: BSO / zVg)

Soloist: Theresa Bokány, Violin

Since January 2013, Theresa Bokány (Icelandish-Hungarian, *1984) is second concertmaster of the Bern Symphony Orchestra. At age 5 already, she started her musical education with Tibor Varga (1921 – 2003). At age 12, she joined his class at the École supérieure de musique in Sion (now part of the HÉMU, the Haute école de musique de Lausanne). Later, she joined the Tibor Varga Chamber Orchestra. After Varga’s death, she continued her studies with Mi-kyung Lee at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München. She has since played in various orchestras, and at the same time, she is pursuing a career as soloist and chamber musician throughout Europe.

The Performance

As mentioned, I was somewhat skeptical about the suitability of a large church for the performance of a violin concerto. In my mind, the addition of reverberation might increase the (already substantial) danger of the violin drowning in the sound of the orchestra—generally speaking. Luckily, this turned out not to be an issue at all. This was not only because the acoustics weren’t all that detrimental for a mid-size string ensemble and the solo violin.

It’s mostly the result of Hartmann’s very diligent instrumental disposition. For the most part, the slow movements are monologues for the solo violin, with the orchestra merely setting the “framework” (such as at the very beginning). Even in the third movement, the only fast one, the orchestra does not compete with the soloist, does not really accompany the solo violin, but merely illustrates, interacts in alternation or in strongly contrasting patterns. The disposition is so good that even in occasional, emotional eruptions, the solo is never “drowning” in (or colliding with) the sound of the orchestral “accompaniment”.

I. Introduktion. Largo

Already the beginning of the introduction is ingenious. A short, somber motif of three descending chords in the orchestra (actually two, with an acciaccatura on the second one) defines the mourning atmosphere, the mood for major parts of the concerto. Venzago kept those cords dark, muted, retained. Thereafter, the soloist took over, and throughout the short introduction, the orchestra stayed in the background with its short interjections.

Theresa Bokány was unpretentious both in her appearance, as well as in her playing. Yet, she captured and kept the listener’s attention with the warm, velvety tone of her instrument. Her playing appeared entirely natural, never was excessively expressive. Her tone was simple, often even without vibrato. At the same time, the instrument miraculously projected through and above the orchestra, throughout the nave, even when she was playing pianissimo, or in the highest of flageolets. The phrases from the chorale in the introduction formed an intense lamentation—so urging, so touching.

II. Adagio

Throughout the concerto, Theresa Bokány maintains her musical presence, the intensity of her playing. With this, she carries the performance and the composition. Especially in the slow movements, her part is extremely exposed, especially the intonation utterly critical, particularly in the extreme heights. Here, the violinist’s intonation was very firm, seemed infallible, and her playing gave a clear testimony of the artist’s intimate familiarity with the characteristic style of this music.

III. Allegro di molto

This is the only movement in which the orchestra temporarily assumes the central role, e.g., in the virtuosic, polyphonic beginning. In my perception, fast passages (staccati, repeated notes) often lacked clarity, and I noted occasional coordination issues. In parts, this may have been due to the reverberation in this big church which may have blurred the sound, especially in fast passages. At the same time, the reverberation must have affected the coordination within the orchestra. On top of that, Mario Venzago’s conducting style / technique was focusing on dynamics and phrasing, rather than precise metric guidance and coordination. With this, parts of the coordination was in the hands of the musicians in the orchestra, who may have had troubles maintaining visual and auditive contact.

The soloist also proved her mastership in her highly demanding part, especially the long cadenza that forms the last part of this movement. Here, not just intonation is tricky, but also the polyphony in multiple-stop passages, in which fast single and double stop tremolo accompanies the melody. Some of the polyphony in the cadenza reminds of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for violin solo—and at the same time of Bartók’s musical language.

IV. Choral: Langsamer Marsch

The final movement returns to the mourning atmosphere of the introduction. The touching lamentation in the solo is accompanied by an earnest, occasionally menacing background in the orchestra.

Only few of the listeners in the audience may have recognized the chorales in the concerto, and their historic and politic meaning. Yet, the concerto did not fail to impress from beginning up to the final, dissonant outcry. It immediately and directly touched the listener’s heart. And—speaking for myself, at least—I was filled with consternation about the events prior to and during the Second World War.

Definitely, that concerto is not played often enough in today’s concert life!


Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno (© Pavel Nesvadba)
Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno (© Pavel Nesvadba)

Janáček: Glagolitic Mass, JW 3/9

The Composition

The second, major part of the concert featured choral music. Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928) composed his Glagolitic Mass (Glagolská mše / Mša glagolskaja), JW 3/9, in 1926. The text is in Old Church Slavonic, based on the Glagolitic alphabet—hence the name of the composition. The mass consists of the following 8 movements:

  1. Úvod – Introduction (orchestra)
  2. Gospodi pomiluj – Kyrie
  3. Slava – Gloria
  4. Vĕruju – Credo
  5. Svet – Sanctus
  6. Agneče Božij – Agnus Dei
  7. Varhany sólo (Postludium, organ solo)
  8. Intrada – Exodus

The mass premiered on 1927-12-05 in Brno. The following year, the composer revised the composition, to create what we now know as the final version, with the above sequence of movements. In this version, the Intrada somewhat paradoxically appears at the end of the mass composition.

Versions

According to Wikipedia, musicological research indicates that the Intrada was meant to be played twice, i.e., both at the beginning (hence its name) and at the end of the mass. Other sources, such as Paul Wingfield, Cambridge, just move the Intrada from the end back to the beginning. Mario Venzago based his performance mostly on Paul Wingfield’s reconstruction. He did also use insights from his own manuscript research which he had done in the 1990’s. So, what we heard was the following sequence of movements:

  1. Intrada
  2. Úvod – Introduction (orchestra)
  3. Gospodi pomiluj – Kyrie
  4. Slava – Gloria
  5. Vĕruju – Credo
  6. Svet – Sanctus
  7. Agneče Božij – Agnus Dei
  8. Varhany sólo (Postludium, organ solo)

Clearly, this is a regular mass composition, albeit without the Benedictus part. However, in its dramatic expression it goes far beyond typical mass compositions from Western Europe. To our ears, it does not fit into the scheme and the “mass spirit” that we are used to.

The mass is set for four soloists (SATB), double choir (SATB each), organ, and an orchestra with 4 flutes,  2 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets/bass clarinet, 3 bassoons/contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, chimes, 2 harps, celesta, organ, and strings.

In this concert, the orchestra spread out into the lateral wings of the church nave (percussion on the left, harps on the right).

Soloists, Choir

The primary vocal component here is of course the choir. So, after a short intermission, the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno (Český filharmonický sbor Brno), a choir of 55 professional singers, took seat in 6 rows on the steep scaffold behind the orchestra. With this, we weren’t just going to experience a performance with a professional choir, but one much “closer to the language” of the mass—even one from the city in which the mass premiered in 1927.

The quartet of vocal soloists consisted of

In addition to the above vocal team & orchestra, Peter Solomon, was playing the big organ on the rear balcony of the church. Solomon is teacher for orchestral piano, chamber music, and correpetition at the ZHdK, the Zurich University of the Arts. He is also pianist and organist with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich.

Peter Solomon (© Regula Bearth)
Peter Solomon (© Regula Bearth)

The Organ

The organ in the Minster in Bern has a history that goes back to 1729, when the instrument was reintroduced into the church (the reformation in Switzerland originally prohibited organ music in churches). 1746, the church council decided to have the organ rebuilt. That new organ by Victor Ferdinard Bossart had 43 stops in a late-baroque casing. In the course of the completion of the church and the construction of a new balcony above the western entrance, the organ received another, complete rebuild (by Friedrich Haas from Winterthur). It was expanded to 55 stops and three consoles. Another re-build (with the exterior remaining unchanged) by Friedrich Groll from Lucerne in 1903/04 yielded unsatisfactory results. This lead to a final, complete, internal rebuild in 1930. That final organ was restored in 1998 – 1999.

The Performance

Orchestra

In the published version, Janáček had simplified many of the intricate and challenging, polyrhythmic structures. A key part of the reconstruction by Paul Wingfield and Mario Venzago wasn’t just to restore the (suspected) original sequence of the movements, but equally, to restore the original rhythmic and metric complexity. This certainly is an interesting and potentially valuable undertaking.

Sadly, however, the acoustics of the venue defeated the bulk of that extra effort. The reverberation, the somewhat diffuse soundscape with the big orchestra essentially swallowed most of the polymetric textures. Also, from a listener’s perspective, rhythmic details often appeared badly defined, “washed out” (e.g., quaver duplets followed by triplets). It was difficult, if not impossible to determine whether this was just due to the acoustics, and/or whether orchestra and conductor had a certain tendency to level out rhythmic details, rather than exposing them by rhythmic accentuation.

Choir

For many in the audience, the above may well have been a minor detail. What was more important was the expression, the drama, the drive ion the composition, and even more so the vocal aspects. Of primary importance was of course the choir—and this was most astounding! The volume, the homogeneity in the sound / the voices were simply amazing. So was the diction (consonants, coloring of the vowels, etc.), the balance, the intonation, the flexibility, the range and agility in dynamics, as well as the rhythmic precision, and the overall presence.

Sure, one cannot compare this with lay choirs—that’s simply another league. But even within professional ensembles, there was none of the excess vibrato often observed with such choirs. Also, there was none of the often insistent clumsiness, if not notorious lagging (caused by excessive vibrato) often heard from opera choirs. Most impressive, indeed!

Soloists, Conductor

The soprano, Andrea Danková, impressed just as much: a dramatic voice with Slavonic, full-bodied timbre, excellent volume—ideal for this music. The tenor, Tomás Černý, showed the strength, the radiance & projection of a typical Heldentenor, with a bright, brilliant timbre and excellent volume. Also the bass, Young Kwon, was impressive, not far behind the other two. The alto, Hilke Andersen, unfortunately only has a very minor role in this mass—but her voice, too, could make itself heard among all the others. In the rare instances where the soloists sang together, they formed a homogeneous, harmonious ensemble.

The last movement, Varhany sólo, belongs entirely to the organ (which also has a significant role in some of the earlier movements). Peter Solomon relied upon a rich set of reed stops to end the composition with late-romantic organ sound.

Given that he has been dealing with this composition for decades, it is no miracle that Mario Venzago conducted without score. He obviously knows the composition inside out.

What about the Rearranged Movements?

With Intrada and Úvod, the mass appears to have a “double opening”. However, as Mario Venzago played the two segments attacca, the result still was convincing, the form conclusive at the front end. However, after all the dramatic segments that preceded, the Varhany sólo (organ solo) as last segment felt somewhat put-on, “extra”, almost extraneous. I think I wasn’t the only one to find this somewhat unsatisfactory, fragmentary, open-ended—a question without answer. The fact that the composer ended up moving the Intrada to the end indicated that this can’t have been his intent.

Maybe one should indeed end the mass with a second instance of the Intrada? At least, I can understand why in the final, published version Janáček ended up moving the Intrada to the end.


Addendum:

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.



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