Jan Vogler, Fabio Luisi / Philharmonia Zurich
Dvořák / Bruckner

Opera Zurich, 2017-11-12

3.5-star rating

2017-11-14 — Original posting


Jan Vogler (© Jim Rakete)
Jan Vogler (© Jim Rakete)

Introduction

In the Zurich Opera for another Philharmonic Concert, this time again with the Philharmonia Zurich and the orchestra’s principal conductor, Fabio Luisi (*1959, see also Wikipedia).

The Soloist

The cellist Jan Vogler (*1964) grew up in East Berlin, where he received his first cello lessons from his father. Later, he took lessons with Heinrich Schiff (1951 – 2016) in Basel, and with Siegfried Palm (1927 – 2005). At age 20, he became the youngest principal cellist ever in the Staatskapelle Dresden. In 1997, he left that position to pursue an international career as soloist. He now lives in New York City. According to Wikipedia and the program notes, his instrument is the 1707 Stradivarius “Castelbarco/Fau”.


Dvořák: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor op.104, B.191

The Cello Concerto in B minor, op.104, B.191, is a work that Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) composed 1894/1895, in his third term as the Director of the National Conservatory in New York. It is his last solo concerto. The composition features three movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio, ma non troppo
  3. Finale: Allegro moderato — Andante — Allegro vivo

The Performance

The experienced concertgoers were prepared to and familiar with the acoustics of the Zurich Opera (and the hall was well-sold in that concert). For the cellist, however, the orchestral introduction had to suffice. And indeed, there it was again, already with the first notes in the clarinets: this dryness, the lack of reverberation. Acoustics, as analytical and direct as a studio: the clarinets sounded as clear as if they were playing in the center of the venue.

At the same time, one could clearly locate all instruments in the orchestra. Both violin voices played on the left side of the podium. Yet, they remained clearly differentiated at all times, as the first violin was playing above the orchestra pit, while the instrumentalists of the second voice sat behind the level of the curtain, on the stage. With this, the listener could easily resolving the dialogs between violins 1 and 2 at all times.

Fabio Luisi of course knows how to use the properties of the venue (his home turf, after all!) to his advantage. I think, the acoustics were even instrumental to his attempt to maintain conciseness in structure and phrasing. At the same time, he was able to “stay romantic” in agogics and rubato without losing clarity. Luisi maintained transparency by avoiding excessively broad articulation. Luisi is very careful and detailed in dynamics, exhibiting excellent control in balance and volume.

I. Allegro

Fabio Luisi left enough room for the wind soloists to apply expressive agogics to their parts. However, in this setting, there never was a danger of the music sounding overblown or overloaded. I found the first appearance of the Bohemian theme in the horn (and later in clarinets and oboes) to be particularly impressive and moving. With the entry of the solo cello, the picture, the impression changed—not only because the attention now rested on the soloist:

Jan Vogler started his part very decidedly, putting extra emphasis on the small note values, and consciously extending the long notes. Sometimes, this caused the musical flow to suffer. In addition, I was somewhat disappointed by the sound of his Stradivari cello. The projection of the instrument was OK, and the cello rarely had issues in making itself heard among the accompaniment by the orchestra. However, I found its sound somewhat dull, slightly nasal—even though a better placement within this venue was hardly imaginable.

Occasionally, I noted a slight tendency towards marginal (low) intonation. Strangely, later, even the flutes appeared to get “infected by this virus”.

Also, in the area of agogics and rubato, soloist and orchestra didn’t appear to reach a truly harmonious cooperation: the soloist appeared to prefer instantaneous, even brisk tempo changes, such as in the transitions to accompanying arpeggiando segments. The solo part hardly adopted any of the subtleties in Luisi’s tempo dispositions. On the bright side, where the solo part takes up the Bohemian theme (dolce e molto sostenuto, bars 140ff), that theme appeared wonderfully elegiac and singing.

II. Adagio, ma non troppo

Also in the other two movements, I did not find much harmony between soloist and accompaniment: the coordination seemed to require a constant, conscious effort by the conductor. For the beginning of the solo, Dvořák marked p; I found that to be rather mf. Also, the atmosphere remained fairly sober, unemotional. At the same time, the orchestra did not exhibit a lot of enthusiasm and focus. However, it did not expose major flaws, of course. My only minor quibble with the accompaniment: the horn was occasionally playing with slight vibrato, which I found unnecessary, even though it did not really hurt.

III. Finale: Allegro moderato — Andante — Allegro vivo

In addition to the deficiencies in the solo part that I mentioned above, there were not just errors in the intonation, but one or two real mishaps in fast passages, and superficialities. Ignoring these, the soloist may have followed the score reasonably well. Nevertheless, in his playing, I missed the “Bohemian momentum”, that typical, local play with agogics and rubato.

Overall, I would hardly call this interpretation satisfactory: I rather found it uninspired in the solo part (and there wasn’t much Fabio Luisi could do to correct that during the performance). It made me wonder how much rehearsal time was devoted to this concerto.


Encore — Bach: Cello Suite No.3 in C major, BWV 1009

The above comments arte of course my own. There were no boos, no whistling or the like in the audience, rather the usual applause. Jan Vogler announced a “Sarabande in C major by Bach” as encore: the fourth movement, Sarabande from the Cello Suite No.3 in C major, BWV 1009, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750).

Even though the pace was reasonably (and expectedly) slow, I missed the calm, contemplative character of this music. And yet, the performance seemed to lack the dance atmosphere, the “swing” (if that term is usable with such a slow tempo), the swaying / let-sway of the measured rhythm. It’s not just the rhythm, agogics, though: I missed the Klangrede in the articulation.

The cellist appeared to focus on the big phrases, accelerating towards the climax, followed by a ritardando up to the end of the phrase. Compared to what other artists do with this music, I found this to be a simplified interpretation, one that ignored the insights and views that now have become commonplace in historically informed performance. Of course, Jan Vogler played this with vibrato—without making this a romantic interpretation, though.


Fabio Luisi (© Barbara Luisi, all rights reserved)
Fabio Luisi (© Barbara Luisi)

Bruckner: Symphony No.4 in E♭ major, WAB 104, “Romantic”

The Symphony No.4 in E♭ major, WAB 104, “Romantic” is the most popular symphony by Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896). He wrote it 1873/1874. However, just like with most of his symphonies, Bruckner continued to revise the composition during the following years. The composer created a second version 1878 – 1880, which premiered in 1881, under the direction of Hans Richter (1843 – 1916). Shortly after that premiere, Bruckner shortened the Andante, made changes in the instrumentation, and more. Finally, a third version emerged in the years 1887/1888.

Versions

The International Bruckner Society in Vienna published the “1878” version as Bruckner’s “own, final” version, as not all of the changes in the third version were by Bruckner himself: some changes were by pupils and conductors, merely “semi-officially” approved by the composer. The four movements of the 1878 – 1880 version (ed. Leopold Nowak) are labeled as follows:

  1. Bewegt, nicht zu schnell (with motion, not too fast)
  2. Andante, quasi Allegretto
  3. Scherzo: Bewegt (with motion) – Trio: Nicht zu schnell. Keinesfalls schleppend (Not too fast, don’t ever drag)
  4. Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (with motion, but not too fast)

The 1888 version has metronome markings added, and it differs in the tempo annotation:

  1. Ruhig bewegt (nur nicht schnell), Allegro molto moderato (1/2 = 72)
  2. Andante (1/4 = 66)
  3. Bewegt (1/4 = 126)
  4. Mäßig bewegt (1/2 = 72)

However, as many of the amendments were really suggestions by “third parties” (critiques, “friends”, etc.), which the composer was too modest to reject. Such suggestions may have been given with the best / serious intentions to “help improving the work”. However, they definitely are not Bruckner’s own composition. Hence, the usual choice for recordings and concerts (also here) is the version from 1878 – 1880.

The Performance

Luckily, after the intermission, the impression changed dramatically: in Bruckner’s symphony, Fabio Luisi could count on the strengths of his orchestra—and he could take full profit from the acoustics of the venue!

I. Bewegt, nicht zu schnell

We experienced a performance with excellent and finely tuned dynamic control, balance between the voices, clarity in articulation, phrasing, and in the tempo disposition. And expectedly, Bruckner’s music offered true, shining highlights for the brass section. In general, the sonority of the orchestra was truly excellent, from the softest of ppp tremolos up to an impressive fff. However, the latter always remained carefully crafted, controlled, never oppressing in any way. At the same time, the proximity of the string section to the audience occasionally created almost chamber music atmosphere.

In the first movement, the swaying beginning of the coda reminded me of the flowing of the river in the symphonic poem “Vltava” in “Má vlast” by Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884).

II. Andante, quasi Allegretto

The Andante is a funeral march with melancholic melodies in the marvelously singing voices of cellos and violas. Some segments in the brass voices are extremely exposed, particularly in the dry, analytical acoustics of this venue. That was not a problem at all with this orchestra, of course.

Later in the movement, the atmosphere turns almost folksy, and even when the funeral march returns after that, it sounded clearly more confident, and more relaxed.

III. Scherzo: Bewegt – Trio: Nicht zu schnell. Keinesfalls schleppend

Fabio Luisi’s conducting looked almost playful at the beginning of the Scherzo. But there was no doubt that he kept the control, consequently forming build-ups. Yet again, he managed to retain moments with almost chamber music atmosphere.

The Trio felt like folk music: warm-hearted, slightly melancholic, longing and again singing. However, never the performers gave even hints of comfortably leaning back—quite to the contrary!

IV. Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell

This huge movement reconfirmed: at all time, Fabio Luisi not exerted excellent control in the dynamics, but also in the tempo disposition. And he carefully observed Bruckner’s notation, down to the composer’s bowing instructions: the effect of the five successive down-streaks on the G-string in the first violin (at bar 247 and in other, similar passages) was very distinct and obvious.

An opera orchestra and its conductor appeared predestined for the realization of Bruckner’s sudden changes in atmosphere / “scenery” in this movement.

Even in the giant dimensions of this movement, Luisi found opportunities for lyrical, almost “domestic chamber music moments”, and for serene country scenes.

Never in this symphony I sensed a loosening in the tension, and never, Fabio Luisi lost the view onto the large, overall structures. The orchestra appeared in top shape, effortlessly reaching fortissimo in Bruckner’s build-up waves, his huge arches, and without special action by the conductor. However, when the maximum seemed to be reached, Fabio Luisi switched to large, vivid, swaying gestures. With this, he appeared to double the volume of the orchestra.

My conclusion was that it must be hard to make this Bruckner experience elsewhere, as the conductor, the orchestra, and the acoustics, all contributed equally to the success of this performance. An enthralling experience from beginning to 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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