Anna Vinnitskaya, Rafael Payare / Philharmonia Zürich
Brahms: Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, op.15
Shostakovich: Symphony No.10 in E minor, op.93

Zurich Opera House, 2015-11-29

4-star rating

2015-12-04 — Original posting
2016-08-19 — Brushed up for better readability


Introduction

Philharmonic concerts at the Zurich Opera House are quite different from those in the Tonhalle (a conventional concert hall). Both the atmosphere and the acoustics are different: the acoustics in the Opera House are fairly dry (such that the audience can understand the singers!).

The Orchestra

As for the atmosphere: for the orchestra (which has been calling itself Philharmonia Zurich for a while now) it is a rare occasion not to be buried in the orchestra pit below the stage.  Here, they play on the stage, which for this purpose extends across the entire time pit. The orchestra celebrates this opportunity with distinctly festive attire — a pleasure for the eye, and also reflected by the higher dressing standard in the audience, compared to a typical (non-Gala) concert at the Tonhalle.

But the orchestra’s attire isn’t the only attraction. Some 30 – 40 years ago, the two orchestras from Tonhalle and opera were one and the same, organization-wise. For the most part, the two houses each had their dedicated orchestra staff. Already back then, the saying (among musicians) was that the orchestra in the Opera House was actually the better of the two halves.

Since 1985, Zurich now has two separate orchestras serving Opera and Tonhalle, and the two bodies are hard to compare, as the repertoire and the acoustics for the two are so different. For sure, both the Philharmonia Zurich and the Tonhalle Orchestra are excellent, world-class orchestras. For the former, this evening will (in parts, at least) provide another proof for its quality.

Philharmonic Concerts in the Opera

One peculiarity of Philharmonic Concerts at the Zurich Opera is that the strings are essentially playing in the auditorium. The wind instruments are performing in the central part of the stage, percussion instruments at the rear of the stage box. This tends to favor the string instruments, in terms of sound quality and balance; it is up to the conductor to ensure proper acoustic balance within the orchestra, and to try adjusting the articulation etc. to the dry acoustic properties of the venue.

The Conductor: Rafael Payare

In this concert, Rafael Payare, born 1980 in Venezuela, conducted the orchestra. Payare emerged from “El Sistema” (just like Gustavo Dudamel), initially studying horn and playing in the Simòn Bolivar Orchestra. In 2004 he started his studies as conductor (with José Antonio Abreu), then conducting the major orchestras of Venezuela.

His international career took off after he won the Nikolaj Malko Competition in Denmark in 2012. Since then, he has received an invitation by Lorin Maazel to the Castleton Festival (Virginia/USA). Further, Daniel Barenboim invited him to work as assistant conductor at the Berlin State Opera. He has been conducting numerous orchestras in Europe and in the USA. Since 2014 he is Chief Conductor of the Ulster Symphony Orchestra in Northern Ireland. Finally, he has just been named Chief Conductor for the Castleton Festival in Virginia.

The Soloist: Anna Vinnitskaya

In the first composition in the program, Brahms’ first Piano Concerto, the Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya performed the solo part. Anna Vinnitskaya (*1983) grew up in Novorossijsk, close to Sochi, at the Black Sea. She studied with Sergey Osipenko in Rostov-on-Don, later with Evgeni Koroliov in Hamburg. Vinnitskaya won the first prize at the 2007 Concours Reine Elisabeth in Brussels, and 2009, she became professor at the Hamburg Conservatory. She has been traveling through Europe and Japan as a concert pianist, and she has also launched a recording career, with recordings featuring works by Rachmaninoff, Gubaidulina, Medtner, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Shostakovich.


Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto in D minor, op.15

For the first part of the concert, featuring the Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, op.15, by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897), Payare was hidden behind the Steinway concert grand, at least for parts of the audience. Brahms’ first piano concerto features three movements, annotated as follows:

  1. Maestoso, 6/4 (3/4 = 58) — Poco più moderato — Tempo I — Poco più moderato
  2. Adagio, 6/4
  3. Rondo: Allegro non troppo — Cadenza: quasi Fantasia — a tempo — Molto mosso — Cadenza — Tempo I

The Performance

I. Maestoso  Poco più moderato

The first movement starts with a long orchestral introduction. Philharmonia Zürich convinced with a prominent, both warm and dense string sound. Placing the strings in front of the stage (i.e., within the auditorium) proved very favorable for this part of the orchestra. In contrast, at least in that part of the concert, I felt that the wind section sounded somewhat soft, while the drums at the back-end of the stage box had no problem making themselves heard.

For the first movement, Anna Vinnitskaya appeared to switch between two modes. In the louder parts, her playing was strong, with a certain virility, but not extroverted, never forceful, always with lyricism in touch and articulation. Often, she appeared to push forward. This leaves little room for agogics. For example, the trill chains after bar 250 would have gained weight if they would have been held back a tiny little bit. On the other hand, in the lyrical parts (particularly the solo parts marked with Poco più moderato), she played almost dreamily, with emotion, and certainly with agogics. I liked the duet with the solo violin from bar 210 on.

In the Coda, she played with lots of force — but here, unfortunately, the orchestra os often slightly lagging behind, the coordination marginal, and two somewhat improper horn entries in this movement did not help improving the picture.

II. Adagio

Actually, I think that the real challenge in this concerto is not just in the highly virtuosic solo part. The Adagio (in 6/4 time) felt very slow — too slow for orchestra and soloist. I don’t mean to say that one cannot play it that slow, but this tempo turns into a huge challenge. To me, the piece often felt static, close to falling apart. The movement starts with the orchestra alone, but one must assume that the tempo was agreed upon beforehand by conductor and soloist.

Already in the orchestral introduction, some entries in the orchestra were a tad early, as if some musicians didn’t have the patience to wait for the proper timing. Also, at this slow pace, the only possible way of using agogics was with momentary accelerations. This again contradicted the character of an Adagio. The oboe entries in bar 52 were f rather than p, dolce, and they obscured the solo part; also, towards the end, prior to the last solo, the orchestra appeared to lack some tension.

III. Rondo: Allegro non troppo — Molto mosso

Finally, Anna Vinnitskaya launched the Rondo briskly, pushing forward. Her playing was virtuosic, but I felt that the solo part was often lacking contours. Maybe it also lacked some power. This often appeared to lead the pianist to accelerate. On the other hand, several times, the coordination between orchestra and solo part, but also internally (e.g., in the fugato) was not very good. Throughout the Rondo, passing on the momentum between orchestra and soloist (and vice versa) was not ideal. To me, even an enthralling last cadenza could not correct this picture.


Encore — Robert Schumann: Träumerei

As encore, Anna Vinnitskaya played No.7, “Träumerei” from the “Kinderszenen”, op.15 by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856). As Brahms op.15 is one of my very favorite concertos, I had fairly high expectations. Sadly, that first half of the concert left me with some very mixed feelings. But there was the second part…


Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No.10 in E minor, op.93

After the intermission, one could now watch Rafael Payare conducing the Philharmonia Zurich; this part of the program featured the Symphony No.10 in E minor, op.93 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975), featuring four movements, annotated as follows:

  1. Moderato, 3/4 (1/4 = 96)
  2. Allegro, 2/4 (1/2 = 176)
  3. Allegretto, 3/4 (1/4 = 136) — Largo (1/4 = 72) — Più mosso (3/4 = 80) [in-between metronome changes not shown]
  4. Andante, 6/8 /(1/8 = 126) — Allegro, 3/4 and 2/4 (1/4 = 176) — L’istesso tempo (2/4) [in-between meter changes not shown]

The Performance

I. Moderato

Rafael Payare conducted this big composition entirely by heart. It was obvious that he knows the score inside out, that he is familiar with this music. He feels entirely at home with the music. There was no uncertainty whatsoever. He has a clear concept for these movements, and his realization was very careful and detailed, especially in the dynamics.

The conductor’s leadership appeared to motivate. It had a very positive effect on the orchestra, too: in this symphony, it delivered an excellent performance throughout! I particularly liked the wonderful, warm and dense string sound in the ff. But also the woodwinds, in particular the clarinets, were excellent. In the first movement, the endless quaver chains were not performed mechanically, but clearly shaped, articulated.

II. Allegro

Also the grim, martial second movement saw the orchestra in excellent shape. The playing demonstrated superiority and excellent coordination. It was concentrated, focused, controlled and differentiated in the dynamics.

After Stalin’s death, the composer apparently stated that he was depicting the dictator in this movement. That’s a statement that he for sure would not have made with Stalin still alive, given the two denunciations that he suffered in the years before! However, there is an open debate whether he really was thinking of Stalin while writing down this music. Alternatively that characterization just might have been a good fit to the music, in the aftermath. With or without this association, I definitely experienced it as a fascinating piece of music, in an excellent interpretation and performance.

III. Allegretto

The Allegretto, too, is sometimes almost martial in its rhythm. But still, contemplative, often playful sections are dominating. I liked the accurate staccatos and (at [120]) the very well-coordinated pizzicatos. Again, the warm and dense string sound was very convincing, as was the very nice violin solo in the last part. With the latter I wasn’t sure whether it made me think of birds calling, or whether it was meant to depict a clownesque scenery (definitely the latter towards the end). Just one minor point: the accelerando around [113] to me appeared unmotivated / not justifiable from the score.

IV. Andante — Allegro

Finally, the last movement of the evening started with a leisurely Andante; slowly, it is building tension. After short signals by clarinet and flute one ends up in a sparkling, vivacious Allegro, featuring also fugato parts. Up to the ending the audience witnessed a top quality orchestral performance with excellent string sections and solos in the wind instruments (especially the woodwinds), perfectly coordinated, virtuosic throughout, building up an enormous volume in sound.


Conclusion

Overall, I felt that the dry acoustics of the Zurich Opera House were ideal for, even really supportive of Shostakovich’s music; both the Philharmonia Zurich and Rafael Payare really deserved the strong applause — and the symphony made me forget or ignore the shortcomings in the first part of the program.


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create 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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