Wang, Rouilly, Grossenbacher, Bringuier / Tonhalle Orchestra
Strauss / Prokofiev / Ravel
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2018-06-07
Four years ago, on 2014-09-11, then in the venerable, old Tonhalle Zurich, Lionel Bringuier (*1986, see also Wikipedia), gave his first concert in his new function as chief conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (see also Wikipedia). Now, four years later, this was his last concert in this function, this time in the Tonhalle Maag, as his contract with the orchestra was not prolonged. There was one additional concert on the following day, an open air event in Zurich’s old town, part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Tonhalle Gesellschaft and the Tonhalle Orchestra.
The concert was sold out. My wife and I were on seats 25/26 in row 13, parquet seating, on the right-hand side.
For this farewell-concert, Bringuier selected Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Don Quixote”, presumably to explore and enjoy once more the power and the capabilities of the orchestra. For this, he received support by two soloists from the orchestra, the solo cellist Thomas Grossenbacher (*1963), and Michel Rouilly (*1955), first violist.
I would normally have pointed out that this makes Bringuier compete with his predecessor, David Zinman (*1936), who recorded all of Strauss’ orchestral works with the Tonhalle Orchestra, back in 2003. But for this last concert, 15 years later, that aspect is no longer important. Though, Zinman having covered and recorded a vast classic and romantic repertoire with the orchestra likely was one reason for Bringuier’s dismissal. For an inexperienced, young conductor, Zinman’s just was too much of an overwhelming legacy: whatever Bringuier selected in the classic and romantic repertoire, its performance would inevitably face a comparison with Zinman’s.
As closing piece for this concert, Bringuier selected Ravel’s “La Valse”. That’s part of the one segment which Bringuier could call his speciality: he has recorded all of Ravel’s orchestral works with the Tonhalle orchestra. Between these cornerstones, the concert offered an “almost déjà vu”:
The American-Chinese pianist Yuja Wang (*1987, see also Wikipedia) had been playing the Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, op.16 in Lionel Bringuier’s first concert as chief conductor, back in 2014. In the first announcements for this current concert, Yuja Wang was supposed to play the Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, op.40, by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943). I was actually looking forward to hearing this rarely played composition in concert for the first time. But alas, a few weeks prior to the concert, the program was changed: instead, Yuja Wang now performed the Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, op.26, by Sergei Prokofiev, linking back to the concert in 2014.
I have witnessed Yuja Wang in concert several times. Three days after the one concert in 2014 mentioned above, Yuja Wang stood at the center of a chamber music evening in the Tonhalle Zurich, on 2014-09-14. Then, last year, Yuja Wang was part of a duo recital in the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich, on 2017-12-12.
Strauss: Tone Poem “Don Quixote“, op.35
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) wrote his Tone Poem “Don Quixote“, op.35, a set of “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character”, in Munich, in 1897. The score is for cello, viola and orchestra. It is base on the famous novel “Don Quixote de la Mancha” by Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616). For simplicity, I’m quoting my earlier report from a concert in the KKL Lucerne, on 2017-08-17, where this same composition was featured:
The variations describe specific scenes from the novel:
- Introduction: Mäßiges Zeitmaß. Thema mäßig. “Don Quichotte verliert über der Lektüre der Ritterromane seinen Verstand und beschließt, selbst fahrender Ritter zu werden”
“Don Quixote loses his sanity after reading novels about knights, and decides to become a knight-errant”
- Theme: Mäßig. “Don Quichotte, der Ritter von der traurigen Gestalt”
“Don Quixote, knight of the sorrowful countenance”
- Maggiore: “Sancho Panza“
- Variation I: Gemächlich. “Abenteuer an den Windmühlen”
“Adventure at the Windmills”
- Variation II: Kriegerisch. “Der siegreiche Kampf gegen das Heer des großen Kaisers Alifanfaron”
“The victorious struggle against the army of the great emperor Alifanfaron” [actually, a flock of sheep]
- Variation III: Mäßiges Zeitmaß. “Gespräch zwischen Ritter und Knappen”
“Dialogue between Knight and Squire”
- Variation IV: Etwas breiter. “Unglückliches Abenteuer mit einer Prozession von Büßern”
“Unhappy adventure with a procession of pilgrims”
- Variation V: Sehr langsam. “Die Waffenwache”
“The knight’s vigil”
- Variation VI: Schnell. “Begegnung mit Dulzinea”
“The Meeting with Dulcinea”
- Variation VII: Ein wenig ruhiger als vorher. “Der Ritt durch die Luft”
“The Ride through the Air”
- Variation VIII: Gemächlich. “Die unglückliche Fahrt auf dem venezianischen Nachen”
“The unhappy voyage in the enchanted boat”
- Variation IX: Schnell und stürmisch. “Kampf gegen vermeintliche Zauberer”
“Battle with the magicians”
- Variation X: Viel breiter. “Zweikampf mit dem Ritter vom blanken Mond”
“Duel with the knight of the bright moon”
- Finale: Sehr ruhig. “Wieder zur Besinnung gekommen”
“Coming to his senses again” – Death of Don Quixote
The instrumentation is fairly rich, requiring a large orchestra with piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tenor tuba or euphonium, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, wind machine, harp, violins 1 & 2, violas, cellos, double basses. there are two extensive solo parts, for cello (Don Quixote, “knight of the sorrowful countenance”) and viola (Sancho Panza, Don Quixote‘s squire).
So, up to the intermission, the audience could enjoy Strauss’ take on Don Quixote‘s wondrous adventures. The protagonist of Cervantes’ tale was “impersonated” by Thomas Grossenbacher (playing in the center of the podium), while from the first viola desk, Michel Rouilly “acted” (musically) as his companion, Sancho Pansa. The composition also features extended violin solos. The concertmaster, Julia Becker, performed these solos from the first violin desk. All soloists come with vast orchestral experience (Julia Becker fills that position since 1995, Rouilly since 1983, Grossenbacher since 1993). The entire orchestra is in top form, and many of the musicians in the orchestra have performed this composition under David Zinman already—overall, reasons for high expectations.
Richard Strauss explicitly asks for 16 + 16 violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, and 8 double basses, in addition to the two harps, 27 wind instruments, and the various percussion and special instruments. In this large configuration, the orchestra filled the stage in this temporary / substitute venue. Bringuier used the “modern” setup with the two violins on the left, followed by violas, and the cellos on the right.
Bringuier started at a rather calm pace (Strauss asks for “Moderate”, ♩=96), didn’t try pushing. The very first bars are like chamber music—just wind instruments. When the violins enter in canon-like fashion, it took them a few bars to reach proper coordination. This must have been a start-up problem, as in general, Bringuier’s direction was clear, almost didactic. Start-up problems possibly also in the clarinets (bars 13 – 16), where the intonation wasn’t entirely clean. On the other hand, the oboe solo at  was wonderful. In general, Bringuier gave the wind soloists (the soloists in general) plenty of room to form their parts with excellent agogics and phrasing.
Introduction, Variations I – II
I wasn’t always happy with Bringuier’s control in dynamics. In the introduction already, the trumpets sounded very loud, beating the violins to the ground. Strauss builds up volume up to fff in the course of the introduction. In this performance, the felt like more than very loud, but (close to) noisy: it seemed to overload the acoustics of the hall. Shouldn’t Bringuier know how much volume the hall can carry?
This seemed like a bad start for the evening. Indeed, already in variation I, the cellist needed to resort to rather broad, heavy articulation, in order to maintain his presence in front of (against!) the orchestra. With this, his playing often lost lightness and transparency, at least in dramatic segments. Thomas Grossenbacher seemed to compensate this partially by catching some attention through mimics, gestures, facial expressions.
Interestingly, the solo viola typically had fewer problems in maintaining acoustic presence. Sure, the viola mostly benefitted from Strauss’ diligent disposition. I really liked Michel Rouilly’s vivid, lively introduction of Sancho Pansa.
I felt that—despite Strauss’ instructions and orchestral disposition, Bringuier should have restrained the orchestra, both for the acoustic balance and for the acoustics of the hall.
Variations III — V
Excellent how Michel Rouilly presented Sancho Pansa as a caricature, supported by the two violins at the first desk (Julia Becker, Klaidi Sahatçi). I particularly liked how the viola melody started “dancing”, swaying in  and ! This is in line with Cervantes’ novel, where Pansa initially is a low-profile figure, supporting the comic aspects of the story (in the course of the novel, Pansa substantially gains profile and character). I again noted some intonation issues in the wind instruments (mostly brass). And again, the music felt loud as soon as the brass section played ff. Often, the beauty of Strauss’ melodies (e.g., in ) fortunately made the listener forget about the excess volume: that climax was a very intense moment!
In variation IV (pilgrims procession), I again noted some slight, but noticeable intonation issues in the wind instruments. Of course, not everything was just loud. There are many lyrical, calm, melodious segments, such as variation V, where Thomas Grossenbacher had no need to push the volume, but could play out his cantilena, the expressive, almost recitative-like parts. Especially the end of variation V was really touching, romantic, and extremely melodious: beautiful!
Variations VI — X, Finale
Was there a Dulcinea in variation VI? I mostly found this joking, playful. Variation VII (ride through the air) saw an excellent performance, technically—however, I viewed this mostly as effect, not very atmospheric / expressive. The boat ride in variation VIII was again rather loud—except for the last segment, though: here, the pizzicato in the solo towards the end stood out amazingly loud and clear. Variation IX featured an excellent bassoon duet—albeit a bit dry, not trying to show humor, caricature, or even telling much of a story. The final variation X was a mix of loud (too loud, again) segments, but luckily also a more intimate, lyrical stretch in the middle.
For the most part, Thomas Grossenbacher appeared to depict the tragic, melancholic, as well as the sentimental, emotional, and occasionally desperate character traits of the protagonist (rather than showing the grotesque, caricature aspects). Really very touching: the lucid moments towards the very end of the Finale, and the death of the protagonist. The last chord in the orchestra was not pp, though, as in the score—rather, mf.
With the exception of the occasional intonation issues, and ignoring the excess volume: in general, the performance of the orchestra was technically excellent.
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, op.26
The second work in the program was the Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, op.26, which Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) completed in 1921. First sketches date back to 1913. This concerto features three movements, all of about the same duration (ca. 9 minutes):
- Andante — Allegro — Più mosso — Andante — Allegro
- Tema: Andantino —
- Var.I: L’istesso tempo —
- Var.II: Allegro —
- Var.III: Allegro moderato (poco meno mosso) —
- Var. IV: Andante meditativo —
- Var.V: Allegro giusto —
- Tema: L’istesso tempo
- Allegro ma non troppo — Poco più mosso — Meno mosso — Pochissimo meno mosso — Allegro
This brief description is from an earlier posting, from a Philharmonic Concert at Zurich Opera, on 2016-02-21, featuring this same concerto.
After the intermission, the center of the podium was occupied by one of the Tonhalle’s Steinway D-274 concert grands. Of course, it wasn’t just the instrument which caught the listener’s attention, but the soloist, Yuja Wang, in her long, glittery, green dress. However, I think that for once, Yuja’s dress style was less of a key ingredient in the concert. Rather, she obviously defined the character of the performance, the interpretation, musically:
I. Andante — Allegro — Più mosso — Andante — Allegro
Already the Andante introduction seemed unusually fluent: not as serene as expected, but with a slight unrest. The strings entered a little more calm, though. However, the Allegro was so fast that up to the entry of the solo part, the high strings were in trouble, coordination-wise. Luckily, this was mainly a problem of adjusting to the (obviously Yuja’s) tempo.
Expectedly, there was nothing to complain about in Yuja Wang’s pianistic abilities: her playing was very fast (as usual) and agile. She carefully crafted the dynamics in melodic lines & phrases. A “nicely, if not perfectly shaped surface”. In segments with “hidden melodies” (i.e., melodic fragments hiding inside complex, intricate passagework), Yuja’s abilities to highlight such melodies even at the most neck-breaking pace was simply astounding. However, one could not expect much refinement in those fast semiquaver passages (and even if she did produce such detail, it was impossible for the listener to focus on or hear fine details).
In lyrical, melodious segments (which definitely also exist in this movement), she phrased and articulated carefully, and with lots of detail, and with very diligent, delicate keyboard touch. However, in the fast partts, her focus definitely was on tempo and virtuosity, and her playing predominantly very smooth, with a carefully crafted surface.
For the ff staccato chains, she was able to mobilize substantial forces, strength. From watching her play in this movement, one got the feeling that she mastered the most intricate passages, jumps and chained figures playfully, easily, even with a relaxed smile on her face. She even occasionally pulled forward—mostly just gradually. The tempo jump for the Coda (at ), though was pretty amazing. In a way, the movement felt like a very fast train, and did leave the listener somewhat out of breath. Some of the Yuja fans started applauding here.
II. Andantino —
Very careful articulation, dynamics and phrasing, lyrical playing in the orchestral theme and in variation I, up to : with the beginning of the semiquavers (f), Yuja switched to a faster pace (or made the listener feel that way?). Then, of course, at the Tempestoso (variation II), her pace was so fast and virtuosic that she just about managed to hit the peak notes (where the left hand jumps over the passage work in the right). No, her playing was not perfect, not error-free. But things passed by so quickly…
Variation III: excellent playing, especially in the orchestra. There was no loss in pace, Yuja Wang’s accents were precise, marked, agile, up-to-the-point. It probably was just an impression (from the fast pace in the preceding variation) that variation IV (Andante meditativo) was a tad slower than usual (or than expected). But the articulation in the solo part was very nice, with a trace of arpeggiando playing here and there. Variation V (Allegro giusto) was well-structured. My notes read “perfection” at .
One little quibble for the last 7 bars at : the ending was certainly correctly following the score, with assai ritenuto and Molto meno mosso. However, somehow (after the lively staccato segment that preceded), these bars felt somewhat “flat”, lacking depth (though I could not tell what to change to make this feel differently).
III. Allegro ma non troppo — Poco più mosso — Meno mosso — Pochissimo meno mosso — Allegro
The beginning of the last movement felt a tad stiff, rigid—but that must have been mostly on the part of the orchestra. At the Poco più mosso (), my notes mentioned the bright soundscape, the bright colors both in the orchestra and in the solo part. I think that in Yuja’s hands, concert grands tend to sound brighter than with many other artists.
Very nice playing in the orchestra at the Meno mosso . At , in this calm, reflective moment with its humorous little outbursts, the woodwind interjections (flute, oboe, clarinet) sounded too poignant, too loud, did not match the joking subtlety in the solo part. This may in parts be due to the acoustics.
Pochissimo meno mosso — Allegro
At , marked Pochissimo meno mosso and espressivo, cello and viola play very high up on the fingerboard. Unfortunately (for my taste) with far too much vibrato. Expressivity can be achieved with other means. On the other hand, the solo part in that segment was excellent: this (up to ) was one of the places where Yuja masterfully managed the dynamics, in order to expose the hidden (or not so hidden) polyphony in the complex piano texture.
The final Allegro part (starting at ) seemed exceedingly fast, as if the prime goal had been to beat all records, such as Martha Argerich’s notoriously fast & furious pace in such segments. Sure, Yuja Wang’s playing was sleek, smooth, even elegant. Isn’t there a little more in this music?
As for the orchestra: occasionally, the accompaniment may have felt a tad schematic. However, in general, Lionel Bringuier seemed more relaxed in his conducting than in some of the purely orchestral works.
Needless to say: the applause was frenetic. Still, the fan community did not get an encore.
1919, the famous ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilew (1872 – 1929) asked Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) for a ballet music on the theme “Vienna and its Waltzes”. Ravel finished the composition under the title “Vienna” in 1920 — however, Diaghilev rejected, claiming it is not a ballet, but rather the “portrait of a ballet”. So, 1920, the composition premiered as orchestral composition. Because after the war, the title “Vienna” seemed inappropriate / unacceptable in France, Ravel changed its name to La Valse, Poème choréographique pour orchestre. 1921, Ravel arranged the composition for two pianos, later also for a single piano.
According to Wikipedia, Ravel added the following text to the preface: “Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855″. It looks like Ravel intended to write some sort of apotheosis of the Waltz.
The composer George Benjamin described this as follows: “Whether or not it was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilization in the aftermath of the Great War, its one-movement design plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz” [Benjamin, George (July 1994), “Last Dance”. The Musical Times, 135 (1817): 432–435]. The piece starts with harmless waltz rhythms / themes, but gradually, distorted rhythms and dissonant harmonies are setting in, and the piece ends with an eruption of violence and chaos.
Also here, the peak volumes (e.g., around a climax) were excessive, too loud. Also, to me, the queer atmosphere started way too early, soon after the beginning. Shouldn’t this be more harmless initially? Sure, the orchestra was excellent (except for some rare intonation issues in the brass section), but I think Lionel Bringuier was indulging in, trying to impress with orchestral power and richness in sound more than what this venue supports. More effect than affect? On the other hand, some of the ritenuti in the waltz rhythm could definitely have been stronger, more explicit.
Overall, the performance was indeed colorful, effective, full of power, exposing the bizarre, the queer, overexcited aspects in this piece. What I missed towards the end was the menace, the threatening, if not scary, creepy aspect: here, there were even boisterous moments.
For this concert I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. 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.
Ravel CDs with Lionel Bringuier, the Tonhalle Orchestra, and Yuja Wang
The one CD project that Lionel Bringuier realized with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich is about Ravel, i.e., Bringuier’s “home turf” (one would presume). The project started off in 2015, with a CD featuring the two piano concertos in G and in D (the latter for the left hand only). In the following year, Bringuier complemented these concertos with additional recordings, covering all of Ravel’s orchestral works. Therefore, the two concertos (i.e., the entire first CD, with the exception of the Ballade by Fauré) are included in the 4-CD set as well.
Yuja Wang, Lionel Bringuier, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich — Ravel: Piano Concertos
Yuja Wang, piano
Lionel Bringuier — Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
DG 479 4954 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2015
Booklet: 20 pp. en/de/fr
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—
Lionel Bringuier, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Yuja Wang, Ray Chen — Ravel: Complete Orchestral Works (4 CDs)
Lionel Bringuier — Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Yuja Wang, piano; Ray Chen, violin
Zürcher Sing-Akademie (Tim Brown, chorus master)
DG 479 5524 (4 CDs, stereo); ℗ 2015/2016 / © 2016
Booklet: 32 pp. en/de/fr
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—
The “inventory of this CD is by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) exclusively (Fauré’s Ballade from the first CD is not included):
- CD #1 (54’58”):
- CD #2 (62’06”):
- CD #3 (72’07”):
- Fanfare pour le ballet “L’Éventail de Jeanne“ (1’30”)
- Pavane pour une infante défunte (6’27”)
- Menuet antique (6’09”)
- “Une barque sur l’océan“, from “Miroirs“ (6’46”)
- Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand (17’27”)
- Rhapsodie espagnole (14’50”)
- “Alborada del gracioso“, from “Miroirs“ (7’47”)
- “La Valse”, Poème choréographique (11’14”)
- CD #4 (53’14”)
Note that so far I have only listened to small excerpts from this CD set, therefore I cannot “endorse” the recording. However, I’m sure it is not bad, and I would not hesitate purchasing it again, based on my experience with the musicians, the orchestra.